Flash: Photographs by Harold Edgerton from the Whitney’s Collection @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): A total of 27 black and white and color photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls on the third floor of the museum.

The following works have been included in the show. No dimensions or edition information were provided on the wall labels:

  • 19 gelatin silver prints, 1932/later, 1933/later, 1934/1980-1981, 1935/later, 1936/1980-1981, 1938, 1938/later, 1939, 1939/later, 1940, 1940/later, 1952/1980-1981, 1952/later, 1959/later, 1960/1980-1981
  • 7 dye transfer prints, 1938/1984-1985, 1940/later, 1955/1984-1985, 1957/1984-1985, 1960/1984-1985, 1965/1984-1985
  • 1 chromogenic print, 1964/later

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: When we consider the possible reasons museums might dig back into their storage boxes and create small exhibitions of work that hasn’t been shown in a while, there are a variety of potential answers. Perhaps they have chosen to follow a young curator who has an interest in a specific body of work (thereby giving this person an opportunity to learn some of the practicalities involved in organizing a small show). Or in a more economically ruthless world, maybe they want to craft easy-to-manage exhibits that can be put together with a minimum of cost and effort. But from the viewing public’s perspective, such shows always generate a pair of straightforward first level questions: why this particular artist? and why now? 

I’m not sure what the real answer is to the question of why we need an exhibit of Harold Edgerton’s work at this particular moment in time, beyond the fact that its gee-whiz coolness never seems to fade even when we’ve seen the pictures many times before. It’s the kind of work that is always an easy-to-like crowd pleaser, especially for those outside the photography bubble, because it brings science and technology into direct dialogue with fine art.

Edgerton belongs on a short list of master photographic technicians that goes all the way back to Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey. Building on their interest in using photography to document things in our world that happen too fast to see with the naked eye, Edgerton pushed the state of the art in stop motion photography several steps further in the mid 20th century, using his engineer’s mind (he was a professor at MIT for more than four decades) to approach the image making problems associated with split second motion. Developing new high speed stroboscopic flash technologies and marrying them with precisely controlled multiple exposures, he created memorable images that felt like experimental magic, where smooth motion became a stuttering combination of intermediate steps we could now see clearly for the very first time.

Sports were an obvious subject for testing out these intricate studies of movement. The flicking whip of a fencer’s arm, the whirl of a jump rope, the twists and turns of a platform diver, and the sweep of various tennis strokes (the serve, forehand and backhand, etc.) are all captured by Edgerton’s camera, the motion broken down into discrete steps and simultaneously reassembled so we can follow along.

Other images document the visual answer to a series of what happens when… questions. Edgerton shows us that a football deforms when it is kicked, a fan blade throws off tiny curled wisps of air when it rotates, a lawn sprinkler tosses droplets in expanding lines as it turns, and the water coming out of a tap is bulbous and sculptural like blown glass. A subset of these kinds of investigations followed the trajectory of a zooming (but now frozen in mid air) bullet, as it variously popped balloons, broke light bulbs and glasses of water, and sliced through playing cards. Each of the resulting images is both scientifically smart and artistically astounding, increasing our understanding of how the physical properties of the world actually function, and doing so with a sense of engaging vitality.

Edgerton is perhaps most famous for his many instantaneous studies of milk droplets, and this small show offers several worthy variants, including the perfect coronet, in color. We watch as a single droplet falls toward the still surface and then pushes down into the milk (sometimes with cranberry juice for a splash of pink), creating an equal force upward that spouts into a variety of cones, towers, and other forms, the surface now ripping outward in concentric circles. His pictures find that elusive tipping point where invisible principles of fluid dynamics find a place as art.

In the end, this small sampler show doesn’t offer any new insights or change the scholarship surrounding Edgerton and his contributions to the medium. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a satisfying and worthwhile introduction to the insightful pleasures of stop motion photography for many of the sweaty summer visitors streaming through the Whitney.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Edgerton’s work is consistently available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging from roughly $2000 to $22000.

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Read more about: Harold Edgerton, Whitney Museum of American Art

One comment

  1. Elizabeth Lowe Edgerton /

    This is Elizabeth Lowe Edgerton, Harold Edgerton’s daughter-in-law. I want to point out to you that the football image was important to HEE not just because it showed the football deformed, but the wisp of dust that “leapt” ahead of the ball. This was typical of HEE in his interest in the technical details that his photographs revealed.

    PS My husband Bob Edgerton, HEE’s son, passed away on Nov. 27, 2020. I have the black and white football image, and Bob enjoyed pointing this detail out to people looking at the image. You can respond to me – lizedge@me.com

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