As to enter the photograph as an

April 21, 2019 History

As a general principle, we could support the affirmation that every photography requires light. In his book Camera Lucida, an inquiry into the nature and essence of photography, Roland Barthes speaks about the impossibility of separating a photograph from what he calls its photographic referent, the real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph. However, soon enough he writes: ” A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed”. Light, thus, is what allows the photographic referent to enter the photograph as an ontological constituent. But the sudden intrusive light of flash photography is unique when compared with other light sources. It’s quite unlike the illumination that comes from the sun, or even from continuous artificial lightning devices, both by its unique way of portraiting the photographic subject and certain connotations acquired through specific uses given to the device, as we will see.
A photography is generally understood as a freezing of a moment in a temporal continuity, an interval of certain length condensed in a single motionless representation. Taking this characteristic of photographs further, the use of flash allows the image to capture an even shorter lapse. This allows the resulting photograph to evidence with especial impetus the transitory and the spontaneous, and imbues it with unnatural possibilities of scrutiny. Thus, it reveals much more than what is available to the naked eye, allowing a powerful manifestation of what walter Benjamin called the optical unconscious. We can find a characterization of this concept in his book Little History of Photography: “… we have no idea at all what happens during the fraction of a second when a person actually takes a step. Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious.” This effect of photography is best illustrated in the work of British photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who famously used multiple cameras and flash units to capture motion in stop-motion photographs and invented the zoopraxiscope, a device for displaying moving images from the resultant individual images. However, flash photography’s relationship with time is a double-edged one: It allows us to view the peculiarities of a moment that we couldn’t ever visually process without mechanical aids, but it has also been largely associated with the speediness of superficial consumer’s culture due to it ubiquity in photojournalism and commercial work.
From this fields of photography emanates another characteristic of flash: its association with violence, aggression and invasiveness. The invention of portable bulbs in the 1920’s greatly increased the capacity of photojournalists to work during the night and document the criminal world, being the most famous representant of this use of flash the american press photographer Weegee, a prolific author of photographs of murders, arrests, and car accidents. Additionally, police made use of flash to record crime and criminals, which reinforced an association between flash and the world of crime. Its association with invasiveness, in the other hands, is especially supported by the work of the so called paparazzi, the celebrity hunters whose stolen images can be found in the pages of gossip magazines around the world.
More novel reasons for the use of flash can be found in the work of documentary photographers which have used flashlight to aid in the illumination of social realities, driven by the hope that those images would lead to their transformation. This is the case of photographers like Walker Evans and his photographs of poor rural households during the american Great Depression commissioned by the FSA, or Jacob Riis and his documentation of the slums of the New York in the 1980’s. This kind of photographer would make use of flash’s capacity of revelation, of rendering visible what we otherwise never seen. The use of flash was motivated by the capacity of flash to allow the perception of, making use of Jacques Ranciere’s words, “the apprehension of the inexhaustible historicity found at every street corner, in every skin fold, and at every moment of time”. Flash enables and encourages a form of attentive looking turned upon everyday surrounding, by generating certain impetus in visual democratization, giving emphasis to all the elements equally, allowing for the apprehension and representation of the ordinary.
The sense of astonishment and awe that it evoques is based in its extreme capacity to stop time, its association with violence, aggression, invasiveness and intrusion and its ability to light up darkness, to reveal things and make the available for scrutiny, that might not otherwise been see, if at all


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