In a recent post, I discussed George Shiras III and his night time photography of wild animals. The lamps that Shiras used are also the ones that Jacob Riis took into the dark alleyways of the New York slums to record images for ground breaking social commentary “How the Other Half Lives.” There is an excellent website by Ivan Tolmachev that gives “A Brief History of Photographic Flash.” See also “Flash Photography.” and the photomemorabilia site.
To begin with, there was the sun. However, photographers desired to take their cameras indoors to film that part of life, and emulsions were very slow. Early film speed were roughly equivalent to an ISO of 4. The first reliable source of indoor lighting was limelight produced by heating a ball of calcium carbonate in an oxygen flame until it became incandescent. This process was also used to illuminate theaters, hence the phrase: “under the limelight.” Limelight was invented by Goldsworthy Gurney and used by L. Ibbetson as a source for photomictrography.
Limelight had its problems, not the least of which was the ghostlike flesh tones it produced. The French photographer Nadar, whom we have previously discussed in the context of early aerial photography, photographed the sewers in Paris, using battery-operated lighting. Arc-lamps were introduced to aid photographers, and in 1877 the first studio using electric light was opened. This Regent Street studio of Van der Weyde was powered by a gas-driven dynamo and enabled exposures of 2 to 3 seconds.
Edward Sonstadt commercialized the use of magnesium wire as a light source beginning in 1864 when it was demonstrated to produce a photograph in a darkened room with a 50 second exposure. Anyone who has burned magnesium ribbon in a chemistry lab, doused it in water, and watched it continue to burn will recognize that this was terrifying stuff.
An alternative was magnesium powder. In 1865 Charles Piazzi Smyth tried with poor success to photograph inside the pyramids at Giza, Egypt, with a mixture of magnesium and gunpowder. In the true tradition of the daguerreotypists, who worked with mercury and iodine vapors in very confined spaces, the lives, however short, of these photographers were filled with hazardous chemical explosions.
In 1887, Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke mixed fine magnesium powder with potassium chlorate to produce Blitzlicht. This was the first ever widely used flash powder. Typically these early flash powders were ignited with percussion caps. They were handheld and ignited with a pistol-like device. Then, in 1899 Joshua Cohen invented a lamp where the powder was ignited with a battery.
I think that there remained a terrifying aspect to these flash guns. There is highly demonstrative video showing one of these lamps in action. In the history of photography there were more than a few fatalities from these lamps.