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The Anatomy of Movement: Harold Edgerton- An Interview with the Curators
A man visits an exhibition entitled "Anatomia del movimiento: Fotografias de Harold Edgerton" at the BBVA Foundation in Madrid. The exhibition, presented as part of the PhotoEspana 2010 Festival, features artworks of US photographer, professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and inventor Harold Edgerton (1903-1990). EPA/EMILIO NARANJO.

MADRID.- A Professor of Electrical Engineering, Harold Edgerton is considered more of a scientist than an artist.

Combining the stroboscopic process with the camera’s flash, Edgerton was able to photograph an entire range of movement that could not be perceived by the naked eye.

Sérgio Mah and José Gómez Isla are the curators of the exhibition The Anatomy of Movement: Harold Edgerton. spoke with José Gómez Isla to get to know more about the artist and this exhibition, which can be seen at the BBVA / AZCA Exhibition Gallery.

PHE- In your view, why is Harold Edgerton considered more of a scientist than an artist?

José Gómez Isla- Edgerton’s scientific vocation and his training as an electrical engineer were devoted to proposing visual solutions to challenges that other photographers and scientists hadn’t been able to answer. For this reason, aside from working a good part of his life as a researcher and professor in his laboratory at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), he created his own company and embarked on adventures where science developed very tangible, practical applications. He had more than forty patents and inventions behind him, among which we find several flash devices, different underwater camera systems, sonar for deep-water recording, the first ultrafast movie cameras, etc. I don’t think his curiosity to explore the world ever wore out. As any good scientist, his findings—sometimes unexpected by Edgerton himself—never stopped encouraging him to take on new challenges, as both an inventor and engineer as well as in his work on photography. I think that in his case these two areas cannot be separated, given that they constantly feed off each other.

PHE- Edgerton combined the stroboscopic process with the camera’s flash in his photographs. What does this process consist of? And why did he begin to use this system?

JGI- Until the moment he began to do his research, supplementary systems of artificial lighting that helped photo technology capture frozen instants, had primarily been based in explosion systems, such as magnesium powder or one-flash light bulbs. Even so, flicker lights weren’t fast enough to be able to completely freeze movements as quick as athletes in motion or objects reaching speeds imperceptible to the naked eye. The stroboscope allowed such short, electrically discharged flickers that, by repeating them in infinitesimal fractions of a second, they allowed him to freeze very fast occurrences in their different phases of movement.

Edgerton began to use his stroboscopic lighting to observe the function of the rotors in some electric circuit motors. From there, he could meticulously analyze the potential vibrations or defects in the motor’s revolutions that might affect its performance. His blinking light allowed him to observe these rotors in full operation, with such clarity that it was as though they had stopped moving. This was the first practical application of the stroboscope in the engineering world, even before it was introduced to the photographic image.

PHE- How would you describe the almost scientific process seen in his photographs?

JGI- As I stated before, the process consists of a multi-flicker flash system on one photographic support to freeze movement at different moments during its execution. But not only can we see this very system applied to still images, but also to moving images, with up to 1,500 frames per second, which allowed him to analyze movement on a movie screen for the first time, as well as in super-slow motion—movements that hadn’t been filmed with such clarity or precision until then.

I believe Edgerton was searching for a hidden invisible geometry, that is, in what the naked eye isn’t capable of appreciating or experiencing directly. Many of his photographs are highly impressive for this reason. Until Edgerton made them materialize in his photographs, it proved very difficult to envision the existence of a perfect Archimedes spiral in the impact of a golf club, or even begin to wonder about deconstructing movements in different phases of execution, which could be portrayed with such pure lines as those we see in his works.

PHE- Edgerton’s discoveries have served as scientific instruments and have even been used in war. How do artistic images and scientific meanings work together in his photography?

JGI- Edgerton’s inventions and research have served multiple uses, not only on the battlefield, but also in the automotive world, the textile industry and even to test the performance of some appliances such as fans, etc. His ingenious inventions in photography are also summed up in nocturnal air photography, in the underwater world with specific flash tubes to work under high pressure, or sonar and underwater photography equipment at great depths, which led him to a productive collaboration over several decades with oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, on board his research vessel Calypso. For this reason, we can say that Edgerton searched tirelessly for scientific applications to the world of images that could be carried out on land, at sea and in air.

I don’t believe there’s a contradiction between his scientific spirit and his creative view of the world. In the end, there isn’t much distance between the scientific research method and the creative process to produce a work. Both are based on exploring unknown worlds that bring us to formal and conceptual findings that have something to offer humanity, whether through an aesthetic language or through scientific knowledge that allows us to understand better how our world works. I believe that Edgerton knew how to bring together his research in both areas of art and science, like no one else.

PHE- The exhibition The Anatomy of Movement: Photography by Harold Edgerton brings together renowned images captured using this technology. What is the curatorial focus of this exhibition? What kinds of works can be seen in it?

JGI- The exhibition is composed of nearly 100 photographs with his most representative images, which speak to us precisely about his unprecedented view of the world that his experiments managed to record. Likewise, the gallery offers a screening of a documentary from 1940, which received an Oscar for Best Short Film where Edgerton actively participated in its filming. With a playful character and sense of humor, this documentary speaks to us about the inventions and findings that Edgerton himself created throughout his life as a researcher. The showing also has some of the technological artifacts that he imagined himself, from cameras and flash prototypes to ultrafast movie cameras, as well as different notebooks on light measurements where he meticulously recorded the results of his trials and experiments, and some plans for his designs and prototypes.

In this exhibition, both Sergio Mah and I have chosen a part of Edgerton’s work to highlight his essential research on representing time and movement in photography. Although only one of the many features in his research as a scientist and creator of images is freezing instants so quick that they elude the naked eye, we’ve considered this aspect of his work as the most representative of this year’s theme for PHotoEspaña: representations of time in audiovisual images.

PHE- How would you define the relationship between Edgerton’s work and notions of Time, the theme for this year’s Festival?

JGI- I believe the exhibitions in this year’s Festival address the theme of Time from different perspectives, whether as conceptual, formal or philosophical points of view. Often, this difficult subject connects perfectly to the photograph’s evocative quality, as time is interwoven with our everyday lives. As Susan Sontag said, every photograph is a memento mori, an image of the past. Memory then is an essential argument to represent what has already been, but also what we can still remember thanks to its “photographic trace.” In turn, in the case of Edgerton, recording movement described by his ultrafast images are so unexpected and surprising that there is no room for them to evoke a past time, given that we do not store experiences in our memory that capture such subtle features as those appearing in his images. Edgerton played precisely with recording these imperceptible thresholds in time.

PHE- Could you share with us the projects you are currently working on?

JGI- Currently, I’m preparing a collective book that precisely addresses the difficulty of framing audiovisual images in the contemporary world, somewhere in between the media, art and science. In it, I aim to explain that it does not make sense in our world today to attempt to separate photographic and film images into such stagnant categories as many historians of these media have done to date. In the end, there’s a great number of works by graphic reporters, such as Robert Capa, Eugene Smith, Cartier-Bresson and Cristina García Rodero, to name a few, who in their own right hang their work on museum walls and have surpassed an informative objective to turn their images into works of art. At the same time, in the case of Edgerton, many images that have served to make purely scientific findings are not empty of unquestionable aesthetic value, as is shown by the fact that many of his works belong to photography collections at the MoMA in New York. The borders between these three creative fields (art, audiovisual media and science) are increasingly more porous.

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