Anything to Get the Shot: Photos by “Flash-Light” cover

Anything to Get the Shot: Photos by “Flash-Light”

By ,


Nowadays, we take for granted the ability to photograph under almost any light conditions, but photographers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century went to great lengths to capture images by “flash-light” (not to be confused with our modern battery-operated flashlights).


Rating: 5 out of 5 stars on 1 review




NoteStream NoteStream

NoteStreams are readable online but they’re even better in the free App!

The NoteStream™ app is for learning about things that interest you: from music to history, to classic literature or cocktails. NoteStreams are truly easy to read on your smartphone—so you can learn more about the world around you and start a fresh conversation.

For a list of all authors on NoteStream, click here.




Read the NoteStream below, or download the app and read it on the go!

Save to App


Out For The Last Time

Photo by Charles Waldack, 1866, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Out For The Last Time

Imagine needing all of the equipment shown above to simply take a photograph within a dark place. Take note of the camera on the tripod – a stereoscopic camera, which has two lenses. See the chalky residue of hundreds of magnesium tapers burned within the metal reflector at left.

Scotchman’s Trap

Photo by Charles Waldack, 1866, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Scotchman’s Trap

Nowadays, we take for granted the ability to photograph under almost any light conditions, but photographers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century went to great lengths to capture images by “flash-light” (not to be confused with our modern battery-operated flashlights).

Risk

The “flash” and the “light” were generated by the quick flare of burning magnesium powder, often in combination with other chemicals.

Fire and explosions were not uncommon, but thanks to the photographers willing to take the risk, remarkable photographs came to light, quite literally.

Frances Benjamin Johnston ventured underground to photograph several times, including visits in the early 1890s to the same Mammoth Cave, on assignment for Demorest’s Family Magazine. She used a combination of magnesium and chlorate of potash powders, mixed and lit on the spot, to take these dramatically lit images. (And thankfully, no explosions!)

Mammoth Cave

Mammoth Cave

Edmondson, Co., Ky. – Corkscrew. Photo copyrighted by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1893, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Picnic Lunch

Frances Benj. Johnston with group of men and women having picnic lunch inside Mammoth Cave, Ky. Photo copyrighted by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1891, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Picnic Lunch

Thanks to the smoke it generated after each exposure and the relative harshness of the light, magnesium powder was ill-suited for studio photography, and portrait photographers came up with other sources of artificial light.

But for photographing where existing light was too weak or unavailable, photos by flash-light let us view scenes difficult, if not nearly impossible to otherwise capture:

Shackleton

Photo copyrighted by Underwood & Underwood, 1916, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Shackleton

Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic winter flashlight scene in the Weddell Sea, showing Endurance stuck fast..

Den Of The Terrible Nine

Photo by Lewis Hine, 1909 March, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Den Of The Terrible Nine

8:00 P.M. Flashlight photo of messengers absorbed in their usual Poker game in the “Den of the Terrible Nine” (the waiting room for Wes. Union Messengers, Hartford, Conn.) They play for money. Some lose a whole month’s wages in a day and then are afraid to go home. Location: Hartford, Connecticut.

Siegfried

Flash-light photo by Ernest Marx, circa 1888, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Siegfried

The Interior of the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, with an Audience of over 3,500 People, on the Occasion of Max Alvary’s 100th Appearance in Wagner’s “Siegfried”.

Homestake Gold Mine

Photo by William B. Perkins, Jr., 1908, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Homestake Gold Mine

Lead, S. Dak. flash-light photographs of the underground workings.

Learn More

• Explore Mammoth Cave, Kentucky through thephotos by Charles Waldack in 1866 and theimages captured by Frances Benjamin Johnston in the early 1890s.

• While documenting the working conditions for children for the National Child Labor Committee, Lewis Hine took several flashlight photos of children working the night shift, selling papers, and even gambling in the dark city.

• Enjoy a few other examples of early flash photography from the collections of the Prints and Photographs Division.

Picture This, Library Of Congress Blog