Research notes – Flash photography

The following comments are inspired by the book “Floods of Light: Flash Photography 1851-1981”, published by the Photographers’ Gallery in London as the accompanying catalogue to an exhibition hosted by the Gallery between December 1982 and January 1983 (1)

The book traces the origins and evolution of flash photography from the early experiments with electric sparks and chemical compounds in the mid to late 19th century, to the development of synchronised flash bulbs and the electronic strobes in the first half of the 20th century. The book covers both technical as well as aesthetic aspects of flash photography, both of which are of particular interest to myself in the context of exercise 4.4 and assignment 4. The short duration of flash, a feature that was there from its inception, enabled the freezing of movement and eventually allowed us to see things that would elude the naked eye. In that respect, the photographs of Harold Edgerton and Gjon Mili using electronic strobes manage to encapsulate both a technical narrative of movement, broken down in its various components, and a certain aesthetical harmony of shapes that have in many instances an abstract quality to it (see for instance drum majorette by Edgerton (here) or the hands of Russian conductor by Mili (here)).

In addition to freezing movement, flash also enabled photography where it was previously not possible or practical to do so: underground and in the darkness of the night. Because portable flashes, usually comprising an electronically controlled bulb in their modern incarnations, are small but intense sources of light, they generate a harsh illumination of limited range, resulting in high dynamic range, limited peripheral illumination. This gave flash photography a distinct look that many have characterised as unnatural but that nonetheless had a clear aesthetic impact that made its home primarily among the press photographers of the 1930s and 1940s (and even to this date), but also in the work of social photographers such as Lewis Hine (see here, for example) or Diane Arbus (like here), and more recently in Bruce Gilden large-scale face portraits (as in here). This style of flash photography, direct and unsoftened, as opposed to the more nuanced strobist and studio work that seeks to emulate the lighting in paintings from the old masters (the so-called “Rembrandt” lighting, as shown here), or the almost imperceptible light of daylight fill flash (like in Lee Friedlander’s “Kyoto” – here) has come under criticism for being intrusive and revealing too much. The critic and curator Gerry Badger, in his afterword to the aforementioned book, went as far as denouncing the flash as “…the most aggressive of photographic techniques, utilised by some of the most aggressive and hard-headed photographers. It is, one is glad to say, a somewhat un-English method. perhaps preferred more in the States than on these shores” (2). While indeed direct flash can have a revealing effect where light falls, to me its limited range together with the fact that the photographer is in total control of light direction and exposure balance means that flash is also, and could primarily be, an instrument of obfuscation, confusion and deceit. The book presents the use of flash as a moral problem for the photographer, with the power to shine a light over what was previously unseen, but obviates the question of choice in this dilemma: the photographer always gets to choose what we will see and what remains hidden and, more than under any other lighting condition, this is greatly facilitated by narrow, harsh beam of the flash.

The book also included a series of plates, probably of pictures that were displayed in the exhibition. In addition to some already mentioned above from Egerston, Friedlander, Arbus, Hines and Mili, I found particularly compelling some of the night shots from Brassai (for example his Big Albert’s gang shot here) and Bert Hardy (his Barcelona prostitutes shot here). When I first looked at these shots, it was not immediately apparent to me that flash was used, and this is what perhaps attracted me to them in the first place. They are not subtletly illuminated, but then one is used to night shots being naturally high dynamic, high contrast photographs, because street lamps are also relatively small sources of light just like electronic flash and generate a similar outcome. These were also taken on negative film, which is generally more forgiving of harsh highlights than digital sensors (or colour / B&W reversal films for that matter), and consequently, do no look as harsh and as in the face as one would normally expect to see in direct flash shots these days. To me the most important feature of these shots is the use of artificial light (flash combined with street lights) in such as way that focuses the attention of the viewer in a very effective manner, and shows essentially nothing more than what the photographer desires us too see, an effect that is particularly clear in Brassai’s gang shot. Beyond that, the light itself has an aura of wickedness that befits the subjects (seedy characters) well and adds to the atmosphere. It would be difficult to imagine these shots having the same effect had them been taken during broad daylight.

In a similar vein, the indoor pictures by Joseph Byron and later Lisette Model also grabbed my attention. Byron was particularly good at placing flash light in such way that reduced its intensity while at the same time creating enough light to envolve its subjects with a distinct atmosphere that in some cases did not feel natural but was nonetheless still pleasant, soothing. I particularly liked his lighting in “Handball” (see here), which also manages to freeze the motion of the ball in mid-air to complement the framing of the four polayers harmoneusly. The photographs of Model, and in particular her shot of the couple chatting in Sammy’s bar (see here) manage to remain intimate and candid in spite of the obvious intervention of direct flash. The light here is arranged skilfully to create shadows in the right places to separate the subject from the pherifery, even though the photographer has allowed the background to show up providing context (unlike the previously mentioned shots by Brassai and Hardy). A similarly pleasant effect is also attained by Larry Fink in “Birthday Party” (see here) and “Praying Mantis” (here), which were taken in daylight, likely both of them outdoors, but used flash to fill in the subjects in subtly, adding just enough light to make them stand out while minimising the visual impact of harsh shadows.

The last photograph from the book that I particularly enjoyed was Gasho Yamamura “Of Vegetation” (part of a series. Shot seen is this one). Like Model’s before, Yamamura alllows enough exposure to include the background but clearly delineates his subjects with the harsh but effective light of the flash, thus creating a stricking image that is slightly surreal and has the viewer’s gaze constantly moving from foreground to background.


(1)  Rupert (editor) Martin, 1982. Floods of light: Flash photography, 1851-1981 : 10 December 1982-29 January 1983. Edition. Photographers Gallery.

(2) Ibid, p 78



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