Gjon Mili was an Albanian-American photographer who helped to pioneer the use of stroboscopic instruments to capture motion through an image. After migrating to America in 1923, he got into the Massachusetts Institue of Technology (MIT) where he studied electrical engineering. This would serve him well in the future as a photographer and help him develop his style.

After his time at MIT, Gili would work with Harold Egerton and be part of the development of tungsten filaments for use in colour photography. This, again, would play a big role in the style of images he’d go on to produce.

Mili was a self-taught photographer (as many were back then) and he pushed on with the development of stroboscopic and stop-motion photography which would bring him to the attention of LIFE magazine for whom he worked freelance from 1939 right up until his death in 1984.

During his time as a freelance photographer for LIFE magazine, Mili photographed many famous people of the time including the likes of Gene Kelly,  Alfred Hitchcock, Pablo Picasso and one of the chief organisers of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann during his time in captivity in Israel after his capture by Mossad.

Adolf Eichmann

Stroboscopic Photography

It’s Mili’s use of stroboscopic photographer that drew me to his work as I find his black and white images capturing motion to be fantastic, especially when you consider when he was doing it.

The technique, as can be seen from the images in this post, track the subject as they move through the image and create what looks like multiple exposures of the same subject in the one composition.

This is done by setting up a long exposure whilst a flash (speedlite today) fires in ‘Multiple mode’ at varying speeds, depending on how many ‘freezes’ of the subject you want in the shot. The faster the speedlite fires, the more of the subject will be in the shot and vice-versa. A black background should be used and a dark room in order to get the right shots.

Alfred Hitchcock in a Gjon Mili stroboscopic image
Gjon Mili Hitchcock

The two images above are of the great Alfred Hitchcock, presumably from the same shoot, using two different flash speeds to ‘freeze’ a different number of the subject moving through the image. I think this is a good example of how Gjon Mili could adjust his images slightly.

Mili’s images were completely different to anything else at the time and people were able to see, for the first time, the patterns of movement the human body creates as it moves. Mili used this technique on dancers, actors, athletes and models to capture their shapes as they moved.

Gjon Mili image of FBI agent Del Bryce drawing his gun
Gjon Mili's Nude Descending Stairs

Perhaps one of Gjon Mili’s most famous subjects was the artist Pablo Picasso who was more than happy to spend several sessions with the photographer doing early light painting.

Pablo Picasso light painting
Pablo Picasso light painting

According to artuldancer.com:

Mili would open the lens of his camera in a dark room while Picasso used the flashlight like a charcoal or brush. In the dark room only the flashlight would be recorded on the film, at first. Once the light drawing was “done” Mili would trigger the strobes and close the lens, preserving both the light drawing and the artist behind it.

This stroboscopic photography has got me interested in creating some of my own (just some 7 or 8 decades late, huh?) and have decided to give it a go. At the time of writing this, I’ve figured out how to set up and use my speedlite and control unit (YAY! Go me!) and am just trying to find a backdrop dark enough for it to work. I’ll be sure to add my shots to this post once I have them.

After having a look at the work Michael Bosanko does these days, it’s clear to see that he definitely wasn’t the first to be doing it (he doesn’t claim to be). Mili and Picasso were doing the light painting thing many years before.

Header image: Gjon Mili