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ON VIEW: Motion Pictures: Photographs by Gjon Mili

The San Diego Museum of Art

Motion Pictures: Photographs by Gjon Mili


“[Gjon Mili] could capture on one negative more grace and beauty than Hollywood cameramen get on many feet of motion-picture film”. – Life magazine, Dec 28, 1942


Motion Pictures explores the various ways the innovative photographer Gjon Mili studied, interpreted, and suspended motion in 35 gelatin silver prints, and features a continuous screening of the artist’s Academy Award-nominated film Jammin’ The Blues.


Gjon Mili (1904–1984) came to the United States from Albania in 1923 to study electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he undertook his first photographic experiments working with his professor Harold Edgerton. In 1939, Mili left his job at Westinghouse Electrical Company to commit himself to full-time work as a photojournalist for Life magazine, a publication at the forefront of the “Golden Age of Photojournalism.” His affiliation with Life would last his lifetime and result in the publication of hundreds of photographs that displayed Mili’s innovative approach to capturing motion.


Driven by his fascination with light and motion, Mili developed several different photographic techniques: stop-motion photographs, stroboscopic photographs, and his iconic “light drawings.” Utilizing specially engineered electronic flash and shutter synchronizers, and relying on careful staging, Mili’s impressive high-speed photographs reveal intimate glimpses of frozen moments in time, otherwise invisible to the naked eye.


His work with strobes—multiple, rapid flashes of light—captured in a single exposure a series of movements by his subjects, often dancers and athletes. The resulting images allow for both an aesthetic and scientific appreciation of human locomotion.


Mili’s “light drawings” convey motion in a different fashion: by using a long exposure to follow the course of a penlight that moved along with a darkened subject. A single timed flash at the end revealed the subjects themselves. This technique was adapted as a new form of draftsmanship in Mili’s collaborations with artists such as Pablo Picasso.