“Because photographs are also segments of time excised from a temporal flow, one is wont to reconstruct, at least imaginatively, the moments before and after the one that is shown…”
– Terry Barrett
What a difficult choice to make: there are so many iconic shots that I would like to work with, or rather pay homage to. Having seen so many wonderful images recently, I started looking around to find something that I could work with.
I began to flick through some photography books that I have and was instantly taken by Harold Edgerton’s Bullet Through Apple, 1964.
The rich, deep colours, the intensity and power of the frozen moment is stunning (as was Edgerton’s technical and engineering prowess). But the question here was how to “respond” to it as suggested by the brief.
My first idea was to think of the just after image and take a picture of the destroyed apple (I was looking forward to that), although it seemed too obvious – not that that is such a bad thing – I just wanted to do something different and hopefully creative. But what?
My second idea was to take a picture of the same scene but with the bullet missing the apple: “…the untold story of Edgerton’s misaligned pistol!” (that sounds like the worst euphemism ever used!), but that didn’t stick either.
My third idea was to take a different approach to the standard interpretation of the word “respond” instead of the usual meaning and obvious common usage of that term. I thought I would simply respond to the picture as an idea, as a crucial moment, and as a familiar subject.
This lead me to the idea of making a picture of just before Edgerton fired: the imminent undeniable knowledge of knowing what is just about to happen seemed like a better take on it than the assumed consequence of the ‘after the event’ shot; a fine challenge to undertake on my part and no doubt much easier to realize – although probably less fun – than the obliterated apple (and unquestionably easier to clean up).
The set up
This shot shows the camera viewpoint (on a tripod) and the hi-tech improvised micro studio on my desk. I used a bullet (kindly donated to my cause by a friend in the navy); an apple (with some colouring painted onto it by me); a wooden drawer as the base; my trusty torches (one is being used on the apple the other is on the desk to the right); and last but not least: my son’s small blue portfolio as the backdrop. Like I said, hi-tech stuff.
Here, the ceiling light is on as well as the torch-light on the apple itself, however, for my shots I just used a torch to mimic Edgerton’s sophisticated lighting.
In fact, Edgerton used, understandably, a very complex set up for his lighting as can be read about here from Edgerton Digital Collections site (photo 97 notes). Here’s a small excerpt:
“The duration of the flash in this photo is about 1/3 microseconds. The amount of light given off is small enough that the exposure must be made in total darkness. To trigger the flash at the proper moment, a microphone, placed a little before the apple, pickes up [sic] the sound from the rifle shot, relays it through an electronic delay circuit, and then fires the microflash…”
Not having the difficulties Edgerton faced with supersonic objects, I could stick to my hand-held torch and also shoot, as he did, in total darkness. Interesting to discover (after having done my shot) that there wasn’t much light given off by his complex microflash system (see Edgerton Digital Collection full notes on photo 97 below), something I had guessed from studying his picture carefully from different books and many good quality online examples too.
I imagine that it must have been (and presumably still is?) quite an event using the set up that he had back in 1964 – just listen to this description of the microflash (also from the Edgerton Digital Collection website):
“This picture was made with an EG&G Microflash. At the heart of the microflash is a quartz or Pyrex tube, around which are wrapped two electrodes coming from from [sic] the capacitor. Through the process of conduction, a high voltage spark sent into this tube causes an arc of electricity to jump between the electrodes on the outside, resulting in a bright flash. Unlike most electronic flash lamps, which are filled with xenon, the microflash uses plain air. This choice produces a much shorter afterglow from the flash than a xenon lamp. When this flash is triggered, the arc displaces the air around it, much like lightning in a summer storm. And the microflash produces its own thunder, too, like a gun shot.”
How about that?: produces its own THUNDER? Amazing. Quite something to witness in person, I bet.
My response to Harold Edgerton’s 1964 Bullet Through Apple.
