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

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

A delightful and inquisitive foray into both the technical and aesthetic qualities of the photographic medium can be found in the work of Harold Edgerton. In an exhibition that features about one-third of the Whitney Museum’s 122 Edgerton photographs, a focus on experimentation in the field of flash photography is on view. The images, taken from the 1930s through the 1960s, draw heavily on Edgerton’s educational background in electrical engineering. A graduate of MIT with a Doctorate of Science, Edgerton was an innovator in stroboscope and electronic flash lighting technology during his lifetime (1903-1990).

Harold Edgerton (1903-1990), Milk Drop Coronet, 1957, printed 1984-90. Edition 109/150.  Dye transfer print: sheet, 19 15/16 × 16 in. (50.6 × 40.6 cm); image, 18 3/8 × 13 3/8 in. (46.7 × 34 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of The Harold and Esther Edgerton Family Foundation 96.126.3. © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT Museum 

Both black and white and color photographs are presented at a small scale in one of the Whitney’s more intimate galleries. All of the works are either dye transfer prints (color) or silver gelatin prints (black and white) and offer subtly beautiful, rich color and tone that works to enhance Edgerton’s experiments with time, space and light. The photographs feature single and multiple exposure works of art that highlight ordinary subject matters – milk, a tennis racket in motion, a fan with smoke and a backyard sprinkler to name a few.

Harold Edgerton (1903-1990), Cutting the Card Quickly, 1964, printed 1987. Edition 55/125. Dye transfer print: sheet, 9 × 10 15/16 in. (22.9 × 27.8 cm); image, 7 5/8 × 10 in. (19.4 × 25.4 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of The Harold and Esther Edgerton Family Foundation 96.117.20. © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT Museum

A handful of Edgerton’s images use flash to capture a bullet passing through various objects including a lightbulb, a series of balloons, and a king of diamonds from a deck of playing cards. His experiments explored a range of intensities of electronic flash along with short exposures in relation to slow films such as Kodachrome film. For students of photography who are familiar with the use of film, Edgerton’s images are a reminder of the days when it was difficult to predict what an image might look like until the film was processed and prints were made. A far cry from the instantaneous gratification of digital photography.

Harold Edgerton (1903-1990), Jumping Girl, 1940. Edition 13/20. Dye transfer print: sheet, 20 × 15 1/8 in. (50.8 × 38.4 cm); image, 16 7/8 × 12 11/16 in. (42.9 × 32.2 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of The Harold and Esther Edgerton Family Foundation 96.117.57. © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT Museum

The magic of the unknown that was prevalent in the earlier stages of the photographic medium is maintained in the work Edgerton. As a whole, the works convey a sense of a scientist in his lab, playfully discovering visual experiences unavailable to the naked eye. Although in today’s world the ability to capture splashing milk in an image is probably taken for granted, Edgerton’s images offer insight into a world when stop motion image capture of an athlete at various stages of a tennis racket swing or dance sequence were an anomaly.

Harold Edgerton (1903-1990), Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland at MGM Studios, 1940. Edition 16/22. Chromogenic print: sheet, 15 7/8 × 19 13/16 in. (40.3 × 50.3 cm); image 12 1/4 × 18 1/4 in. (31.1 × 46.4 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of The Harold and Esther Edgerton Family Foundation 96.117.58. © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT Museum

Edgerton’s interest in perception remained central throughout his life. His inventions reached far beyond the world of art, which was in fact not his primary interest.  He contributed to the fine tuning of work related to capturing subjects in motion through collaborations with photographers, scientists, the military, and oceanographic organizations among others.

Despite Edgerton’s importance in the field of 20th century photography, his work is not well known. However, the exhibitionFlash: Photographs by Harold Edgerton from the Whitney’s Collectionoffers a fresh take on his contributions to the field.

Flash: Photographs by Harold Edgerton from the Whitney’s Collection is on view at the Whitney Museum through July 15, 2018.