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Milk Drop Coronet

HEE-NC-57001.L.jpgWhat the scientist knows as Surface Tension is a sculptor in liquids, and fashions from them delicate shapes none the less beautiful because they are too ephemeral for any eye but that of the high-speed camera

– Harold Edgerton

“In the 1930s, Harold ‘Doc’ Edgerton synchronized a camera’s shutter with a  high-intensity electronic flash unit, which enabled significantly faster shutter speeds as in Milk Drop Coronet (BW, 1936, color image to left is 1957)). These technological developments, occurring in a broad range of artistic, scientific and commercial contexts, have widely influenced art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including cubist and futurist painting and sculpture, kinetic art, performance, video and more contemporary time based media.”[1]  Edgerton's work can be compared with historical precursors, including the dramatic freezing of an instant of time captured in the high contrast painterly convention of tenebroso, as in Baroque painter Caravaggio's Conversion of St. Paul on the Way to Damascus (1600) and in the 19th century chronophotographic research of Etienne Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge.

As a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, he began to take high-speed photographs for scientific experiments. "In his first [set of these photographic experiments], he tried to produce a perfect coronet from a single drop of milk falling into liquid. To do this he invented the stroboscope – a device to produce short bursts of light. This allowed him to take split-second pictures of objects in motion which could not be seen by the human eye, including bullets and hummingbirds in flight, light bulbs shattering, and athletes in action. Some of his photographs had an exposure time of less than 1/10,000 of a second."[2] 

[1] Edward A. Shanken, Art and Electronic Media, 2009, p. 17

[2] V&A Museum, Exploring Photography website

Video: Edgerton Centre, MIT