Harold Edgerton: The man who froze the world

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Bullet Through Apple by Harold Edgerton, 1964 (MIT)

(This article first appeared on BBC Future; many thanks to the Michael Hoppen Gallery for their help with the article andpermission to use Edgerton’s pictures on the blog.)

Every time you use the flash on your smartphone or camera, you should give silent praise to Harold Eugene Edgerton. In the era of vacuum tubes and radios the size of tables, Edgerton created a way to stop the world; a bullet passing through an apple; a footballer’s boot connecting with a ball; the crown-like splash created from a single drop of milk. He was the first man to harness electricity to freeze time to an instant.

Edgerton’s iconic images would be difficult enough to create today, even with computers on hand to open and close the shutter and fire the flash. But Edgerton took his pictures in the days of analogue, recording them on a motion picture camera converted to shoot at previously impossible speeds, and lighting them with an electric flash he invented himself. Intricate geometries happening so fast the human eye is incapable of comprehending them were suddenly captured for all to marvel at.

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How to take great beach photos

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Beach and woman by Dennis Stock (Magnum Photos)

(I wrote this piece for BBC.com’s excellent arts site BBC Culture this week, and am reprinting it here. Many thanks to Magnum Photos for allowing the re-use of the photos on this blog.)

To millions of us, the summer means the beach. We pack promenades of pebbles and sand in our millions, roasting on beach towels and standing knee deep in crowded surf. We trek by bus and train and overheated car to coastal resorts – Brighton, Coney Island, Bondi Beach – or scrimp and save to see the world,for a few short weeks at least, from the vantage point of a deck chair.

On the beach, all human life is on display, and it’s no coincidence that for many of us, our memories of childhood are linked to the seaside. The potential for bright sun meant the camera that might have spent months kept in a drawer saw the light of day; our photo albums all contain faded pictures of us in swimming costumes with fixed smiles.

For many photographers, the lure of the beach is strong. Here people are relaxed, carefree and oblivious to the crowd around them as they snooze or splash. There is an unguarded freedom. For anyone interested in taking candid pictures, the beach is rich with subjects and possibilities.

Many of the leading lights of the Magnum photo agency – one of the most prestigious photojournalism organisations in the world – have been among them. What can we learn from them for the next time we take the camera to the beach?

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Garry Winogrand: Five lessons from a master of photography

El Morocco, New York, 1955 (Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

El Morocco, New York, 1955 (Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

(I wrote this piece for BBC.com’s excellent arts site BBC Culture, last week, and am reprinting it here. Thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for allowing me to  include some of Winogrand’s images with this post)

Few photographers have lived and breathed their art with the singular devotion of Garry Winogrand. In a career spanning four decades, the Brooklyn native stalked the New York pavement with a Leica camera and a wide-angle lens, capturing New Yorkers at intimate quarters. His pictures capture fragments of ordinary life in an America poised between confidence and crisis: laughter in the sun of a summer street, the tang of menace from a bandaged figure in a convertible, moments of unexpected surrealism on an afternoon in the city zoo.

Winogrand would spend hours on the street every day, shooting a dozen rolls of black and white film – 400 or 500 images, day after day. Thirty years after his death, only now are we seeing anything approaching an overarching view of his material. Last week saw the launch of a new exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the first major retrospectives of his life’s work.

Trying to emulate Winogrand’s punishing work ethic would be madness. But within his rich archive there is a wealth of wisdom for photographers to learn from.

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Lomo postcards from Morocco

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A train sweeps by, somewhere on the road to Marrakech

Cross-processed slides love light. Shoot them on a cloudy, overcast day and they can look dull and lifeless. They need bright conditions – hard electric lights or sweltering sun – to really sing.

Last month I spent a week travelling around Morocco, just as the desert spring was heating up. While it wasn’t quite the furnace it becomes in the height of summer – think 40C and then some – it was stark and bright. That’s perfect light for cross-processing.

Giving slide film the xpro treatment can be a hit-and-miss affair – some go green, some purple, some look just plain weird. But there’s one film – Agfa’s old Precisa consumer slide film – that is nigh on perfect.

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Soundcheck Sessions: David Kilgour details

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Most of the time shooting bands at soundcheck, the light levels are low – really low. There’s a fraction of the light that’s onstage during showtime, so often it’s trying to find pools of light amidst the shadows.

Back in 2007, however, I was shooting in a very different venue. I’d taken a trip back home for six weeks to my native New Zealand, and arranged to go out on tour with my friend David Kilgour‘s band, touring the North Island to promote David’s brilliant album ‘The Far Now’. After a gig in Wellington, we ended up in Napier, a coastal city almost totally destroyed in a 1931 earthquake and boasting an incredible array of art deco buildings.

It turned out the venue, Latitude Live, was one of them, boasting a beautiful skylight over the stage that let in bright summer light during afternoon rehearsals for Kilgour and his band The Heavy Eights. Continue reading