Whitney showcases flashy photography of Harold Edgerton

Harold Edgerton, ‘Milk Drop Coronet,’ 1957. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of The Harold and Esther Edgerton Family Foundation 96.126.3. © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT Museum

NEW YORK — The photographs of Harold Edgerton, a pioneer of flash technology and a largely under-recognized figure in the history of 20th century American photography, will be on view beginning Friday, March 30, in the Whitney’s third floor Susan and John Hess Family Gallery.

The works — a revelatory selection of about 40 photographs shot from the 1930s through the 1960s — are drawn entirely from the Whitney’s collection, which includes 122 of Edgerton’s works.

The works on view include photographs depicting single and multiple-exposure images of household products, performances, sporting events and staged scenarios. Some of the photographs were taken in controlled environments like the bullet piercing a playing card, while others were made in public spaces requiring complex lighting and logistical coordination.

“Throughout his work, Edgerton ingeniously married playfulness to rational inquiry, joy to reason, and experimentation to formal innovation,” said Whitney assistant curator Carrie Springer, the organizer of the exhibition.

In the early 1930s, Harold Edgerton (1903-1990), an engineer and photographer, developed flash technology that allowed him to photograph objects and events moving faster than the eye can perceive. Combining technical insight and an aesthetic sensibility, Edgerton’s photographs gave unprecedented clarity to the physical world and revealed the magic of everyday life.

Born in Nebraska, Edgerton learned about photography as a teenager from his uncle. His formal studies were in electrical engineering, and he earned a doctorate degree from MIT in 1931. It was in that year that Edgerton began to develop significant innovations for the stroboscope, electronic flash lighting equipment that he used in high-speed photography.

A member of the MIT faculty from 1927 through 1968, Edgerton also established a business partnership to develop applications for his innovations, and was deeply engaged throughout his career in collaborating with photographers, scientists and various organizations to develop new methods for photographing a wide range of subjects in motion.

Deeply involved with the development of sonar and deep-sea photography, his equipment was used by Jacques Cousteau in searching for shipwrecks and the Loch Ness monster. Although Edgerton was uncomfortable being called an artist, his work significantly expanded the legacy of such 19th-century figures as Eadweard Muybridge and Thomas Eakins, and shared some of the conceptual terrain of early 20th-century movements such as Cubism and Futurism.