Thursday, 30 September 2010

Atomic Exposure

Sometimes it's difficult to know what your looking at without a reference point of some kind to give you an idea of scale. For instance is this a macro image of a cancer cell or maybe Hubble's latest discovery taken at the furthest reaches of the Universe? Well neither in fact these are photos taken by Harold Edgerton of a series of atomic test explosions carried out by the US government in the Nevada desert and tropical atols during the 1950's, and the scale of these explosions are immense.

Harold Edgerton was a pioneer in the field of strobe photography, his pictures of bullets ripping through playing cards or bursting through apples, or of balloons at the crucial point of popping, or even the moment when a perfect miniature liquid crown is created when a drop of milk hits the surface toured the world appearing in Life magazine, bringing the beauty of nature to the general public much in the same way the work of Eadweard Muybridge did 60 years earlier.

After the war Edgerton co founded the company EG&G, which was contracted by the US Atomic Energy Commission to make a photographic record of their nuclear tests. This was not just a simple case of setting up a camera on a tripod and standing there waiting for the bang! No this was an altogether different kettle of fish that had never been tackled before. If you know anything about photography you know that at it's most basic level it is about controlling light. The amount of light that hits your film dictates what information is captured. The light given off by an atomic explosions is  famously quoted as being the equivalent of '1000 suns' which would burn through the film placed in any conventional camera. Edgertons problem was how to allow just a fraction of this light at the film, no mechanical shutter could move quickly enough to allow a fraction of this light in, so he and his team built a new camera that worked with a magnetic shutter that opened for a matter of nanoseconds (if your interested in the mechanics there is a small video here). These cameras were positioned on towers which were several miles from the detonation site and contorled from concrete bunkers.

I am in awe of not only the scientific achievement of Edgerton's work but also the raw beauty he captured in such a fearful and destructive event. I came across the images in this post on  The New York Times site. They recently ran a series of images by Edgerton's fellow camera man George Yoshitake who talks on the site about his experience of taking these pictures, it's well worth a look and listen.

Here are a few more of those incredible images. Click to enlarge them.

The small dots on the horizon are military tanks.

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