Image © Harold & Esther Edgerton Foundation, 2010, courtesy Palm Press Inc.
20 Jul 2011
One frame: Harold Egerton
Harold Edgerton’s iconic Milk Drop Coronet of 1957. The MIT professor spent 30 years trying to perfect the image, an obsession that went beyond the original scientific purpose of his experiments. He was working at the border of art and science.
Born in 1903, Harold “Doc” Edgerton worked as an electrical engineer before perfecting high-speed freeze-frame photography and becoming a professor at MIT. Using stroboscopic lights in his post-graduate research, he teamed up with photographer Gjon Mili in 1937, using flashes firing up to 120 times a second to record bursting balloons, drops of milk and tennis players in action. He went on to work with the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s and 60s, photographing nuclear tests with specially designed long-distance cameras, and helped develop side-scan sonar technology with underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau. Continuing to teach freeze-frame photography until the late 1970s, he died on 04 January 1990.
He was a scientist first and foremost but, as Sérgio Mah argued persuasively in the Edgerton show he curated at last year’s Photo España (BJP #7779), his interest went beyond the purely scientific. He shot milk drops for nearly 30 years before taking this photograph, for example, trying to get the perfectly symmetrical image (and later saying he never managed to achieve it). This image is “the culmination of 25 years of persistent search for aesthetic perfection”, as the exhibition catalogue puts it, or as the Citation for the Eugene McDermott Award of the Council for the Arts at MIT says, it “surprises and delights us, not least because it rewards our hope that art and technology can come together with a lightness of touch”.
Science continues to evolve, and in the past 10 years high-speed digital video has transformed freeze-frame photography. As James W Bales, assistant director of the MIT Edgerton Center, points out, the instant feedback of a digital system “dramatically improves productivity in the laboratory or the field”, and these cameras can record one-megapixel images at up to 10,000fps. “They are available as monochrome or colour, and more monochrome are sold than colour, simply because monochrome imagers are more sensitive than colour (by 1-3 f-stops),” he adds. “Sensitivity matters because at 10,000fps, the ‘longest’ exposure possible is 1/10,000s of! These cameras can have ISO ratings in the tens of thousands for monochrome, and approach 10,000 for colour.”
The Edgerton Centre now gives hands-on training in high-speed imaging to both MIT students and outreach classes, and students have gone on to use the technique in autocrash testing, ballistics research, biomechanics research and sport photo finishes. Even so, Edgerton’s aesthetic vision has not been lost. “Events that are too fast to see by eye can have extraordinary beauty when slowed down to human speed, or frozen in time by a photograph,” says Bales.
To find out more about The Edgerton Centre at MIT, visit web.mit.edu/edgerton.
This image appeared in Photo España’s 2010 exhibition of Edgerton’s work, titled Harold Edgerton: The Anatomy of Movement. A catalogue of the same name published by La Fabrica (ISBN: 978-84-92841-53-0), priced €25. www.lafabrica.com
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