Update: Milk Drop Coronet sold for $4,250.
What you see: Milk Drop Coronet, a photograph taken by Harold Edgerton in 1957 and printed via the dye transfer technique in the 1970s, when Edgerton signed it in pencil. Swann Galleries estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.
Who was Harold Edgerton? Harold “Doc” Edgerton was an electrical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He used his knowhow to create an electric flash that could fire extremely briefly–10 microseconds, or 1/100,000th of a second–allowing his camera to capture events that happen too fast for the eye to see. His mastery earned him the nickname “Papa Flash.” He died in 1990 at the age of 86.
Where was Edgerton in his career in 1957? “He was still at MIT, but by 1957 he had achieved recognition for his inventions and his visionary approach to making images,” says Daile Kaplan, vice president and director of photographs and photobooks at Swann Galleries. “But the photography market didn’t happen until the first galleries opened their doors in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”
Is that why Milk Drop Coronet was shot in 1957 and printed in the 1970s? Yes. “Edgerton did not identify himself as an artist, which isn’t surprising,” Kaplan says, “At the start of the market for photography, dealers realized that a picture of this elegance could be a full-fledged artistic image. Edgerton was a very brilliant man. He acknowledged that his work had taken on a new audience, a new form.”
How does the dye transfer process improve the image? “It’s probably the most stable and vivid technique in relation to reproducing color,” she says, noting that dye transfer is no longer used. “It was the blue-chip technique. The reds [of Milk Drop Coronet] are vivid and saturated–they pop.”
Does Milk Drop Coronet belong to a limited edition? “Multiple prints were made during this period, but it was not a common practice to edition prints. The market was still articulating itself,” Kaplan says. Later, she stated that she had handled versions of the photograph in eight Swann Galleries auctions over the last 10 years: Three dye transfers, two chromogenic (color) prints, and three that were black and white.
What makes Milk Drop Coronet special? “This is one of the top Edgerton images, and I have to say, one of the most popular images of the 20th century,” she says. Speaking of Edgerton’s 20th century stop-motion achievements, she adds, “It’s startling in its prescience. Time is accelerating, people are moving at faster and faster paces. He looked at it from an academic and a scientific perspective, but he was able to articulate in his images what people were beginning to feel.”
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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Galleries.