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Origins of Flash Photography: Prosch Igniter

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Posted 7 years ago

(291 items)

Let’s put wood & brass cameras aside for the moment and think about how dark places were lit up. Before electronic flash … before flash bulbs … magnesium was used to create artificial light. A variety of devices were made and my favorite type is ‘igniters.’

Yep … this is an improved version of those things we see in movies where flash powder always blows up in the photographer’s face. Aside from the slapstick humor, the brilliant burst of magnesium light is the historic beginning of what we know as ‘flash photography.’

Flash style igniters were sold from the 1880s into the early 1900s. The earliest types worked by squeezing a bulb to ‘puff’ finely ground magnesium powder across an open flame – similar to a spirit lamp. Scary when you think about it.

Studios must have been fascinating places at the turn of the century because–let’s face it–burning magnesium wasn’t always predictable. Sitters for portraits were probably quite startled at the flash (think deer in headlights). I can also imagine a lot of photographers (and assistants) with missing eyebrows and other facial hair.

The majority of igniters were hand-held, but I was attracted to this example by the Prosch Mfg. Co. (NY) because it has a heavy base that didn’t need someone to hold it; probably much to everyone’s relief.

And check out the scorched metal on the igniter. Whoa!


  1. Hardbrake Hardbrake, 6 years ago
    This is a very nice example of how to burn down the building or set the house on fire. It would be like setting of Roman candles inside. Nice, I have 2 bottles of flash power made for photographers and a pack of what looks like fire works that you lit a fuse and waited. I just leave them alone. I enjoy you collection very nice Hardbrake.
  2. rniederman rniederman, 6 years ago
    Thanks Phil and BELLIN68!
  3. rniederman rniederman, 6 years ago
    Thanks, officialfuel!
  4. rniederman rniederman, 4 years ago
  5. rniederman rniederman, 3 years ago
    Thanks, Kydur!
  6. Kydur Kydur, 3 years ago
    I just watched this documentary a few days ago and thought you might enjoy the part with the old functional studio that has been in operation since 1855 (in Sussex, UK) - complete with negative archives of over 200,000 plates (five tons) and an antique working studio with neck brace, pull-down painted backdrop, and the flash powder. I've cued it up for you here at approximately the 15-minute mark:

  7. rniederman rniederman, 3 years ago
    Thanks, Rustfarm!
  8. rniederman rniederman, 3 years ago
    Thanks, charmsomeone!
  9. rniederman rniederman, 3 years ago
    Thanks, vetraio50!
  10. rniederman rniederman, 3 years ago
  11. rniederman rniederman, 4 months ago
    Thanks, oldpeep!

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