Milkdrop Coronet, 1957, which was featured in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s first photography exhibit, is a fairy tale come true: dripped from a pipette into the lid of a royal red cookie tin, the first droplet creates a base that the second droplet raises into the momentary crown the photograph captures. The regal colors, the unexpected, ephemeral crown, the moon-like appearance of the next droplet suspended high above the goings-on below — all contribute to the magic. You can’t tell whether it’s night or day, indoors or out, hot or cold, planned or unplanned, liquid or solid. The image challenges us with its multiple attributes of permanence: the shadows the crown casts to the left, the symmetry of its tips, the hard glaze of its interior, the reflection it gives off like a bowl on a lacquered table. It also challenges us by bringing a sense of the infinite into the small and the ordinary with its intimations of panoramic grandeur. We could be looking into outer space or across the vista of a lava flow. Harold Edgerton’s work was quickly recognized for its potential by the US military. During WW2 he contributed to the development of nighttime aerial photography to scan Axis movements in Europe. In the 1950s and ’60s his company EG&G became a major contractor with the Atomic Energy Commission and played a significant role in America’s nuclear testing program. Violence becomes one of the undercurrents of the artist’s œuvre, but in a way so unexpected and subtle, it would be easy to miss. Often the violence exists in the context of play — a bullet piercing three balloons or a playing card or a set of four light bulbs, a rodeo rider thrown from a bucking horse, a man being shot from a cannon — so that what might otherwise register as discomforting registers as comic. In Making Applesauceat MIT, 1964, a bullet, mindless and nonchalant in its arrested momentum, appears suspended in midair while the apple through which it has just shot explodes from two ends. One of the amazing aspects of the picture — and this is another way in which Edgerton’s brand of violence sneaks up on you — is the symmetry of the combustible event. The skin of the apple tears into neat triangular shreds, regular as a paper doll; where the bullet has entered on the right, the white fruit flies out with the even grace of a fireworks display. It would be a mistake not to acknowledge Edgerton’s compositional sense, and that includes his use of color. In Making Applesauce, not only do we get the red, white, and blue hues of the American flag but their forms echo Old Glory: the blue acts as a backdrop, the red is elongate, the white bursts into fragments like distant stars.
What’s more, at the level of the microsecond, even Edgerton’s most stupendously tumultuous event can be appreciated for its core stillness. Just look at in his black-and-white Atomic Bomb Explosion, Before 1952, in which the oddly luminous and bizarrely layered fireball is caught in an exposure that lasted one one-hundred millionths of a second. No less shattering is Spilt Milk, 1933, one of those rare instances in which the destructive moment loses all evenness as the glass breaks into coarse, asymmetrical shards.
: Museum And Gallery
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