I worked a lot on this image in post production and I had originally started working on it in Lightroom just as a test shot – but after having spent 30 minutes or so on cloning, colours and adjustment brush work, I realised that it would be unproductive to do all that editing again on another image. I changed the colour hue to the background, added some adjustments to the apple as well as practically constructing the base in Lightroom using the clone tool – a little too much sitting in front of a screen for my liking. But I have to admit that it was worth it looking at the final product: it has a strong resemblance to Edgerton’s shot (if a little too crisp compared to his), but I am happy with it, it’s close enough.
Terry Barrett and the relevance of my photo to his “contexts”
Barrett’s interesting essay Photographs and Contexts (Goldblatt and Brown, 1997 p.110-116) is full of thought-provoking observations. His idea of using three contexts when interpreting or “adjudicating” a photo is certainly something I think I should bear in mind when looking at photos from now on (and not looking through them as he nicely points out in The Weight of Photography [Swinnen and Deneulin, 2010, p.152]), although I’m not sure I have grasped the subtleties of these aspects just yet.
To some extent, I think my picture here overlaps the meaning of Barrett’s “internal context” and his “original context”. It’s pointless comparing my own set up when shooting my shot with that of Edgerton’s, we are worlds apart; despite this, there remains similarities: we both purposely set the shot up with intentions (however clearly diverse our objectives may have been); my blatant mirroring of the elements within the frame underline these similitudes: there is a clear and evident resemblance in content.
The original context, if I have understood its meaning, refers to the environment in which the camera and subsequent image were set as well as the photographer’s ideas, or, as Barrett puts it: “…namely, that which was physically and psychologically present to the maker at the time the picture was taken…” which seems very similar to internal context to me, just as “…information evident within the picture…” and “…information about the picture’s making.” could be argued to be different ways of saying the same thing: surely what was physically and psychologically present or relevant to the photographer at the time of shooting would be seen – or revealed even – by the content and information evident within the frame?
There is little point talking about Barrett’s “external context” here being the “information surrounding the picture in its presentation” as my picture is presented online, something quite alien to the 1960s I’d say. That being said, if we take the phrase information surrounding the picture in its presentation and interpret it as referring to the culture-bound information of the viewer (as well as that encoded within the pictures themselves), then we could certainly find some affinity between the two shots (all of which reminds me of Barthes’ denoted and connoted message [Barthes and Heath, 1977, p17]). As I said though, I’m not too clear on what exactly Barrett means here and look forward to looking back and (hopefully) laughing (and not crying) at my ignorance and ingenuousness regarding these points.
There is a clear stylistic resemblance to Edgerton’s original shot although I don’t believe my shot’s relevance stops there; as I mention above, the fact that we (presumably) recognise this image as very similar to the famous bullet-through-apple shot by Harold Edgerton (but without the frozen bullet passing through the apple of course) creates a tension, an expectation of the inevitable event that, personally, pulls me into the shot, fascinates me. Reminiscent of – but nowhere near as powerful as – Cartier-Bresson’s Behind the Gare St. Lazare, 1932, there is that “pregnant moment”, that enticing allure of the known; the fact looming, imminent and undeniable (as I have explored here)
There is also a calm-before-the-storm-feel to my apple shot too; a quiet foreboding hovers over that calmness, after all, there really is nothing we can do to avoid the apple’s spectacular and glorious demise, is there?
The fact that I have used a quite clear (if slightly silly) title adds to the (presumed, once again) viewer familiarity with the photo and the ensuing event; but could also be a pointer for someone unfamiliar with Edgerton’s photo too, I believe.
Barret reminds us of how “It is easy to alter the meaning of a photograph, generally by altering the contexts in which it is shown, specifically by adding text.”, as well as how “Language accompanying a photograph can over-determine the photograph’s meaning.”. However, I feel that my choice of title seemingly clarifies beyond any doubt that we are looking at either a shot taken before Edgerton’s famous one or some kind of homage to it.
But that is obviously not what we are looking at at all.
The implied question “…or Maybe Not?” at the end of the title also plays with and uses Barrett’s persuasive point of how text accompanying an image gives (or takes away) meaning to a photograph: Does it enhance meaning? Or radically change it? Does it imply and suggest ambiguity? (Which reminds me of another interesting question “How did ambiguity come to be seen as desirable?” as Lucy Soutter asks [Soutter, 2013, p16]).
