Sunday Object Talk: “Atomic Bomb Explosion”

Stephanie Tallering

On Sunday, Feb. 12, College sophomore Anna Feuer delivered a short talk on Harold Edgerton’s photograph “Atomic Bomb Explosion,” taken sometime between 1932 and 1951. The photograph is currently on view in the exhibition Ephemeral Installations and the Aesthetics of Nature at the Allen Memorial Art Museum. With 13 museum goers in attendance, Feuer eloquently discussed the aesthetic aspects of the photograph as well as Edgerton’s methodological approach to the work.

Harold Edgerton (1903–1990), a Nebraska-born MIT professor, photographer and scientist, is credited with developing the modern incarnation of camera flash technology. Edgerton used a strobe light to capture images of fast-moving objects with quick bursts of light. With this technology, he was able to capture sequential images of a golfer swinging a club as well as single moments, such as the detonation of an atomic bomb depicted in the Allen’s photograph.

Sheltered in a bunker seven miles away from the detonation site, Edgerton captured an image of an atomic bomb test in Nevada one hundred millionths of a second after detonation. The resulting image reveals an enigmatic force frozen in time. The black-and-white image Edgerton presents is an unfamiliar one, removed from the standard symbolism of the fiery mushroom cloud. What can be seen is a hazy, white organic volume hovering in the center of the photograph against a darkened background. Like an engorged balloon, the cloud is captured at the moment before its infernal contents pour out of its disintegrating spherical membrane.

Contrary to the ethereal lightness of the cloud, wires and a steel gantry, the components of the testing apparatus, anchor the floating volume to the black ground below. Edgerton’s background as both a scientist and a photographer situates the image at the intersection of art and scientific experimentation. Edgerton took photographs of atomic bomb tests from 1932 to 1951. This wide range leaves room for speculation about the specific date this image was captured as well as questions of Edgerton’s intentions as a producer of artistic and scientific images.

As Feuer astutely observed, Edgerton’s photograph transcends the temporal as it freezes a moment in time. The viewer can anticipate what comes next, but what is shown is a unique glimpse of a sublime force both scientifically marvelous and ethically problematic. The photo raises questions about both the role that technology plays in shaping culture, and the way we perceive culture through images.

Edgerton’s work is aligned with the concerns of the Cubist and Futurist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in terms of challenging standard notions of perception. Both movements were less concerned with replicating reality than with depicting what the human eye cannot see. Cubist artists often condensed perspective in order to show multiple angles of an object on a two-dimensional plane, while the Futurists endeavored to depict multiple phases of movement in a single frame — as Edgerton does with his image of multiple phases of a golf swing. Feuer offered a thorough and thought–provoking explanation of Edgerton’s piece, emphasizing his desire to convey images undetectable to the human eye without the assistance of technology.