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The history and development of underground and flash photography, by Chris Howes

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To Photograph Darkness

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From the dustjacket

To Photograph Darkness
traces the history of underground photography, and the techniques used, from the first pictures taken in the catacombs beneath Paris to the pyramids of Egypt, from American caves to Cornish tin mines, and underground locations throughout the world.

The opening chapters are concerned with the earliest experiments to record images without the aid of the sun in the 1860s. Innovative photographers have since used limelight, Bengal fire, arc lights, and even magnesium mixed with gunpowder to make the first crude flashpowder as well as specially designed electronic flashguns and powder burners giving a searing 2m flame. The story is continued to underwater and cine photography and the techniques used in cave photography today.

To Photograph Darkness is a fascinating and highly readable account of the use of artificial light and the difficulties the first underground photographers had to overcome - explosions, the boredom of models who would wander away half-way through a long exposure, falling rocks, fumes and dampness, and the superstitions and disbelief with which their results were often confronted. Ten years in the writing, it is the only book of its kind and is based on primary sources of information throughout. The extensive use of quotations retains the immediacy of the challenge that both amateur and professional cameramen had to overcome.

The book is illustrated with 160 engravings, line drawings and photographs, many of which have never been published before. If your interest is the underground world of caves and mines, or the development of artificial light and photographic history, To Photograph Darkness contains something of relevance and interest for you. Fully referenced and indexed, it can also be used to identify and track down rare photographs and photographers worldwide. This volume is a major research resource and the authoritative book on the subject.

For the companion title:  Images Below

  • Author: Chris Howes
  • Binding: Hardback
  • Size: 17.5cm x 25.5cm
  • Pages: 352
  • Illustrations: 160 b&w illustrations
  • Publication date: 1989
  • ISBN: 978-0-86299-649-9
  • Other: Southern Illinois University Press also published this title in the USA, under the SUI imprint with an ISBN of 0-8093-1622-6; the book is identical, other than that the dedication was omitted

To Photograph Darkness


List of Illustrations
Preface
Acknowledgements
Introduction

1    Let There Be Light
2    Magnesium: the Start of an Era
3    Mammoth Cave
4    Subterranean Light
5    Explosive Powders
6    Beneath the Deserts of France
7    Hand-hewn Rock
8    The Gentlemen Cavers
9    Lighting the Bat Cave
10  Moving Pictures
11  Post-war Underground

Appendices
1    A Chronology of Important Dates
2    Glossary
3    Dating Cave Photographs
4    Chemical Names
5    Units of Measurement
6    Notes & References

Picture Credits
Index

From the dustjacket:

Chris Howes has been involved with underground photography since 1968, when he first photographed a cave during a school field course. Since then he has developed his own techniques for recording the unique world to be found below ground, and in 1981 was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society for his cave photography.

He has written widely on the subject in the photographic press, and won awards in competitions both in Britain and abroad. In 1987 he was expedition photographer for the prestigious Andros Project to explore the flooded Blue Hole caves of the Bahamas. Later that year his book Cave Photography, a practical guide to taking underground pictures, was published. In 1988 he became editor of the caver's magazine, Descent.

In addition, the last decade has been filled with researching To Photograph Darkness, a fascinating quest which has taken him across the world in search of photographs and primary sources of information until the subject has become a way of life. He currently lives in Cardiff, where he works as a biology teacher and freelance photographer.

Caves & Caving by Dave Irwin

THIS book is a pleasant change from the prolific how-to-do-it or coffee table books. The author has written an in-depth history of underground photography resulting from ten years of research; though the main subject is caves, those interested in mines will not be disappointed.

The book is a history of underground photographic equipment and techniques and, in parallel with, details the sites and products that exploited these methods. To complete the overall view the introduction deals with the early development of photography itself. That accomplished, the main section of the book concentrates on the sequence of development of devices used to illuminate underground scenes leading to the electronic flash and slave units so common today. Associated with this technical aspect he describes the activities of these early inventors using their inventions of equipment that had been developed from the ideas of other innovators, sometimes with disastrous results.

