Harold Edgerton—Flash Revelations

Picturing the Invisible I/III

9/6/13 - 11/8/13

Harold Edgerton—Flash Revelations

In scientific photography striking designs invisible to the human eye are often recorded in the course of investigations.[1]
Helmut Gernsheim, c. 1962
It was not an artist but the scientist François Arago who first announced the invention of photography to the public, in Paris in 1839, thus anticipating the close relationship that has linked science and photography ever since.[2]
Gilles Mora, c. 1998
Harold Edgerton was above all, more than a photographer with purely artistic concerns, a researcher and a scientist in search of new modes to see and to perceive the world. His images should be understood as visual and scientific experiments, where the possible findings were not previously conceived.[3]
José Gómez Isla, 2010
The stroboscopic record of ultra high-speed movements of [Edgerton’s] flash would make possible the visual materialization of paradoxes put forward by the Pre-Socratic philosopher Zeno of Elea, who held that both time and space are infinitely divisible. According to him, all movement by any body (for instance an arrow in flight) was nothing but the sum of the different positions at rest adopted by that object in space during its trajectory.[4]
José Gómez Isla, 2010
Picturing the Invisible is a year-long exhibition series that examines various ways photography and the photograph have been used to explore and document what often goes unseen: scientific, personal, and social phenomena. Harold Edgerton—Flash Revelations, the first of these exhibitions, focuses on the pioneering work of Harold “Doc” Edgerton. A photographer, scientist, inventor, engineer, MIT professor, and explorer, Edgerton’s high-speed, stroboscopic photographic techniques are well known in the worlds of art, science and popular culture. Moreover, many fields outside those he inhabited have incorporated these methods, including the sports, entertainment and news industries.
The photographs in this exhibition offer a glimpse of Edgerton’s work from some of his earliest experiments to his most iconic images. Edgerton was driven by an insatiable curiosity and was often surprised by the results of his work. He would tweak his experiments to overcome issues he perceived as undesirable, often developing new techniques and equipment to achieve his goals. One example that beautifully illuminates the depth of his musings is Bullet Through Three Balloons. In this exceptional photograph, Edgerton not only wondered about what a balloon would look like at the instant a bullet pierces it, but also what would it look like to capture that event with a succession of three balloons rather than just one—each at a different stage in the bursting process. The few microseconds that separate each exploded balloon are frozen, with the first being in pieces and the last barely seeming to have changed at all. From his experiments, understanding about many subjects and phenomena has literally come to light.
Edgerton’s contributions to photography are indispensible. Today, audiences around the world are used to seeing images of people and objects arrested in mid-movement, and yet few know whom to credit for these photographic miracles. Edgerton’s images, on the other hand, are widely recognizable and widely reproduced, as iconic as his achievements are within the scientific and artistic fields from which they emanated. Moreover, most history books written on the topics of photography, film and scientific documentation include a section dedicated to Edgerton’s accomplishments and contributions.
A Brief History of Photography and Objects in Motion
From the moment fixed photography was developed by two Frenchmen, Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre, between 1826 and 1839, photographers have had to deal with the problem of long exposures resulting in blurry images. The first step in the process to avoid blurs and “ghost images” was the invention of gelatin silver process in the 1870s by Dr. Richard Leach Maddox, John Burgess, Richard Kennett, and Charles Bennett, all of Great Britain. The process allowed for exposures up to twenty times faster than previous methods.[5] In 1872 Eadweard Muybridge created an early precursor to moving pictures by elucidating the movement of a horse in full gallop using a battery of sixteen cameras triggered by tripwires along a track. During the 1880s, Muybridge published an exhaustive study of animals and people in motion in a series of volumes entitled Animal Locomotion. Inspired by Muybridge’s work, Etienne-Jules Marey (France) perfected the fusil photographique (photographic gun), which in his own words made it possible for “the production of successive images taken at set time intervals.”[6] In turn, the work of Muybridge and Marey inspired the Lumière brothers (France) to invent cinematography.[7] Much of Marey’s work anticipates that of Edgerton’s and often has a similar look. While Edgerton was not the first photographer to create images that captured objects, people or animals in motion, he not only perfected the techniques, but also developed the science that made it possible for objects in motion at extreme speeds to be frozen in time in exceptionally high detail. It is Edgerton’s techniques that are now standard practices in each of the fields his life’s work has enhanced.
Edgerton: A Short Biography[8]
Edgerton [Freemont, Nebraska 1903-1990] was in full possession of his interests before the end of his high school years and those interests fueled his creative, scientific, and pedagogical practices throughout his career. Before he entered college in 1921, two defining experiences laid the foundation for his life’s work. A relative of his from Iowa instilled in him an early fondness of photography, and the vocation led him to set up his own photo lab in the kitchen of his family home. Additionally, Edgerton worked for the company Power and Light in 1920, where he was in charge of analyzing the large power generators and their power surges. Together, these early experiences served as germ seeds for all his subsequent accomplishments.
Edgerton attended the University of Nebraska, graduating in 1925 with a degree in Electrical Engineering. By 1927, Edgerton had attained a Masters in Electrical Engineering from MIT—where he would be associated as both scientist and teacher for the rest of his life—for his analysis of engine rotors using a stroboscope and an innovative system of intermittent illumination. By 1931, Edgerton had developed a system of stroboscopic light to achieve amazingly sharp high-speed photographs, as well as multi-shot photographs to freeze different stages of a single movement on a single photogram, and the same year he obtained a PhD in Electrical Engineering from MIT. In 1932 Edgerton published, in both technical and public magazines, his first ultra-high-speed photographs of movements that could not be perceived by the human eye. He would go on to patent one kind of stroboscope and register over forty inventions, among them electrical circuits, flash systems for professional photography, underwater cameras, and sonar systems to photograph the depths of the sea.
In 1939, Edgerton’s expertise was called upon by Life Magazine’s Gjon Mili to design and build various kinds of flashes for him, which produced ultra high-speed photographs that captured the attention of the world. In 1944 the U.S. Army and Air Force commissioned Edgerton for various projects concerned with nighttime aerial surveillance. In 1950, Edgerton worked with Herbert Grier and Kenneth Germeshausen to design a camera shutter device devoid of mechanical components, enabling exposure times of four to ten millionths of a second. Beginning in 1963, Edgerton worked with Jacques Cousteau on several experiments developing sonar, and later continued that work to develop technology to analyze seismic movements at the bottom of the sea. Today, locating a ship lost at sea would be near impossible without Edgerton’s contributions.
This shortlist of life achievements only echoes the fact that all of his inventions continue to bear fruit and inspire further development in each of the fields they touch. Edgerton died at age 86, in early 1990. His great grandchildren, Travis ’11 and Ben Law ’13, graduated from The Cambridge School of Weston.
The Thompson Gallery and the Garthwaite Center for Science and Art are particularly pleased and honored to offer our community this particular exhibit and wish to thank Ellen Law for her support of this project. I would like to acknowledge and thank Tony Loreti (Art Department) for his keen eye and enthusiasm for helping select the images exhibited. This show would not be possible without the support and materials provided by Palm Press, Inc., of Concord, MA, which provided the photographs and background information on the images. I am grateful for Mary Steele’s assistance with the logistics of the show and for Sam Walker ‘05 who prepared and framed most of the prints on exhibit. I also wish to thank Gus Kayafas—who was a studio assistant of Edgerton’s—for his support, enthusiasm, expertise, and, in particular, his descriptions of the photographs, found in the checklist pamphlets and the online slide show.
Todd Bartel
Gallery Director, Curator

