An essay on the work of Andrew Davidhazy

The work exhibited in Sequences, Shotgun Muzzle Blast Photographs, consists of a succession of photographs taken of the flight of a cartridge, as it is propelled from the barrel of a shotgun, towards its target. The photographs were taken in a lightproof laboratory approximately 25 feet by 12 feet in area. 35mm stills cameras were anchored on sturdy tripods and set at 90° to the trajectory of the discharge of a similarly secured shotgun. To catch the expelled shot a cast-iron tube 3/8 inch thick and filled with sand was fitted to the opposite wall. The Shotgun was fired remotely from outside the laboratory.

Each photograph was exposed with a 1/1,000,000 second "blast" of light from two Microflash units fired in unison by a homemade sound-activated synchronizer. This synchronizer picked up the sound of the shotgun blast and fired the flash units. The position of the synchronizer was adjusted back and forth along the path of the blast trajectory in order to alter the moment at which the flashes were triggered. The further the synchronizer was from the gun the later the flashguns blazed in relation to the moment at which the shotgun was fired. This provides, over a sequence of photographs, an examination of the opening action of the shotgun’s projectile, its cup. As the cartridge’s wadding-leaves peel back they expose the shot pellets, which are subsequently propelled on their independent, accelerating journey. The gas-cloud formed by the exploding cartridge is simultaneously revealed in perfect detail as it forms behind the wadding and pellets.

Professor Andrew Davidhazy developed his own instrumentation for this technique and spent long hours of arduous experimentation and re-calibration in his laboratory. While his early trials were based on the pioneering work of A M Worthington and the further experimentation of Harold Edgerton Davidhazy‘s work now stands in the cannon alongside that of these other two men. Shotgun Muzzle Blast Photographs can be taken as an example of the further development of one particular aspect of chronophotography and the work that Davidhazy is responsible for can be read as the direct descendent of the early experiments that Muybridge, Marey et al carried out.

Davidhazy like Marey before him, does not describe his own work is Art. Marey has recently been reassessed and this new appreciation has enabled his work to have a direct influence on a new generation of artists. Paul St. George seeks through the Sequences exhibition to place Shotgun Muzzle Blast Photographs in a particular context. Davidhazy’s scientific experimentation is placed alongside the work of artists, as well as that of product designers. What Sequences provides is a toolbox for those interested in chronophotography, a glimpse at a set of aesthetic strategies that examine notions of time and space.

For the true appreciation of certain aspects of movement it is necessary to arrest motion and represent its passage as a series of still images. While it is impossible to distinguish intricate actions that are occurring fleetingly with the naked eye, chronophotography presents images to us, be they of a running horse, a falling cat or the flight of a bullet or shotgun pellets, that are strangely becalmed and awaiting our scrutiny. While in Shotgun Muzzle Blast Photographs the duration of the recorded event has greatly diminished, compared to earlier experimentation, the scene that is revealed to us is no less intriguing or staggering.

In an important aspect of his work Davidhazy continues to study the theme of the representation of time through the medium of still photographic images. Other examples of this are his experiments with strip photography techniques, which he sees as depicting time itself. A hybrid between still photography and motion pictures, the work has in common with Tim Macmillan’s spiral photographs, the property that one of the two "flat" dimensions of the image represents time. The passage of time is revealed on the image plane of a “still” image and the viewer is forced to question the creation of these images as they try to assimilate them into their own understanding of the physical world.

Two phenomena are absent from Shotgun Muzzle Blast Photographs, the movement of the projectiles is frozen in time and the images are mute. These very short duration exposures deny us the chance to witness any incremental progression in the position of the shot. Instead the viewer is provided with a series of ‘still’ images from which it is necessary to mentally fill in the void between, in the projectiles progress. The compression blast of the firing is also missing. There is a lack of the deafening sound of the shotgun cartridge as it explodes in the gun barrel, the very phenomena that gives birth to these spectacular images.

We are not the target of the blast, and neither do we deliver it, we are instead asked to witness, to systematically and unemotionally study an unfolding event. The presentation of this event as a site of examination invites a forensic approach to the studying of a developing incident. The photographs reveal to us the growing gas cloud, the splitting of the cup and subsequent propulsion of the shot. We marvel at the detail in the photographs, unconsciously mapping the expansion of the blast cloud, counting individual pellets and plotting their trajectory. While we are invited to study the photographs with a detached scientific eye this does not rule out other, aesthetic readings of the work.

This cold scientific portrayal of such a lethal event only acts to further our understanding of the destructive potential of such a weapon. The deadly efficiency and ruthless accuracy, of the shotgun, its spraying of the target, whoever or whatever that may be, with hundreds of tiny projectiles, reminds us of what can be achieved with both easily available guns and modern military munitions. The whole photographic sequence could be read as the final murderous act in some other narrative. This is the scene of a crime at the very moment of its occurrence. After the decision to act has been made, the trigger has been pulled, and a series of irreversible events are unfolding, the decisive moment of force is taking place.

In Shotgun Muzzle Blast Photographs the impending inflicted damage is documented in all its lethal unfolding, and the work highlights the destructive potential of art. The act of creation here is fundamentally a destructive one and paradoxically there is beauty and creation in devastation. The rapidly expanding gas clouds in Shotgun Muzzle Blast Photographs bring to mind the moment at which our own universe was created. The explosive matter, that is the subject of these photographs seems to reference an older, bigger bang, and the sequence of images that is Shotgun Muzzle Blast Photographs imitates the birth of a new cosmos. Under unimaginably enormous forces, with the massive expansion in material, and the turbulent forming of gas clouds and other stellar objects, we are witnessing the sort of events that take place during the first few microseconds in the life of a universe.

While Davidhazy believes that in general art and scientific photography are separate activities it is also true that certain technical photographs have aesthetic qualities. His studies into the many related fields of photo-instrumentation fit very much into this special category of work that transcends both its original intention and any other easy compartmentalisation.

Be it the birth of a new stellar constellation or the scene of a crime Andrew Dazidhazys high-speed photography reveals to the human eye events that are occuring in infinitesimally small durations of time. For Davidhazy the next frontier is photographing events that happen in a femtosecond. A femtosecond is one millionth of a nanosecond or 10-15 of a second. Photographs taken at these speeds would allow ‘events related to phenomena connected with the time frame in which atoms and subatomic particles "live" to be represented’1.

For Andrew Davidhazy visualizing, understanding and quantifying physical phenomena will continue to be a concern of mankind forever, from the universal to the subatomic. His work reveals to us both aesthetically and scientifically the intricate detail of the life of our universe through both time and space.

1. For an interview with Professor Andrew Davidhazy on this and other subjects see: