Eric Rennie Photography | Flash


May 31, 2018

Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenament  by Jacob Riis

My first camera was a plastic Kodak Brownie, which came with its own flash attachment and sold for about five dollars when it was introduced in the 1950s – a lot of money to a kid back then.  The flash operated with disposable flashbulbs that had to be changed every time you took a picture.  They produced small but blinding detonations of light that left subjects seeing spots.  Needless to say, there was no firing off shots in rapid succession.  For one thing, those flashbulbs were hot after you took a picture, so you had to wait for them to cool off.  Essentially, you were working off light from a controlled explosion that was contained within a small plastic bulb.  

Flashbulbs were a distinct advance over early flash photography, which relied on combustible powder ignited in an open container.  This was the method that journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis used to obtain his muckraking photographs of New York slum tenements in the late 19th century.  He had originally relied on sketches to depict the deplorable conditions in the city’s tenements, but he realized these didn’t have the impact of photographs.  However, the interiors were too dark to permit photography – at least not until Riis heard about a pair of German chemists who first mixed magnesium and sodium chlorate to produce flash powder.  The stuff was dangerous to mix and dangerous to use, but it enabled photographers to pierce the darkness for the first time.  Riis and the photographers who worked with him were among the first Americans to use flash powder, and they approached their task with messianic zeal, exposing the squalor and human misery that had heretofore been hidden in darkness.  His work was published first in Scribner’s Magazine and then in a best-selling book entitled “How the Other Half Lives.”  It was greeted as a revelation by the public, almost as if Riis had photographed the dark side of the moon.