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.
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:
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!)
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:
- Explore Mammoth Cave, Kentucky through the photos by Charles Waldack in 1866 and the images 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.