Arts: Stop the world

How the strobe-flash photography of Harold Edgerton created some of the century's most arresting images.
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The Independent Culture
If a novelist had to invent the name of a scientific visionary, he'd be unlikely to come up with "Harold Edgerton". "Harold" carries all the wrong associations - Lloyd, Macmillan, Wilson - and, as for "Edgerton", it's far too prosy and suburban for one of fiction's idealistic dreamers. Yet Harold Edgerton, the real Harold Edgerton, whose life's work is currently exhibited at the Michael Hoppen Gallery, was indeed a visionary.

An electrical engineering instructor at MIT, Edgerton was the inventor, in 1933, of the high-powered, repeatable flash unit, familiarly known as the strobe. Using exposures of a millionth of a second, he was the first photographer to enable us to "see" shock waves, to record the split seconds (split, literally, into microseconds) of an atomic explosion, to capture rapid machinery in operation and freeze the passage of speeding bullets. To quote from the blurb of Stopping Time, a monograph of his work, his "wondrous discoveries have shown people things they were never able to see before, in photographs that are as remarkable for their precision as for their sensational beauty".

No one could quarrel with the last clause of that sentence, for there's a lot to marvel at in this show. A cascade of bouncing golf balls. A dog whose multiply exposed and furiously wagging tail bears so uncanny a resemblance to the drolly glissading hind quarters of an almost-identical dog in one of Balla's Futurist paintings that only the fact that the photograph postdates the painting by three decades prevents one from entertaining thoughts of plagiarism. A serve by Gussie Moran caught by Edgerton's strobe as a Busby Berkeley-like parabola of whirling tennis raquets. A bullet arrested in time a mere microsecond after it has traversed an apple, which itself is transformed by the trauma of penetration into an outsized Magrittian radish.

The most celebrated of his photographs, one of those immediately recognisable icons in which the 20th century is so rich, is the weird and wonderful Milk-Drop Coronet, taken in 1957. In fact, that dating is misleading, for Edgerton laboured for more than 25 years to obtain the image he was after. Again and again, over those years, he would meticulously drop a beadlet of milk from a pipette to create an initial disk-shaped layer then drop a second beadlet to cause that layer to spread out into the desired diadem, the tips of whose crown would be, he hoped, perfectly uniform. They never quite were.

A perfectionist, he remained dissatisfied even with the definitive version, because a single tip, on the coronet's upper left-hand curve, hadn't properly settled on its base. For some of us, by contrast, that wayward tip constitutes the one minute flaw indispensable to perfection. As far as precision and beauty are concerned, then, there can be no argument. Edgerton's photos, with their unexpected kinship to the imagery conjured up by the century's more uncompromisingly anti-realist art movements - the Futurists, of course, but also the Surrealists and even Dadaists - have on the spectator what could be called an Optrex effect. As cool and refreshing as eye drops, they appear to purify the natural world of the dull patina of familiarity and reveal it to us at last in all its hallucinatorily preternatural integrity. Or do they? For that's precisely with what one is tempted to take issue in the laudatory phrase quoted above.

Let me recap: "His wondrous discoveries have shown people things they have never seen before." Wondrous? Yes. Discoveries? Yes again. Things people have never seen before? Absolutely. Where, then, is the problem? The problem lies in the one word I have left out, the verb "shown".

When he talked about his work, Edgerton, apparently a bluff, no-nonsense sort of fellow who preferred to be remembered as a scientist, not an artist, sounded at times like Joe Friday, the laconic cop of the 1950s TV series Dragnet. "I am after the facts. Only the facts," he would tell interviewers, maybe disingenuously. Yet exactly what were these facts he was referring to? In other words - and this is the philosophical question he never cared to confront - was his milk coronet an objective "event", an event that would have occurred even if he hadn't been there to record it, or was it rather an aesthetic interpretation of an event, just as Picasso's Guernica was one artist's interpretation of an atrocity that actually took place during the Spanish Civil War? Were Edgerton's photographs documentary records of "reality", stylised, maniacally focused yet ultimately trustworthy accounts of external phenomena, or ought they to be thought of instead as visual metaphors?

Insufficient attention has been paid to the way in which technology has allowed us to rethink certain age-old philosophical puzzles. Consider the one about a leaf falling in a forest: if there's no one there to hear it fall, does it make a sound when it lands? A metaphysical question, to be sure, and as inaccessible to reason as is every metaphysical question. Unlike the philosophers of old, however, we can actually put it to an empirical test by leaving a switched-on tape recorder in the forest and letting it record the sound of the falling leaf. Or is that merely postponing the moment of truth? For, if the same tape recorder is left in an empty room, with no one present to listen to it, it could be argued that the recorded leaf still falls in silence.

Similar questions are raised by the very existence of Edgerton's photographs. If ever in the real world, outside of the controlled environment of his experiments, it happened that a bullet pierced an apple, would there have been a precise split-second during which the miniature explosion that it produced "looked" exactly the way it does in Edgerton's image? And, for that matter, "looked" to whom? To God, perhaps? For surely only His eyesight would be sharp enough to register what the strobe has captured on film?

Even more vertiginously, the whole Edgertonian notion of "stopping time", of pulverising it into an uninterrupted series of discreet instants, would seem to be legitimising a now scientifically discredited concept of time best expressed in one of Zeno's 2,000-year-old paradoxes. If an arrow is shot into the air, then at any given instant it occupies a precise position in space and must therefore, at that instant, be absolutely motionless. But since its flight can then logically be reduced to an unbroken sequence of such static instants, how does it ever manage to move?

Scientists and philosophers now regard time, rather, as a continuum, dense and indivisible. Yet there, before our eyes, is Edgerton's bullet, arrested, utterly motionless, hovering in mid-air. How is it possible? Is the camera, after all, a liar? Or does it know more than we do?

`Seeing the Unseen: The Remarkable Photographs of Dr Harold Edgerton' is at Michael Hoppen Photography, 3 Jubilee Place, London SW3 (0171-352 3649) until 1 September