How Gjon Mili Pioneered Stop-Motion Photography

You may or may not recognize the name, but there’s little chance you won’t recognize the work. Gjon Mili earned fame in the 1950s when he photographed Pablo Picasso drawing with light—it was one of several cutting-edge projects Mili produced while working freelance for LIFE magazine.

A quick look at the popular Picasso series, or any of Mili’s dynamic dance photography, and it’s clear that the artist’s technique and vision were well ahead of the time. Mili’s lively work is not merely a product of his spectacular creative gifts—it’s also a reflection of a particular cultural and educational background. Mili was born in Albania in 1904 and emigrated to the United States as a young man. He attended MIT, where he worked closely with Professor Harold Edgerton in the development of strobe photography and stop-action techniques. From the start of his career as a photographer, Mili was already using innovative rapid-fire sequencing, allowing him to capture a series of images in a single frame. 

It was, of course, a format uniquely suited to theatre, dance, and sports. The effect was stunning to audiences of the time—what’s impressive is that the stop-action photos are just as stunning today, allowing the viewer to appreciate a range of motion that’s not entirely discernible to the naked eye, even from the front row. The quintessential example is the breathtaking Multiple Exposure of Alicia Alonso (1944). Oddly, almost unbelievably, Mili’s photographs are comparable to the sensation of seeing the ballerina perform in person.

An awe-inspiring range of human motion are on rich display even in Mili’s less technically ambitious photographs, from the dancers leaping through the air in Karamu House Performance; a Negro Art Center in Cleveland (1949) to the pas de deux of his Alicia Alonso & Igor Youskevitch (1947). Has a white dress ever flowed—in real life—the way that it appears to undulate in Model with Billowing Light Colored Sheer Nightgown and Peignoir (Face not Seen) (ca. 1945)? Perhaps not, and therein lies the charm of Mili’s rousing body of work.

Mili passed away more than thirty years ago, in 1984. Contessa Gallery in Cleveland has a collection of his work that’s worth a trip—despite any number of technological innovations, no one, it seems, has surpassed or superseded the photographer’s work, ensuring an artistic legacy that will continue to be celebrated for years to come.

Bridget Gleeson

Discover more artists at Contessa Gallery.