A Vintage Photography Flash Lamp In Action

Jacob Riis, a writer and photographer who exposed poverty in late 19th century New York City, used crude tools to light up his subjects. He ignited magnesium powder with a pistol, and later a frying pan. Twice, he set rooms on fire. Once, he set himself aflame.

Photographers eventually used a rectangular tray, mounted on a stick that they would hold up, above the camera. Race Gentry, 18, who lives in the San Diego area, practices this vintage photography technique.

He acquired his passion from an antique show and later, the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He acquired his flash lamps on eBay. He says they give off a huge flash — "really bright. My subjects would complain because ... they couldn't see anything."

Gentry says his demonstrations attract a crowd. "When it goes off, it's like 'Ah, wow!' "

He once showed off the flash in history class. He had to put tape over the smoke alarms so they wouldn't go off.

In the 1890s, "people were new to flash photography, and when [Riis] set it off, I'm sure he had people watching him," Gentry tells Robert Siegel. "I kind of feel the same way as he did. In this century, I'm using the flash and I get somewhat of a crowd, too."

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