The Tension of Expectation

Harold Edgerton’s new way of seeing continues to captivate

By Georgeann Sack

“Shooting the Apple,” by Harold Edgerton, 1964. © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT Museum. (source)

I first saw the photograph, “Shooting the Apple,” in a popular science magazine in 2003. I was so taken by it that I cut it out and framed it, something I haven’t done before or since. I have kept that framed magazine clipping through many years and homes, always hanging it near my desk for inspiration. I even wrote a song about the photograph (see Guess This Art! №1: Identity Ruptured).

I didn’t know this at the time, but I was hardly the only one who found this photograph so alluring. In the book “Stopping Time: The Photographs of Harold Edgerton” (published in 1987), photography historian Estelle Jussim wrote, “Edgerton’s images are embedded in our visual consciousness.”

They are certainly embedded in mine, but more than that, looking at his images provokes a lot of questions about how we see the world, and the tricks our minds play on us. So let’s think on this some more. What can Edgerton’s photographs teach us about ourselves?

Edgerton’s technique

The experience of seeing the unseen has provided me with insights and questions my entire life.

Harold Edgerton

Harold “Doc” Edgerton (1903–1990) was described by Jussim as a born showman and teacher, and a practical engineer. Edgerton was an electrical engineer and Professor at MIT. He invented the stroboscope, commonly called a strobe light. This bright electric light can flash briefly, recharge quickly, and be set to flash at regular intervals. Edgerton invented the stroboscope to evaluate and study the rotors of engines, but immediately understood its larger potential. Edgerton used the principles of the stroboscope to create the electronic flash, which revolutionized photography.

Speaking for the portrait photographic industry, I feel your contribution in the development of stroboscopic light is one of the greatest milestones in the history of photography. You have given us a light source which is as good as daylight and better than daylight most of the time, because it is always constant. …You have made it possible for us to capture spontaneous actions and emotions never before attainable.

Fabian Bachrach to Edgerton, as reported by Estelle Jussim

Edgerton, who never considered himself an artist, used photography to study motion. By tinkering with the rate film goes through a camera, the duration that the camera shutter is open, the duration and/or frequency of the flash, and a variety of automatic triggers for the flash, Edgerton created crisply focused photographs of objects in motion.

“Water From a Faucet” (1932) and “Fan and Smoke” (1934). © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT Museum. (source)

A key component was using the technology of the stroboscope to create an ultra-high-speed flash of intense light. To photograph a bullet cutting a card, the flash was triggered by the sound of the gun firing and lasted a mere 1/30,000 of a second. To photograph an atomic bomb exploding, the flash lasted just 1/100,000,000 of a second.

“Cutting the Card Quickly” (1964) and “Atomic Bomb Explosion” (1952). © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT Museum. (source)

His most famous photograph, that of a milk drop creating a coronet (or crown), was captured by combing a stroboscope flashing for 1/100,000 of a second, 480 times a second, with camera shutter left open while film was continuously fed through the camera.

Milk-Drop Splash Series (1933). © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT Museum. (source)

Seeing the unseen

Through your perfection of the electronic flash, mankind has seen phenomena never before visible or even imagined.

Beaumont Newhall to Edgerton, as reported by Estelle Jussim

Why are Edgerton’s photographs so captivating? I wrote about the collective development of scientific methods, a process anthropologist Lisa Messeri describes as creating new ways of seeing. Edgerton’s technique created a new way of seeing. His photographs are captivating, shocking even, because they enable us to see everyday objects in a new way. As Jussim put it, Edgerton’s photographs reveal “hitherto unseeable details from everyday life.”

Edgerton’s pictures of the small truths of nature — how a milk drop looks when it makes a diadem splash, what happens when a tennis racket hits a ball, how the bubbles of a soda-maker’s spritz bounce into a highball glass — precisely reflected a turning away from grandiosity toward the simplicities of existence.

Estelle Jussim

“Football Kick” (1938) and “Tennis Ball Impact” (1935). © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT Museum. (source)

The power of seeing the world anew is expressed many times over in “Stopping Time.” Edgerton’s photographs captured the attention of a wide audience. Jussim wrote, “The forms underlying the phenomenological world — the laws of nature made visible — had become much more intriguing than all the traditional canons of beauty.”

The tension of expectation

Edgerton’s images appeal not simply because they are uncanny revelations of the laws of nature, but because they arouse profound philosophical speculations about art and reality.

