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

Imagine needing all of the equipment shown below 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.

Out for the last time. Photo by Charles Waldack, 1866. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a13404

Out for the last time. Photo by Charles Waldack, 1866. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a13404

This intrepid crew and all their gear ventured where few had gone in 1866, down into Mammoth Cave in Kentucky to take some of the earliest underground photographs. Photographer Charles Waldack and his team demonstrated their willingness to do anything to get the shot when they repeatedly scrambled miles into the earth to create images like this, generating bright light where absolutely none existed:

Scotchman's Trap. Photo by Charles Waldack, 1866. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b08123

Scotchman’s Trap. Photo by Charles Waldack, 1866. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b08123

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). 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, Edmondson, Co., Ky. - Corkscrew. Photo copyrighted by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1893. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b08114

Mammoth Cave, Edmondson, Co., Ky. – Corkscrew. Photo copyrighted by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1893. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b08114

 [Frances Benj. Johnston with group of men and women having picnic lunch inside Mammoth Cave, Ky.] Photo copyrighted 1891 by Frances Benjamin Johnston. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b11192

[Frances Benj. Johnston with group of men and women having picnic lunch inside Mammoth Cave, Ky.] Photo copyrighted by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1891. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b11192

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's expedition to the Antarctic winter flashlight scene in the Weddell Sea, showing Endurance stuck fast. Photo copyrighted by Underwood & Underwood, 1916. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a52120

Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic winter flashlight scene in the Weddell Sea, showing Endurance stuck fast. Photo copyrighted by Underwood & Underwood, 1916. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a52120

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. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1909 March. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.03233

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. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1909 March. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.03233

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". Flash-light photo by Ernest Marx, circa 1888. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b03446

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”. Flash-light photo by Ernest Marx, circa 1888. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b03446

Homestake gold mine, Lead, S. Dak. flash-light photographs of the underground workings. Photo by William B. Perkins, Jr., 1908. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a28666

Homestake gold mine, Lead, S. Dak. flash-light photographs of the underground workings. Photo by William B. Perkins, Jr., 1908. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a28666

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