Monday, October 20, 2008

A Flash In The Pan



I’ve read articles from the turn of the 20th century of people having a “flashlight picture” taken. What is a flashlight picture? I have my suspicions but I’d rather have a “maven” give me the definitive answer.

Thomas MacEntee - Destination Austin Family

Thomas has included a reference to flashlight pictures:

"The Whist club was entertained Tuesday evening by Mrs. Hawley Kentner and Mrs. G.W. Allen at the home of the former. In honor of St. Patrick's day the members appeared in costumes representing the typical sons and daughters of the Emerald Isle. The result was somewhat startling as well as exceedingly laughable, and their appearance forcibly illustrated the old proverb that "dress makes the man"— and the woman too. All the costumes were "Pat," but it was generally conceded that Mrs. Alice Dewey. Mrs. I.L. Smith and T.R. Evans bore off the palm in imitating the genuine bog trotter. Edward R. Jones made a decided hit in appearing as an Irish dude, and Dr. J. H. Watson created a sensation by carrying a genuine shillalah. After the company had assembled a flashlight picture was taken and each one was given a typical Irish name, and all drew partners for whist by cards upon which the assumed names were inscribed. The house was appropriately decorated in green, in which ribbons, smilax and other accessories combined to produce a novel effect. The table was especially beautiful with its trimmings of graceful vines and lighted with green tapers. The color scheme was carried out in the menu as far as possible, in the jellies, cream and cakes. The menu cards were in the form and color of the shamrock as well as the place cards, on which were written the names of celebrities suggesting the name of each one present. It took a good guesser to find his place. After refreshments came whist. Five tables were played. Mrs. H.N. Gaylord and James Whittlesey captured the favors. Mrs. Louise Strong and T.R. Evans got away with the consolation prizes. Altogether it was a decidedly novel and unique entertainment and proved one of the most enjoyable of the meetings. It is expected that the next meeting will be the last one of the season."

"Turin," The Journal and Republican, Lowville, Thursday, March 19, 1903, Vol. 44, No. 17, p. 1.

And your suspicions are probably correct, Thomas. Those old west movie images of a photographer holding a flash pan and a white flash of light would be correct.

A flashlight picture
was a photograph taken with a brilliant and instantaneous magnesium light used at night or in dark interiors. Flashlight was a significant technical development used for illumination from virtually the beginning of snapshot photography.

The light source generally takes the form of either a flash lamp or a flashlight mixture - ignited by the application of a spark or flame. Magnesium is usually the base of most descriptions of flashlight.

Magnesium wires or ribbons were often used for the purpose. Magnesium burns very rapidly, in the form of powder or dust, when brought in contact with a flame and gives an intense white light.

The best form of flash lamp for general purposes was that known as the "blow-through." It consisted of a reservoir with the lamp attached. The reservoir contained a supply of pure magnesium powder. A sufficient quantity of the powder required to make a flash is blown through the flame of the lighted lamp.

A flame is formed by burning cotton wick or other suitable substance soaked in methylated spirit, and attached to the hole through which the magnesium is blown. Pressure on a pneumatic ball attached by a tube to the reservoir serves to blow a charge of the powder into the flame to make the necessary flash.

A more rapid flash and one spread over a broad area was achieved by the use of gun cotton.

Magnesium could burn even more rapidly if mixed with some chemical substance rich in oxygen - such as chlorate of potash. These mixtures, however, constituted explosives and were extremely dangerous.

The dangers of the use of flash powders by photographers were often repeated in the photographic magazines and newspapers of the time. The following are just a few examples:

1919 - W. W. Stroud, of The Barber Kodak and Supply Co., Raleigh, N. C., may suffer the loss of one eye and his left hand as a result of a bottle of flashlight powder exploding in his hand while he was attempting to take a flashlight picture in one of the departments at the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco factory on April 26th. He was working with an electrical apparatus which was used for igniting the flashlight powder. In attempting to pour some of the powder from a flask into the firing tray a short circuit in the wiring caused a premature spark, which ignited the powder in both the tray and in the bottle.

In flash-light photography the danger to others is to be considered. In one celebrated flashlight law-suit, damages were exacted from a photographer whose flash-light scared a boy trespasser. The boy, being frightened by the flash, fell off a sled and broke his ribs. The jury could not see the responsibility otherwise, and the photographer had to pay.

Amateurs are strongly advised to keep away from manufacture of flash powders. There are numbers of precautions to be taken in such work, and in spite of them, flash-powder manufacturers themselves often go up in smoke.

In 1922, the City of Chicago passed the Certificate Of Fitness For Flash Light Operators stating that: It shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation licensed under the provisions of this article to employ, or to permit or allow any person, including the licensee, to use flashlight powder or to take flashlight pictures, unless the person using such flashlight is at least twenty-one years of age, is able to understand the English language, is familiar with the business of flashlight photography and understands the hazards to life and property incident thereto, so as to be able to take all the necessary precautions.

The earliest reference I found to a flashlight picture was of its use in 1886. That reference was found in a speech by Smith to the Society of Amateur Photographers, December 10, 1889:

In January 1886, a group photographed on a collodion plate by light emanating from magnesium ribbon was published in the Philadelphia Photographer. Gadicke, and Miethe were the first to apply it in the producing of instantaneous portraits of living people. Dr. Piffard was the first to bring it into prominence in this country; in fact, he is the inventor of a magnesium flash-lamp." (Does the living people reference mean it was used in post-mortem photography? Another question.)

Thank you Thomas, for the excellent question! - footnoteMaven


Source Notes:

A flashlight picture: Winston Dictionary Staff. The Winston Dictionary: College Edition. Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Company, 1946.

snapshot: Credit for characterizing an instantaneous photo as a "snapshot" (a hurriedly aimed shot) is usually given to Sir John Herschel. In the May 11, 1860, issue of the Photographic News he wrote about the possibility of taking a picture by snapshot - securing a picture in a tenth of a second. Joe Nickell. Camera Clues: A Handbook For Photographic Investigation. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994. pg. 24.

1919 - W. W. Stroud: Bulletin of Photography: The Weekly Magazine for the Professional Photographer. F.V. Chambers, 1919.

In flash-light photography: Camera Club of New York. American Photo-Pictorialists of Buffalo (Society). American Photographic Pub. Co., 1910. p. 280.

Amateurs: Ibid.

The light source: James A. Sinclair, F.R.P.S. The Sinclair Handbook Of Photography. London: James A. Sinclair & Co., Ltd. 1913. Chpt.IX.

Magnesium wires: Ibid.

The best form: Ibid.

Photograph:

Flash Lamp
Advertisement. The American Annual of Photography. 1913.
Kodak Advertisement. Wilson's Photographic Magazine. 1906.

2 Comments:

Blogger Lidian said...

This is fascinating! Thank you both for the question and the answer.

October 21, 2008 at 5:29 AM  
Blogger Thomas MacEntee said...

Thanks fM! This is exactly the information I needed.

October 21, 2008 at 8:15 AM  

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