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Race, gender, and flash photography

The cover of Flash! shows a smiling African-American woman, who holds a Graflex Speed Graphic camera. Clamped to the camera is a flash gun in the form of a thick column, topped by a flash bulb filled with crumpled aluminium foil, and a reflector shield. The flash bulb, invented at the very end of the 1920s, was rapidly adopted by both professional and amateur photographers, since it was far easier and less unpredictable to use than the tray of explosive powder that preceded it. If the metal post on which it sits looks strangely familiar, that’s because, repurposed, it was turned into Luke Skywalker’s retrofuturistic lightsaber in Star Wars. The star of this particular image, however, is less the photographic equipment than the woman who holds it. She signals the intertwined presence of race, gender, and flash photography.

Found in the archives of the International Center of Photography, New York, this hand-coloured photograph can be dated – by technology and fashion – to the mid to late 1930s. Most likely it was taken for an advertisement, probably for photographic equipment. I’m especially interested in the image, however, not because of the technological specifics of camera and flash gun, but because of its human subject and what she signifies. Notably, she is depicted behind the camera, holding it up proudly: she is thus a potential user of this very up-to-date equipment, and not merely the object of the viewer’s gaze – even if, of course, using an attractive woman in an advertisement was designed to pull in the prospective purchaser. Her confident openness suggests that she, and by extension the camera, are ready for action, and that the camera will be easy to use – conveying technological simplicity through showing a woman photographer had been a cliché of advertisements and photographic manuals since Kodak brought out their Brownie camera in the late nineteenth century.

At the same time, this particular camera is manifestly not a domestic device. The camera, with its flash attachment, was the instrument of choice for press photographers at the time. Weegee, the New York photographer of crime scenes, arrests and night-time streets, was famously inseparable from his Speed Graphic, and for firing off the flash to expose people’s transgressions and shocked expressions. Women photographers could be just as aggressive as Weegee in their use of flash. Margaret Bourke White had no compunction in flashing light into people’s private moments, whether recording some Holy Rollers at worship, or trying to get a shot of Gandhi’s assassinated body. Eager to grab a newsworthy image, or to sum up poverty through a portrait, she showed none of the concern with situating people within the intimate details of their material surroundings that was the hallmark of an earlier documentary photographer, Jessie Tarbox Beals, a notable, and largely pre-flashbulb flash photographer of tenement life (very much in the tradition of Jacob Riis) and of bohemian New York.

Unidentified Photographer, [Unidentified Woman with Camera], ca. 1935. Courtesy International Center of Photography, Daniel Cowin Collection, Museum Purchase, 2005 (437.2005) . Used with permission.

In the documentary photography of the 1930s, particularly that conducted under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration, African-Americans were regularly depicted – sometimes as living in decrepit tenements, sometimes in tarpaper shacks, but just as frequently shown in their gleaming kitchens, or jitterbugging in clubs. Gordon Parks was to become the first African-American staff photographer for Life magazine in 1948 (working for them until 1972), but earlier, working for the FSA, he produced a visually eloquent series of images of Ella Watson, an office cleaner in Washington D.C. reading to her grandchildren; sitting with her adopted daughter – the flash bouncing brightly off the polished furniture, mirrors, and memorabilia.

Raising the topic of Black respectability returns us to the image of the African-American woman holding a Graflex Speed Graphic. It makes me wonder whether the photographer was working for an advertising company who expressly targeted the rising number of Black middle class consumers and photographic professionals. Such people – members of the so-called “talented tenth,” to use the term popularized by W. E. B. Du Bois in the early twentieth century to designate an African-American leadership class, formed the readers and contributors of Flash – a news magazine of the late 1930s that offered a particularly vibrant view of Black photography, culture, news items, and social events. Its name was chosen to evoke speed, immediacy, modernity.

Yet – and Flash was not alone among Black-aligned periodicals and newspapers here – it also showed a very different side of African-American life in this still-segregated, divided society. In particular, lynching images, when shot at night, invariably showed the hanging black body gleaming with an uncanny whiteness. This association of flash with revealing – and, for those racists who circulated these images as postcards, reveling in – inhumanity played a major role in the abhorrence some African-Americans, such as the writer Ralph Ellison, had for this invasive light that brought terrible and unwanted visibility.

But this is not the message of the image I’ve been considering. This woman, and the camera equipment that she holds, speaks to optimism, to a future of active participation for both women and African-Americans. The associations work in two directions. The newly-invented flash bulb and the Speed Graphic camera stand for a shiningly modern society, one that valued newness, communication, brightness – characteristics decidedly at odds with the continuing realities of the Great Depression. In turn, however, the flash bulb borrows its sense of modernity from the vision of a future offered by the figure in the image. Yet as always, the idealism found in advertising needs to be set alongside the full complexity and contradictions of lived social conditions. In a broader, documentary sphere, flash played a significant role in illuminating these.

Featured image credit: close up of vintage camera by Pixabay. Public domain via Pexels.

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