Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Ansel Adams And Edwin Land

Once Din [“Din” was Edwin Land’s nickname] and I went to Dr. Harold Edgerton’s laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to observe the making of a strobe flash picture of a bullet piercing a balloon, recorded on a new Polaroid transparency material. The extremely short electronic flash was fired by microphone. We stood around, expectantly waiting for the firing, fully briefed on what was to occur and how safe it was. The revolver was securely lashed to a firm support, and there was an efficient sand trap to catch the bullet. The balloon was filled with talcum powder, inflated, and properly placed in the line of fire. The camera was focused upon it, all ready to go. At the moment of firing, one of Edgerton’s assistants struck a large segment of rail with a heavy metal mallet. The sound was terrific, and all but Edgerton and Land hit the floor. Great hilarity ensued. The photograph came out perfectly, with the bullet clearly emerging in a cloud of talcum from the still-tense surface of the balloon; at the moment of exposure the balloon had not had time to think about collapsing.

… [Edwin Land’s] philosophy and humanity are revealed in the statement he made on April 2, 1979, on the occasion of the opening of the new home of the academy [Edwin Land had been president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1951-54]:

“Each stage of human civilization is defined by our mental structures: the concepts we create and then project upon the universe. They not only redescribe the universe but also in so doing modify it, both for our own time and for subsequent generations. This process—the revision of old cortical structures and the formulation of new cortical structures whereby the universe is defined—is carried on in science and art by the most creative and talented minds in each generation. For individuals to contribute to this constantly evolving projection of mental structures upon the universe, it is necessary for them to concentrate on one area of knowledge or experience, and thus they limit themselves by excluding many other areas. This Academy’s function is to associate many specialized lines of concentration by gathering the individuals in whom they are embodied. Thus, while each person is narrowed by his own specialization, the group as a whole is enriched.

“The transfer of concepts as models from one field to another requires intimacy, informality and friendliness because the transfer usually is not a conscious process. Models for physics may come from music, for chemistry from physics, for art from cosmology. … The great historic periods of spectacular human advance, within time spans of relatively few generations, may have been periods in which society made possible the concentrated interplay of the separate contributions of creative individuals. There is no way in which we can tell whether we are entering such a period of history, but whether or not we are, the role of the Academy seems clear.”

Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams: An Autobiography

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