Dr. Harold Edgerton (1905-1990), the world-famous pioneer of high-speed, stop-action photography, began conducting experiments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1930s that sought to record actions too fast for the human eye to perceive. While his photographs were created for the purpose of science--and had broad applications in industry, the military, medicine, and commerce--these wondrous images of previously unknown or unseen reality are appreciated as beautiful works of art. Photographs by Harold Edgerton: Recent Acquisitions, on view in the Director's Corridor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from February 1 to May 25, 1997, will present some of his best-known images from the 1930s to the 1980s, drawn from the generous gift of 59 photographs made to the Museum in 1996 by The Harold and Esther Edgerton Family Foundation.
Harold Edgerton began working at what came to be known as "Strobe Alley" at MIT, and also developed a mobile flash unit that could be used away from the studio. He developed two techniques that revolutionized photography. With the single-burst flash technique, he calibrated the electronic flash to equal the speed of an object in motion so that it appeared to be standing still. An intense flash of extremely short duration--typically from 1/3,000 to 1/1,000,000 of a second--exposed the film and precisely stopped the action in progress, whether a bullet passing through an apple at 2,800 feet per second or a hummingbird in mid-flight, beating his wings 55 times per second. His most famous single-burst flash image is of a coronet produced by a single drop of milk.
A multiflash technique was developed to record a continuous action on a single sheet of film. For this process, Edgerton used an ordinary camera on which the shutter remained open, with repeated flashes of a stroboscope exposing successive stages of the action. The number of flashes per second varied with the kind of action being recorded, from 10 flashes per second to capture a child running to 100 flashes per second for the full swing of a golf club. To record a diver, Edgerton timed the multiflash to adjust from the slow initial spring of the board to the speedy fall of the diver into the water.
Harold Edgerton was a 20th-century visionary and inventor who fit into a tradition dating to the Renaissance of the artist-scientist seeking a deeper understanding of the physical world. Attempts to render objects in motion with a new precision and clarity were begun in the 1880s by such artists as Edweard Muybridge, Etienne-Jules Marey, and Thomas Eakins, also represented in the Museum's collection. In the 1910s, the Italian Futurists borrowed the disclosures of these studies to create a sense of dynamism in their paintings and photographs. At the Armory Show in New York in 1913, Marcel Duchamp shocked the United States with his painting Nude Descending a Staircase (now in this Museum's collections), the most public and provocative interpretation of the kinds of phenomena Edgerton would begin to explore in depth two decades later.