“Time could truly be made to stand still. Texture could be retained despite sudden violent movement.” -Gjon Mili

Gjon Mili was one of the first photographers to use electronic flash to light a picture and to stop motion.

MIT engineer

Gjon Mili immigrated to the United States in 1923 from Albania where he was born in 1904. He went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and studied electrical engineering earning his degree in 1927.

He worked at Westinghouse as a lighting research engineer until 1938. ”After graduating I took many photographs as an amateur while doing research in lighting to earn a living,” he said. ”It was 10 years before I was able to profit materially from my photographic efforts.”


MIT Professor Harold Edgerton introduced Mili to electronic flash in 1937. Mili began experimenting with flash in an abandoned church near Montclair, NJ. He quit working for Westinghouse when photographs he made of tennis player Bobby Riggs were published in Life magazine.

”With the advent of high speed electronic flash units, I turned professional,” Mili said. ”My generation came at a time when photography was advancing by leaps and bounds, creating the impulse to experiment and to seek new approaches.”

Professor Harold Edgerton using electronic flash to capture the moment a kickers toe hits a football. Photo by Gjon Mili.
On Photography: Gjon Mili, 1904-1984
Gjon Mili outside his office at Warner Bros. was also a filmmaker.

Life magazine

Gjon Mili kept an office in the Time & Life building until he died even though the magazine folded in December of 1972. He shot for special editions of Life and in 1978, his work appeared in the new Life magazine.

While at Life, Mili photographed athletes and dancers, Jazz musicians and artists as well as fashion and covers for the magazine. His work has been published in books — “Gjon Mili: Photographs and Recollections,” “The Magic of Opera” and “Photographs of Picasso.”

”During his long connection with Life, Mili was best known for his sharply focused stop-motion photographs of people and things that moved too fast to be seen by the unaided eye,” wrote Gene Thornton in a New York Times review of a 1980 retrospective of Mili’s work. “The viewer often felt that Mili’s photograph was the definitive picture of a particular action.”


The French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, commenting on Mr. Mili’s work, said, ”I admire his sense of economy, his respect for craftsmanship and his distaste for pretensions.”

Lisa Hostetler in her bio of Mili for the International Center for Photography noted, “Through the sheer number of his motion photographs and their frequent publication in Life magazine, Mili revealed the mechanics of human kinetics to postwar society. His dynamic fashion and advertising images demonstrated his ability to adapt his discoveries creatively without overwhelming the image in photographic pyrotechnics.”

The Dec. 28, 1942 issue of Life summed up his work this way: “[Gjon Mili] could capture on one negative more grace and beauty than Hollywood cameramen get on many feet of motion-picture film.”

Picasso: Drawing with light

This very short video shows several photos of Picasso by Gjon Mili.

Opening photo

Top row, L-R: Charles Fonville, shot putter; Gene Kelly, dancer; Alicia Alonso, ballerina; Billie Holliday, jazz singer; Gene Krupa, drummer.

Bottom row, L-R: Saks Fifth Avenue ad, Vogue magazine, fashion photo, Juggler, Juan Navarra, billiard champion, frog jumping into an aquarium and the April 7, 1941 Life magazine cover.

Sources: The New York Times, International Center for Photography, San Diego Museum of Art.

Inspiration from photographers is in On Photography.