01 January 2008

To do an Edgerton

Twelve years ago, the Norwegian Museum of Photography (now Preus' Museum) ran an exhibition entitled "Et Øyeblikk". Translated to English, it can mean both "Hang on a minute" and "in the blink of an eye". I still have the catalogue from that exhibition on my bookshelf. The front page (image here) features one of the legendary photos by Harold Eugene Edgerton, of a bullet passing through an apple.

The exhibition went through many interpretations of photographic moments. From Joseph Niépce's all-day exposures, via Cartier-Bresson's "significant moments" to Edgerton's split-second captures of fast moving objects and Capa's photos from the Spanish war where the personal consequences of bullets through flesh were all the more pertinent.

While intrigued by Cartier-Bresson and agonised by Capa's shots, it was Edgerton's photos that held the largest mystery. I remember thinking that this was:

Cartier-Bresson's "significant moment" chipped to the thinnest possible slice.

Frozen at 1/20000th of a second, the picture still conveyed a rich story of how a bullet can reap flesh apart. I recall wondering how he could determine which 1/20000th to record, and how many mishaps he had per successful shot. At that time, in the nineteen-fifties, he must have put a lot of science and calculus behind each photographic setup. And behind each exposure too.

Since then, High-speed electronic flashes have found their way to the hotshoes of many SLR cameras. Edgerton's bullet photos are a bit out of reach yet, but much of his early work on running water and splashing droplets can now be, at least in principle, repeated with a standard digital SLR camera.

Sans the science, however, pushing the camera button is still much of a random process with a few lucky hits. As I just found out over the Christmas holidays. The picture below is one out of about thirty attempts by the kitchen sink, and the only one I'm reasonably happy with. Most of the shots held only a wobbling water surface with no droplets at all. :-)

Pentax K10D, AF-540FTZ, FA-50mm f/1.4, AF-1.7TC, and tripod.
1/4000 seconds at f/8, ISO 100.
Click on image for (slightly) larger version.

Edgerton himself would probably have pointed out that his pictures were totally different from what the masses can produce today. Not because of the artistic merit (which I'd gladly praise him for), but from the way the exposure is made. Edgerton had strobe lamps providing flash blinks as short as his stated exposure times, while the shutter in his camera was slow. He had to shut out all ambient light, leave the shutter open on "B" setting and have the strobe illuminate the scene at exactly the right moment.

With today's cameras and electronic flashes, it's the other way around. The flash blink is made to last longer, while the camera shutter provides a short exposure time.

Cameras like Pentax K10D can expose as little as 1/4000 seconds, but there's still a good gap up to freezing bullet motion. Fast blinking strobes still beats mechanically moving shutters.

Nevertheless, I'll always think of images freezing fast moving objects in their trajectory as "Edgerton Images", no matter the technique. I think he deserves that for his ingenuity at pointing strobe lights towards ordinary objects in the first place.

1 comment:

Boris said...

For some reason I was never attracted to such kind of photography. Not that yours is not good. It is just that I find this to be rather an exercise in technique. Probably I lack the engineering skill to come up with such a setup and consequently such a shot. But still, I don't feel any hmmm fascination by such a shot. OTOH, I admit that snowflake shots look really beautiful...