Books: How Harold Edgerton Saw the Unseen

By David Schonauer   Wednesday January 8, 2020

The details are all there in his notebooks:

Sixty-three years ago, on the evening of Jan. 10, 1957, Harold Edgerton set a 4,000-volt electronic flash of his own design to the right of a small, shallow pool of milk in his “Strobe Lab” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Edgerton, noted UnDark recently, then released a drop of milk from a funnel 8 inches above the pool, which reflected a bright red background.

“A motion trigger was delayed a fraction of a second in order for the powerful flash to record the thumbnail-sized crown of the drop’s splash a few milliseconds after it hit the pool’s surface,” added UnDark.

We know how he conducted the experiment because Edgerton, an electrical engineering professor who is often referred to as the father of high-speed photography, recorded his data. His work in January 1957 was actually a re-do of a black-and-white milk-drop image he made two decades earlier.

“His goal was to record equally spaced droplets around the ring. Working with color film that was less sensitive to light made matters more difficult, and when he first saw the color film version of the milk crown, he said it was merely ‘acceptable’ because the droplets were not perfectly spaced,” notes UnDark.

Other viewers around the world disagreed. They have come to see Edgerton’s colorful drop of milk not only as a technological achievement but also a stunning work of visual art. In 2016, Time magazine selected the photograph as one of the 100 most influential images of all time. Edgerton’s work, noted the magazine, laid the groundwork for the modern electronic flash. It also showed that photography could be a powerful means of understanding the physical world.

Now, nearly three decades after Edgerton’s death, his pioneering work has been collected in the book Harold Edgerton: Seeing the Unseen.

Feature Shoot describes the book as a “beautifully illustrated compendium of the innovator’s work, bringing together more than 100 of his most important images, along with excerpts from Edgerton’s laboratory notebooks.”

In the book’s introduction, MIT Museum curator Gary Van Zante notes that Edgerton’s early work came at a time “when photography was struggling to be recognized as an art form, and development of institutional and private collections of photography was in its infancy.”

In 1933, noted Van Zante, Edgerton’s milk splashes appeared in the Royal Photographic Society’s annual exhibition; he continued to show work there regularly into the next decade.

That platform helped elevate Edgerton’s work into the realm of art, notes Feature Shoot. However, Edgerton never considered himself an artist. “I am an engineer. I am after the facts, only the facts,” he declared.

Photography is often said to stop time. But, notes Feature Shoot, Edgerton’s work showed something else — that photography could capture motion and the passage on time.

“It’s a telling reminder that the empiricism, as a system of knowledge and understanding, is simply not enough,” adds FS. “Edgerton’s work reminds us that our natural capabilities are limited by the assumption that nothing exists beyond them unless we dream of finding the tools to bring imagination to life. It is here, in his photographs that we can dream of seeing the unseen."


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