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Is written Oscar Holland, CNN

At Snap, we look at the power of a single photo to tell stories about how both modern and historical images were created.

Bursting with energy yet perfectly still, Harold “Doc” Edgerton’s 1964 image of a .30-caliber bullet tearing through an apple captures an otherwise unseen moment in compelling detail. The scene took on a quiet, sculptural beauty as the decaying apple peel unfolded against a deep blue background.

The painting is widely regarded as a work of art. But more importantly for its creator, it was also a feat of electrical engineering. The longtime professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) used it to cover a lecture known as “How to Make Apple Cider Vinegar,” in which he explained the advanced flash technology that helped him take pictures.

Edgerton, who died in 1990 at the age of 86, is considered the father of high-speed photography. The camera’s shutter speed was too slow to capture a bullet flying at 2,800 feet per second, but its stroboscopic flashes, the forerunners of modern strobe lights, created bursts of light short enough to time a photo taken in an otherwise dark room. , it seemed as if time had stopped. The results were mesmerizing and often confusing.

“We used to joke that it took a third of a microsecond (one millionth of a second) to make the picture and all morning to clean up,” recalls his former student and lecturer J. Kim Vandiver. video call from Massachusetts.

While early camera operators experimented with pyrotechnic “flash powders” that combined metallic fuel and oxidizing agents to produce a brief, bright chemical reaction, the Nebraska-born Edgerton created a flash that was much shorter and easier to control. His breakthrough was more a matter of physics than chemistry; After arriving at MIT in the 1920s, he developed a flash tube filled with xenon gas that, when exposed to a high voltage, would cause electricity to jump between two electrodes in fractions of a second. .

By the time he released the shutter for his now-famous apple photo, Edgerton had developed a microflash that used regular air rather than xenon. He also created decades’ worth of famous images: hummingbirds in flight, balls hitting golf clubs and even nuclear bomb explosions. (During World War II, Edgerton developed a special “raphatronic” or fast electronic camera for the Atomic Energy Commission that could control the amount of light entering the camera during explosions.)

Another famous photo by Edgerton, taken in 1957, shows the crown-like sparkle created by drops of milk. Credit: Harold Edgerton/MIT; Courtesy Palm Press

However, it was his bullet photos from the 1960s that proved the most memorable of them all. According to Vandiver, who is still at MIT as a professor of mechanical engineering, the problem wasn’t producing the flash, but turning the camera off at the right time. Human reactions were too slow to take a photo manually, so Edgerton used the sound of the bullet itself as the trigger.

“There would be a microphone out of the picture, right below,” Vandiver said. “So when the shock wave of the bullet hit the microphone, the microphone would set off the flash and you would close (later the shutter).”

Making an icon

Over the years, Edgerton and his students have rifled through objects including bananas, balloons and playing cards. For Vandiver, the reason the apple, along with the 1957 image of drips, became one of Edgerton’s defining photographs is in part because of its simplicity. “It captures your imagination … and you immediately know what it is,” he said.

There was another factor: Edgerton’s artistic eye. The compositional beauty of his pictures saw them reprinted in newspapers and magazines around the world, and more than 100 of his photographs are today housed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. However, Edgerton declined the additional title.

“Don’t make me be an artist,” he was quoted as saying. “I’m an engineer, I’m after facts, only facts.”

While Vandiver said Edgerton’s visual experiments that advanced the field of photography “definitely have an artistic legacy,” his research also greatly influenced science and industry. His hands-on approach continues at MIT’s Edgerton Center, which was established in his honor in 1992. Vandiver, who serves as the center’s director, said each student is encouraged to take a photo of their own ball.

“We’re still teaching the course and the students are still thinking of weird things to take pictures of,” he said, recalling recent images of crayons and lipstick ripped from bullets. “Apples are boring now.”



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