Harold Edgerton: The Art and Science of Photography

Densmore Shute Bends the Shaft by Harold Edgerton

Harold Edgerton, Densmore Shute Bends the Shaft, 1938

Edward Steichen (American, 1879–1973), photographer and former director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, described the work of Harold Edgerton (American, 1903–1990) as significant not only for creating a new scientific perspective, but also because it established a new photographic genre. An electrical engineer, prolific inventor, and Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Edgerton used photography to extend the capabilities of the human eye to microsecond vision, revealing aspects of reality never before seen or even imagined. His impact on photographic technology and influence on photographers can still be seen in the contemporary sphere of photography.
Milk Drop Coronet by Harold Edgerton

Harold Edgerton, Milk Drop Coronet, 1957

In 1931, as a graduate student at MIT, Edgerton combined the camera with the stroboscope, a device invented in 1831 for studying objects in motion. Edgerton’s device, which formed the basis for the development of the modern electric flash, emitted a series of high-speed bursts of light from electrically controlled neon tubes that could record on film a series of stopped-action sequential images. These extremely short flashes of light overcame the mechanical restrictions of the camera shutter, illuminating events or portions of events as brief as one three-millionth of a second in duration. This invention, states Edgerton, allowed “time itself to be chopped up into small bits and frozen so that it suits our needs and wished.”1

Diver by Harold Edgerton

Harold Edgerton, Diver, 1958

“Don’t make me out to be an artist,” stated Edgerton. “I am an engineer. I am after the facts. Only the facts.”2 It is the startling beauty of these facts discovered by Edgerton that astonishes us. Using his improved stroboscope, he could photograph motion as a single image, or in multiples of up to 600 per second. Linked to a motion picture camera, this device would produce greatly improved slow motion film footage.

Bullet Piercing an Apple by Harold Edgerton

Harold Edgerton, Bullet Piercing an Apple, 1964

The images Edgerton created celebrate the union of art and science: the crown of droplets created by a splash of milk, the perfect geometric patterns formed by a somersaulting diver before he slices into the water, a speeding bullet frozen in space as it explodes through an apple, and a football caving in from the impact of an athlete’s foot. These images all reveal the harmony and logic of natural laws, the invisible symmetry of everyday phenomena.

Football Kick by Harold Edgerton

Harold Edgerton, Football Kick, 1938

1From the PBS special presentation; Edgerton and his Incredible Seeing Machines. Original broadcast January 15, 1985
2Ibid.