David Manley, in a recent interview talking about whether he feels that titles (and text) are a valid inclusion, also points out his distrust of them:
“It depends, but I do feel that the artist should not explain how a spectator should approach their viewing of the work through its title. I guess this is where some ambiguity may help to loosen the interaction up so the viewer can approach the work through the prism of their own lived experience.”
I must say that his observation about ambiguity and in particular how it can allow the viewer to approach the work through the prism of their own lived experience is one of the best things that I have read so far on this course.
Whereas as Maria Short puts it when talking about the use of an accompanying text with photos (Short, 2011, p77) it has its purpose too:
“Therefore, as an audience, there is no conceptual mystery to the photographs, we are clear as to their function and purpose, which means that the viewing of the photograph is placed within a clear context.”
By adding this subtle question to the title, I feel I have suggested an alternative to Edgerton’s finale: or even confirmed the viewer’s suspicions or skepticism regarding the authenticity of the shot; a non-expert’s observation of “I’ve never seen or heard about a photo taken by Edgerton just before his bullet shot!” would surely be confirmed.
This response to his fabulous image, faithful and superficially akin in appearance to his shot, is, in fact, (or could be seen as) a denial of his iconic result, a challenge to it: maybe there is hope for that apple in the end?
My apple is forever there, as long-lasting as the media that can keep it alive having dodged its bullet, and now waiting for nothing to happen, which is, of course, exactly what does happen: in my universe, the apple never explodes.
After all, it’s not even a real apple, it’s just a photo of one.
Johnson, W., Rice, M., Williams, C., Mulligan, T. and Wooters, D. (2012). A history of photography. Köln: Taschen.
Swinnen, J. and Deneulin, L. (2010). The weight of photography. Brussels: Academic and Scientific Publishers (pp. 147-172)
Goldblatt, D. and Brown, L. (1997). Aesthetics. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall (pp. 110-116)
Koetzle, H. (2011). 50 photo icons. Cologne, Germany: Taschen.
Ang, T. (2014). Photography. New York, New York: DK Publishing. (p. 203)
Short, M. (2011). Context and narrative. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Academia.
Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977). Image, music, text. 1st ed. New York: Hill and Wang.
Edgerton-digital-collections.org. (2016). bullet « Search Results « Harold “Doc” Edgerton. [online] Available at: http://edgerton-digital-collections.org/?s=bullet [Accessed 4 Oct. 2016].
“This startling image first illustrated a lecture by Edgerton entitled “How to Make Applesauce at MIT.” Moments after the apple is pierced by the .30 caliber bullet, it disintegrates completely. What is so surprising is that the entry of the supersonic bullet is as visually explosive as the exit. (from “Stopping Time” (1987), p.126) The duration of the flash in this photo is about 1/3 microseconds. The amount of light given off is small enough that the exposure must be made in total darkness. To trigger the flash at the proper moment, a microphone, placed a little before the apple, pickes up the sound from the rifle shot, relays it through an electronic delay circuit, and then fires the microflash. The careful lab preparation heightens the anticipation, but never quite matches the surprise and wonder that our eyes transmit to us, as we hold onto the after image in the dark. At that point, we know exactly what the flash illuminated and what the film, hopefully, recorded. This picture was made with an EG&G Microflash. At the heart of the microflash is a quartz or Pyrex tube, around which are wrapped two electrodes coming from from the capacitor. Through the process of conduction, a high voltage spark sent into this tube causes an arc of electricity to jump between the electrodes on the outside, resulting in a bright flash. Unlike most electronic flash lamps, which are filled with xenon, the microflash uses plain air. This choice produces a much shorter afterglow from the flash than a xenon lamp. When this flash is triggered, the arc displaces the air around it, much like lightning in a summer storm. And the microflash produces its own thunder, too, like a gun shot. To quiet the noise, a glass tube, sealed with a rubber cork at the open end, encloses the quartz tube. For bullet photography, a reflector is plaved around the assembled lamp to concentrate the light in one spot.”
-Edgerton Digital Collection, image 97 full text from here.
Contact sheet and notebook