Harold Edgerton describes his photographic subjects like this: "Anything that moves is fair game."
He means anything that moves very fast.
"You're always looking for information on what happens when things happen very fast," says the 82-year-old electrical engineer who combined a stroboscope with a camera and has spent the last 50 years catching on film things that elude the eye.
The results are surreal and otherworldly: a bullet blasting through an apple like a power drill, spewing the insides like sawdust; the egg-shaped skull of a golf ball as it is struck by a club; a football caving in as it's kicked; a bird caught pre-landing, wings spread as if the creature is removing a cape.
In the tiniest fraction of a second, Edgerton's photographs clarify the most enigmatic of moving objects and blur the lines between art and science. The physics of a club striking a golf ball reveals as much as the sensuality of the texture of a milk drop, perhaps his most famous subject.
Edgerton has been a professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for about half a century, and many of the photographic fruits of those years are now on display at Govinda Gallery, 1227 34th St. NW, through May 18.
In addition to his classic action photographs of bullets and balls and liquid drops, there's one -- in gallery director Christopher Murray's office -- of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney standing still. In 1940, at the invitation of MGM, Edgerton visited Hollywood to show how high-speed photography could be used in film. (A short feature about Edgerton's work, "Quicker Than a Wink," won an Oscar in 1941.) "That was when I met Judy Garland," he says. "She was just a young thing."
Some Edgerton photographs are in the collection at the Museum of Modern Art and Ansel Adams once wrote him, saying, "I have often returned to your magnificent work for confidence and enhanced perception."
Says Edgerton: "I have no training in art and photography. I know when a photograph is out of focus . . . I've learned some things from artists. They think differently from engineers."
He points out his multiple-exposure picture of a man swinging a golf club -- the photograph, taken at intervals of 1/100th of a second, shows the club rounding the golfer like the spokes of a wheel.
"I want to know the velocity of the golf ball after the club hits it, the velocity of the club . . . Everything is in this picture. Artists look at this and say, 'Oh, that's an interesting pattern.' "
As for his picture of water gurgling out of a faucet, he says, "People who study the flow of liquids look at that and go ga-ga."
He won't say that this is art: "Well, maybe it is in a way. I don't think about it much."
And he won't declare which photographs he likes best: "It's like a bunch of girlfriends," he says. "You don't pick favorites."
Edgerton, called "Doc" by friends and students, delights in his irreverent, wise-cracking professorial image. He still gives seminars and grumbles about his retirement. "They don't want me to do anything," Edgerton says. "But I still sneak stuff in. I work with any kind of people -- the younger the better. They're more gullible."
Edgerton first used the strobe when he was a graduate student at MIT. He had been interested in electricity since his teen-age days climbing poles and splicing wires for the electric company in Aurora, Neb. After graduation from the University of Nebraska, he spent a year at a General Electric plant in Schenectady, N.Y., earning money to attend graduate school. Doing research on engines at MIT, he needed to see the whirling rotors of the engine better.
The kind of stroboscope Edgerton used (its original form dated to the 19th century) was a controlled light that flashed at the same high speed as the rotors of the engine. The result was that the eye could see each of the rapidly moving rotors not as a blur but clearly -- in fact, it looked as if they were standing still.
Edgerton applied the strobe to photography. His flashing light -- or stroboscope -- became the shutter: flashing enough light quickly enough at the exact moment to illuminate things the eye could never dream of seeing.
"It's like lightning," Edgerton says. "Except for two reasons: I can make it happen where I want it to happen and when I want it to happen. So all I've done is take God Almighty's lighting and put it in a container."
At the beginning, Edgerton used stroboscopic photography only to work on motors. ("I got a doctor's degree out of it.") One day a colleague came by wanting to see the strobe. "He said, 'Why don't you work on something else besides that motor?' " recalls Edgerton. "So that afternoon I took pictures of water coming out of a faucet in the lab." The result looks like ice sculpture. After that, Edgerton went from one object to another -- golf balls and footballs, bullets and birds.
He had heard that milk drops make an interesting pattern when they splash. (Physicist A.M. Worthington's high-speed electric-spark photographic study of milk splashes dates to 1908.) In 1930, Edgerton did his first experiment with spilt milk and photographed it at about 1/50,000th of a second. The result was astonishing:
"I almost laid an egg," he says.
The pictures are famous: the shiny, velvety corona of milk caught in a split second of a regal pose with little round droplets topping each point of the crown.
"I still get a lot of mileage out of it," Edgerton says.
He has students try it. "Students come in and say, 'We're not going to take pictures. You've done it all.' So I take them into the hall and say, 'This is a defective picture. See, this droplet isn't pinched off. Why don't you do it?' "
Edgerton himself has taken numerous milk drop pictures. "I'm an engineer," he says, going over to one of the pictures displayed in the gallery and pointing to the droplets on the crown points. "I want these to be uniformly perfect -- the droplets evenly spaced."
Are they ever perfect?
"Of course not."
One of his classic pictures of a bullet shooting out of an antique gun was taken in a microsecond -- one millionth of a second. The photographs of the bullet burrowing through the apple and a bullet slicing a playing card were taken in about half that time.
As a scientist, his endeavors have ranged from creative to bizarre. The stroboscopic photographs have been known to raise some colleagues' eyebrows, he says. "The number of people who want to photograph bullets in the world you can count on one hand. I was criticized for doing it. People said you should only do what brings in money. You know the world is run by money. I made some -- by accident."
In fact, he and two students, Kenneth Germeshausen and Herbert E. Grier, formed a company in 1947 to manufacture equipment they designed. The organization, EG&G, mushroomed into a Fortune 500 electronics company (from which Edgerton is now retired).
He's used the independence that comes from fame to do what he wants -- such as going off to Scotland to attempt to film the Loch Ness monster. And he's made trips on the Calypso with his friend Jacques Cousteau, who first came to Edgerton 30 years ago for help in refining underwater photography. In Venice, Edgerton has been looking for a 90-ton granite column believed to date to 1200. And he has a book coming out on sonar.
"We're looking for things lost in the sea," he says.
Twelve years ago, he was part of a group of scientists who located the U.S.S. Monitor, the Civil War ship that sank off Cape Hatteras in 1862. Edgerton's underwater cameras were instrumental in the success of the search.
As for Loch Ness, he's been there twice and spent one entire summer looking for the monster. "We took a lot of pictures -- the world's worst pictures," he says. "We had a sonar beam going into the loch. I got a signal but I couldn't tell if it was a German U-boat or a monster . . . I'm a scientist. I take evidence. I'm not going to make a conclusion from a foggy thing on the loch. You can't tell if it's a boy or a girl."
The Venice project was proposed to him by a geologist who was using Edgerton's sonar. "We worked together on serious projects," says Edgerton. "He brought up the problem of the pillar. He said, 'It's not geology.' I said, 'It's not electrical engineering.' This is pure research. You haven't the slightest idea what you're doing."
What's left to photograph?
"I'd like to take pictures of all those galaxies out there," Edgerton says.