Part of the appeal of photography has been its ability to freeze the flow of time, to reveal its passage in ways which are impossible for us to see naturally. In doing so photography has forced us to reconsider the world around us, and to concede that what we perceive is only one of many possible perceptions, defined by the specific nature of our physiology.
This remarkable ability of the medium has led to it’s in a broad range of spheres, including its extensive use in the sciences as a way to reveal the inner workings of processes which are too fast, slow, small or large for us to observe normally. Most of these scientific uses are of little interest to anyone but a few specialists, but a small number of these scientist-photographers have managed in reach out and ensnare the public’s imagination. Surely one of the most prominent of these few is Dr. Harold Edgerton, the MIT professor and inventor who from the late 1930’s until his death produced thousands of remarkable high speed photographs.
Edgerton’s subjects are wide ranging, and include everything from bullets leaving guns, to studies of the cavitation effect caused by a boat propeller. These subjects might sound tediously utilitarian, but in Edgerton’s viewfinder they are not simply made visible, but also beautiful. One photograph shows a tennis player’s serve, each fraction of a second recorded by the ghostly trace of a racket. Another reveals the tracks left by subatomic particles moving through a bubble chamber, marking out a series of abstract lines and circles which resemble a Paul Klee etching.
Indeed part of what is compelling about Edgerton’s photographs is that they sit precisely on the fault line between art and science, a territory which has tended to be particularly problematic for photography. In our post-modern culture almost anything can contest or claim the status of art, from a condom strewn bed to a can of preserved faeces. Edgerton made no such claims for his photographs, indeed he was often at pains to emphasise that he was a scientist rather than an artist. Regardless, the combination of his rigorous aesthetic, and the thought provoking nature of what his photographs show means that these images make a more powerful case than most for their status as art, even if they do so silently.
Dr. Harold Edgerton: Abstractions is on at Michael Hoppen Gallery until 2nd August 2014.