Visual Arts

Freeze Frame

When I was 14, my best friend and I stayed up all night in her parents' backyard, sprawled on the trampoline, discussing the relevance of time as we stared into the night sky and chain-smoked a pack of stolen cigarettes. While I don't remember the details of this long-winded conversation, I know that after reaching theoretical dead ends and constant contradictions, we concluded that our human minds probably would never grasp the true nature of time. Not bad for a couple of kids, eh?

I was reminded of that conversation when I visited SMoCA's "Seeing the Unseen" photography show. We all use cameras to capture moments in time, but Dr. Harold E. Edgerton, who was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology until his death in 1990, used exposures of 1/100,000 of a second to record movements that usually happen way too fast for us to see. It's easy to enjoy these captured moments — I was instinctively curious to see what my eyes can't catch. But Edgerton moved beyond a mere scientific approach and uses lighting and color to make beautiful photos.

In Death of a Lightbulb, a lone, cracked light bulb glows against a black background. But this bulb is not filled with light; it is filled with a white mist. The entry of a bullet can be seen on the right side, marked by a small puff of powdered glass. The exit is a much larger cloud and the bullet is nowhere to be seen. The captured action is dramatic. To see the moment before the total collapse of a bulb is a treat. And the glass chamber, riddled with a web of breaks, filled with white powder against the black backdrop is visually stunning.

My favorite of the bunch is a similar work in which a gun was pointed at an apple. The red and yellow apple skin shines against a cyan background. As with the light bulb, explosive clouds flank the fruit. Bursts of white, powdered apple meat mark the entry and exit points of the bullet. The shredded strips of the broken red skin gleam against the white of the clouds. The bullet, unscathed and clean can be seen to the left of the apple. Again, the work is a visual success with skillful use of composition and color.

Edgerton wasn't interested only in guns. Many of the photos explore the movements of athletes. One image records the kick of a football with the foot's force so strong that as a halted motion, it looks like it's deflating the ball. Milk-Drop Coronet beautifully captures the perfect glistening crown shape of a milk drop on impact.

Humans may never fully understand or control time, but Edgerton showed that we can use some tricky gadgets to capture its mysterious qualities.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi