The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Moving Images
Harold Edgerton

Photo by Harold Edgerton . Source:
Harold Edgerton, "Swirls & Eddies: Tennis" 1939

They say that Edward Muybridge invented stop-action photography to settle a bet. Harold Edgerton just wanted to know how much damage he could do. He shot bullets through playing cards, Plexiglas, and balloons. He scrambled eggs and photographed the empty shells along with the bowl and the swirls. Not that he confined the damage to his alone. He captured a nuclear explosion in 1952, the year that the hydrogen bomb changed the stakes of the Cold War to survival.

Even when it came to sports, he took the measure of deformity, if only for an instant. He showed just how far a hardball, golf ball, or football gives way at the moment of impact. It is not far or long, but it is more than you knew. Precision matters, in an art of small differences—just as for Muybridge a century before, who confirmed once and for all that a horse's four legs leave the ground at once. MoMA included both men in a show of "Photographic Practices in the Studio," but beginning in 1934 Edgerton had his studio at MIT as a professor of electrical engineering. Muybridge was a pioneer, but Edgerton was a scientist.

Still, he was arguably the more self-conscious artist. Muybridge traveled between England and the United States back when photography had to prove itself as an art, much as for Julia Margaret Cameron, and he broke things down frame by frame like a slide show or a lesson. Admirers have noted his influence on the birth of motion pictures and "a new kinetic art." Edgerton made each image a compendium of motion and a lasting impression, with contributions to Life magazine and with a full awareness of their strangeness. Others have included him in shows of "Ghosts in the Machine" and American Surrealism. He thrived when going to the movies was becoming a ritual, and he was happy to compete with them for effect.

Photo by Harold Edgerton . Source:
Harold Edgerton, "Water From a Faucet" 1932

A small show at Sikkema Jenkins focuses on the artistry and the strangeness. The documentary impact of an A-test is out, along with the playing card, and the swirls and shadows are in. One may never experience contrasts this sharp outside of a laboratory or a photogram, and one may not even know half the time what one is seeing. (Do those swirls and eddies really belong to tennis?) Multiple flash units track a bullet's path through air from its shadows alone, as if through sand and smoke. It might be the universe in a grain of sand, as for William Blake, but the grain is itself an illusion.

Photo by Harold Edgerton . Source:
Harold Edgerton, "The Bat Bends (Baseball)" 1938

Athletes here have their own self-conscious artistry. The muscleman with a baseball bat could well be posing for the camera, and the multiple reflections of a gold club surround the golfer like flower petals or echoes of his body. Even the title sounds artier than needed: Densmore Shute Bends the Shaft. Most of the images go back to the 1930s, starting with water from a faucet in 1932, although prints mostly date to the year before Edgerton's death in 1990. If anything they become showier. In 1959 the bullet leaves one balloon in shreds, before bursting a second, and passing neatly through a third. Well into the nuclear age, he is still measuring the damage.

Was he first, then, an engineer or an artist, a journalist or a connoisseur of chaos? Was he even a photographer? Working in collaboration with Gjon Mili, he actually contributed to the technology of strobes and "shadowgraphs." Are the displays of athleticism a self-reflective boast of virtuosity, and is the dog begging while wagging its tail the confession of a born entertainer? For all the air of danger, Edgerton shares the exhilaration at once of Modernism and scientific discovery. To make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.

Photo by Harold Edgerton . Source:
Harold Edgerton, "Densmore Shute Bends the Shaft" 1938

Harold Edgerton

Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
530 W 22nd St.
Chelsea         Map

212 929 2262

Wednesday, January 28 to
Saturday, March 7, 2015
Hours: Tues-Sat, 10 to 6

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