[1] Helmut Gernsheim, Creative Photography—Aesthetic Trends 1839 to Modern Times, Bonanza Books, New York, 1962, P. 168.
[2] Gilles Mora, Photo Speak: A Guide to the Ideas, Movements, and Techniques of Photography 1839 to the Present, Abbeville Press, New York, 1998, p. 169.
[3] José Gómez Isla, The Anatomy of Movement: Photographs by Harold Edgerton, exhibition catalog organized and published by Fundación BBVA, Bilbao, Spain, and La Fábrica Editorial, Madrid, Spain, 2010, p. 16.
[4] Isla, p. 16.
[5] Gernsheim, p. 250.
[6] Mora, p. 122.
[7] Mora, p. 124.
[8] Note: The biographical information in this section is drawn from José Gómez Isla’s chronology of Edgerton, ibid, pp. 90-91.


Photos © Harold Edgerton/MIT, courtesy Palm Press, Inc.
Photo captions © Gus Kayafas, 2014

Exhibition installation photography © Todd Bartel, 2013

A catalog for the exhibition is avaiable by written request only. Please send requsts for the Harold Edgerton—Flash Revelations catalog to: thompsongallery@csw.org


The Cambridge School of Weston is a progressive high school for day and boarding students in grades 9–12 and PG. CSW's mission is to provide a progressive education that emphasizes deep learning, meaningful relationships, and a dynamic program that inspires students to discover who they are and what their contribution is to their school, their community and the world.