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A Vintage Photography Flash Lamp In Action

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A Vintage Photography Flash Lamp In Action

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A Vintage Photography Flash Lamp In Action

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. When I was reading about Jacob Riis and how he used flash photography back in 1888, I wondered if someone had recorded the sound of a flash like that. Riis ignited magnesium powder with a pistol and later with a frying pan. Twice he set rooms on fire. Once he set himself on fire. Photographers eventually used a rectangular tray mounted on a stick that they would hold up above the camera.

(Soundbite flash lamp)

SIEGEL: We found one. In La Jolla, California, 18-year-old Race Gentry does vintage photography. He acquired his passion from an antique show, and later from watching the movie "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." He acquired his flash lamps on e-Bay. He says they give off a huge flash.

Mr. RACE GENTRY (Vintage Photographer): Really bright. My subjects would complain because their eyes, they couldn't see anything.

SIEGEL: And we should just explain here, when you set up and you set up this old-fashioned flash, you're not violating fire laws or…

Mr. GENTRY: That I don't know.

SIEGEL: You haven't checked?

Mr. GENTRY: I mean, I've gone out into the city and I've ignited the powder, but I - you know, cops don't seem to mind.

SIEGEL: Do you attract a crowd?

Mr. GENTRY: Yeah, I do. You know, when it goes off, it's like, oh, wow.

SIEGEL: Have you been called into science classes and scout troops and the like to demonstrate this stuff?

Mr. GENTRY: Actually, a history class.

SIEGEL: History class?

Mr. GENTRY: I actually positioned everybody, made sure no lights were on, and then I set off the flash and developed the picture that night and brought prints to school.

SIEGEL: This must have been the coolest day in history for everybody.

Mr. GENTRY: Yeah. Everybody loved it. I mean, of course, there was a lot of smoke.

SIEGEL: Does the smoke from the glass set off alarms and that sort of thing?

Mr. GENTRY: We blocked them. We taped them up.

SIEGEL: I see. When you first got the flash lamp. Did you have to experiment to find the right mix of everything?

Mr. GENTRY: It wasn't so much playing with the flash powder, because I could buy that off a Web site, but it was how to ignite it. Like, there was an instance I used a shotgun primer. That was a big mistake. I was partially deaf that day.

SIEGEL: The bang was so loud from that that you…

Mr. GENTRY: Oh, yeah. I was very loud.

SIEGEL: Have you ever thought about the kind of photography that Jacob Riis was doing back in the 1880's and 1890's with this sort of flash lamp?

Mr. GENTRY: I do. Yeah. People were new to flash photography, and when he set it off, I'm sure he had people watching him. And 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.

SIEGEL: Well, Race Gentry, thank you very much for talking with us. And you're going to demonstrate some flashes for us now, yes?

Mr. GENTRY: Yes. This right here is an early 1900's flash lamp. It's basically just a tea pan. You pour the powder, a fine line of powder on top of the pan, place a percussion cap directly underneath the lamp. You pull back on the spring mechanism. You let go, and the hammer hits the cap, igniting the powder, making a big flash.

(Soundbite flash lamp)

SIEGEL: And there's video of Race Gentry and his flash lamp at

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