Estelle Jussim

Edgerton’s photos show a still image of an object in motion, which creates tension in the mind of the viewer. We look at the photograph, understand what happened right before it was taken, and generate an expectation for what should happen next. But we don’t get to see what happens next. We are held in suspense. Is our prediction accurate? We will never know. I think being held in suspense is what causes the image to become “embedded in our visual consciousness.”

Edgerton thought of his pictures as records of events. As described by Jussim:

An event occurs in time and space. Although his photograph of a bullet slicing a playing card seems to imply Now, This Instant, it also implies both time past and time future as we instinctively interpret changing spatial relationships between the bullet and the card. … Even though it is a still picture, we sense the totality of the event because the human mind instinctively constructs a context for the image to recognize what has happened and to anticipate future events.

Estelle Jussim

In “Your Brain Is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time,” Dean Buonomano wrote about how skilled our brain is at predicting motion trajectories and adjusting our bodies to intercept or escape them. This is a critical skill for our survival, and we process most of it unconsciously. When what we observe doesn’t match our prediction, it triggers an alert. Our arousal systems become activated, and we focus our conscious attention on the thing behaving contrary to our expectations.

Our predictive brain is why we see continuous motion when we watch film, which is actually a series of still images photographed at a rate of 24 frames per second. Our brain fills in the gaps.

Superimposed exposures reveal that the individual moments making up smooth continuous motion look as we imagined they would. “Drum Majorette” (1953, 60 flashes per second with shutter left open) and “Gus Solomons” (1960, 50 flashes per second). © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT Museum. (source)

Our visual system also has limits. When something moves quickly across our visual field, we are unable to resolve the details of what we are seeing. Edgerton photographed as many as 6,000 frames per second. Viewing one of his image series as a slow motion film reveals details that our visual system doesn’t normally detect. We are comforted when what we see proves our predictions correct, and surprised when the images show something we never would have guessed. The emotional resonance of Edgerton’s images may explain their persisting imprint.

Superimposed exposures of a girl jumping rope reveal a surprisingly erratic trajectory. “Moving Skip Rope” (1952, 30 flashes per second with shutter left open). © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT Museum. (source)

An impartial observer?

“A good experiment is simply one that reveals something previously unknown to the student. … There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ result or a complete study of a phenomenon. … In many ways, unexpected results are what have most inspired my photography.”

Harold Edgerton

Of everything Jussim wrote, I most appreciate her questioning of both Edgerton, who did not consider himself an artist but was meticulous and patient until he got the perfect, beautiful photograph, and of the ‘truth’ people feel like they are seeing in Edgerton’s photos.

Edgerton was trying to capture things as they are, but he also developed preferences for how he wanted something to look, or what moment he wanted to capture, and didn’t stop until the photo in hand showed what he wanted it to show.

Jussim wrote:

Those secret laws of nature, surprisingly, do not reveal themselves without considerable assistance. They require not only skillful techniques to make them visible or apprehensible in one form or another but also a mind that can conceptualize the necessary implementation as well as actively anticipate the result.

Estelle Jussim

She continues to explain how not every milk drop forms a crown, and that there are many reels of film showing that every milk drop has a different outcome. Some of them are unattractive or boring. With great insight, she wrote, “It is only when the coronet is symmetrically formed with the beads the same size around its rim — and the picture is therefore beautiful — that we think we are seeing the secret laws of nature.”

“Milk-Drop Coronet” (1957), one of many photos in Edgerton’s “life-long quest for the perfect coronet.” © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT Museum. (source)

Jussim also questions our belief that photographs show reality. Consider this passage, where she describes the camera as a liar:

Photography was long regarded as a lowly servant of the sciences…it delivered what the public construed as unalloyed renderings of the realities of nature. That the camera perforce lied, distorted, and misled did not diminish the belief that photography was a superbly impartial observer.

Estelle Jussim

We are not impartial observers, and we are in control of the photographs we take. Therefore, our expectations will always bias what we see as beautiful or interesting, and what we discard as a failed attempt. Those deviations from our expectations, those failed attempts, reveal just as much about the laws of nature as our beautiful outcomes.

Many thanks to MIT’s Edgerton Digital Collections: ‘Doc’ Edgerton, Visionary Engineer, for making these photographs available to view and share.

Edgerton’s life, inventions, and photography were more than what I focused on here. I highly recommend exploring the MIT digital collection and reading “Stopping Time: The Photographs of Harold Edgerton” in its entirety.

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