In FLASH! Kate Flint recounts how flash technology extended photography, examining the cultural contexts, particularly emphasising how cross-over language connects flash photography to theories about how human thought operates. Starting Chapter One, with eight lines from Emily Dickinson, signals the rich diversity of Flint’s approach.
We recognise shared, common-place phrases that express thought and memory as sudden illumination: “It came to me in a flash!” Flint scrutinises language to advance her moral scrutiny of flash photography, strongly aware of “tension between the metaphysical and the man-made.” We know a wide-spread 19th century distrust of science (still alive and well!) framed scientists and inventors as “Promethean challengers” with Mary Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein as archetype. Early photographers worked with natural light: to pronounce “Let there be light” was a Divine privilege so, like Darwinism, Gideon Mantell’s work on geological time et al, flash photography could be seen as blasphemy. Moreover, the excitements and risks – sometimes fatal – of flash powder, and its links with uncovering vice and dark secrets, are thrillingly transgressive. So, in Chapter 7, Flint investigates the “devil-may-care persona” of photographers with powder and flash-guns, entertainingly citing a lady lion-tamer, the King of England, and a crowd of racing cyclists, among others.
Each chapter pursues different aspects. In Chapter 5, Flint focuses on the exposure of social injustice, referring to work by Riis, Lewis Hine, Russell Lee and others. She notes the tension between humane journalistic purposes and the intrusion of flash photography, as it reached into once-invisible tenements and alleys. Hine (and others) equated light with goodness, to combat “the social peril of darkness and ignorance.”
In Chapter 6, Flint analyses the role of flash photography in a racist society. Riis showed the Harlem riots, as well as acute poverty, Life Magazine published Ralph Ellison’s collaboration with Gordon Parks to reveal Black Harlem. From 1937 -1939 FLASH! “A JOURNAL OF NEGRO AFFAIRS” catered for the normalcy and aspirations of their African-American readership. Flint gives an absorbing explanation, with illustrations, of the deliberate re-calibrations of flash-guns to make black subjects more visible. These photographers, and others, with conscious compassion, literally threw “light on dark places” – on the lives of African-Americans and their achievements, but also on the pain of lynchings and other injustices.
In her wide-ranging account, Flint covers the value of flash photography for science and exploration, and for assisting the manufacture of celebrity, mentioning the intrusions of paparazzi, from the time of Marie Corelli to Princess Diana in recent times. She gives a fascinating account of crime reportage (Chapter 7), considerably more nuanced than the “stereotype of rapacious and sensation-seeking news photographer” of popular film and fiction. The great Weegee (Arthur Fellig) described the morality behind his scene-of-crime pictures: “I literally uncovered not only their faces but their black souls as well.” Diane Arbus, an associate of Weegee, also used flash, but for subjects in daylight with her “examination of the ordinary.” These two photographers, in very different ways, presented their subjects with remarkable intensity.
FLASH! is an engrossing book, full of strange nuggets of history, absorbing descriptions of photographic technology and gems of extraordinary people and events from early photographs to contemporary work. It is a well-supported and enjoyable cultural exploration; Flint’s analysis is – appropriately – truly illuminating.
– reviewed by Patricia Baker-Cassidy
Malick Sidibé. ‘Nuit de Noël (Happy-Club)’ 1963-2008
Russell Lee, ‘Kitchen of apartment occupied by Negroes, South Side of Chicago’ April 1941