Professor Harold Edgerton: the 20th century photography pioneer who showed the world the invisible
Who says science isn’t creative? For Harold Edgerton (1903- 1990), Institute Professor at MIT and inventor of the strobe flash in the early 1930s, a lifetime devoted to engineering culminated in one of the most highly regarded fine art photography oeuvres of the 20th century. From the path of a bullet through an apple to the pendulous swing of a golfer’s drive, his super-fast shutter speed offered humans a glimpse of the invisible. “The experience of seeing the unseen,” Edgerton said, “has provided me with insights and questions my entire life.”
Those insights proved crucial at various points throughout the 20th century. During World War Two, his pioneering strobe light technology allowed aerial reconnaissance missions to identify strategic points before the D-Day landings. He also played a key role in developing oceanic reconaissance, working with legendary French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau to develop underwater photographic techniques as well as sonar devices for mapping the ocean floor. His equipment was widely used for the exploration of shipwrecks and was even employed in the search for the Loch Ness monster.
But it’s his photographs that had the most lasting impact. Edgerton’s work gave “frozen movement” a permanent place in the visual culture. His influence can be seen in the work of contemporary artists such as Cornelia Parker, most famous for “Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View”, a sculpture of a shed being blasted to smithereens. As early as the 1930s, Edgerton was traversing the boundary between art and science with exhibitions in the Museum of Modern Art. And it wasn’t only his still images that caught the imagination – his high-speed stroboscopic short film “Quicker ’n a Wink” won an Oscar in 1940.
The Michael Hoppen Gallery’s new exhibition, featuring a rare selection of black and white prints from the Dr Harold Edgerton Estate, is a fitting tribute to a 20th century great.
Abstractions: Dr Harold Edgerton opens 6 June at the Michael Hoppen Gallery