The early work of Nadar in the sewers and catacombs of Paris in 1861 using Bunsen cells demonstrated that sunlight was no longer essential to produce photographic images. Alfred Brothers operating in Manchester developed devices to exploit the potential of magnesium to produce photographic portraits. With this equipment he produced the first interior cave photograph in Blue John Mine in 1865; many others had produced views of entrances by about 1860.

The development of tourism, due mainly to improved transport, expanded the business of the show cave and the souvenir trade exploded. The use of photographs as mementoes was to become huge business from the 1870s to the end of the century. At Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, Waldack successfully produced a series of photographs of the cave interior together with a large range of stereo photographic cards.

Development of magnesium lighting devices continued well into the 20th century and, together with the improvement of the negative medium, enabled caves [and] mines [to be] extensively photographed by the end of the 19th century. The first flash bulb was developed in 1927 and became the mainstay of lighting techniques for the next 40 or so years, leading to the modern electronic flash guns and slave units.

The establishment of the famous photographic companies date from this period and the photographic industry developed rapidly during the late 19th century. Frith, Tuck, and Valentine in Great Britain, Kerry of Australia; Schaber, Muller, Underwood, Ben Hains are a few of the photographers that have left us records of caves in the 19th century.

The author deals with the activities of these and others in great detail. Occasionally the author switches from one country to another and the reader is sometimes left wondering where exactly he is at that moment.

The later chapters deal extensively with the French cave photographers of the late 19th century, including Martel’s activities at Padirac. In Britain, the pioneering work of Harry Bamforth, Balch, Baker and Savory is well covered. The development of the flash bulb led to one of the greatest challenges of the day – the photographing of the Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, in the 1950s. Early work at the site had been carried out by Nymeyer in the 1930s by Helm developed a technique of setting off multiple flashbulbs simultaneously and in 1952 he produced his picture of the Big Room using 2,400 flashbulbs at the same time.

Mine enthusiasts will not be disappointed by the coverage in this book. Chapter 7, Hand Hewn Rock, gives an in-depth coverage of the photographer’s solutions to early mine photographs illustrating the chapter with photographic sources of the USA and this country [UK]. Cine films produced in caves is covered in Chapter 10.

In a book such as this that is packed with facts, errors are bound to exist. Those that the reviewer notices may be considered of a minor nature and does in no way impair the basic outline that the author is developing. The book is copiously illustrated with examples from most of the major inventors or photographers though one wishes that they were produced with more contrast. The method of referencing source material (Appendix 5) is particularly good as it allows the author to expand a topic without interfering with the storyline and avoided the often untidy footnotes. Appendices 1–4 include a useful glossary, units of measurement, chronology of important dates and a note on the dating of photographs – all in addition to a comprehensive index.

The author has succeeded in conveying his enthusiasm for the subject that could have been developed in a very dry and dull manner. Anyone with the slightest interest in underground photography will find this book an interesting and entertaining read and will find that the book is also a valuable source of future reference. At £25.00 it is extremely good value, well produced by the publishers and an essential addition to one’s bookshelf.

Caves & Caving
(47), Spring 1990, pp39-40, by Dave Irwin

SASA Bulletin by T.J. Hall

CHRIS Howes has been involved with underground photography since 1968. Since then he has been honoured by winning awards in Britain and abroad for his work on the subject. Since the first schoolboy efforts in 1968 he has developed his techniques so taht results have earned him Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society. In 1987 his book Cave Photography covered the practical aspects of modern underground photography; and during this time extensive research on the reviewed book was continuing. This impressive and highly knowledgeable background research has culimated in To Photograph Darkness. The book is a lengthy, historically comprehensive, highly detailed and lavishly illustrated work on this fascinating branch of photography and caving.

As any amateur modern cave photographer will agree, the prospect of wheelbarrowing 120 lb (55kg) of delicate photographic equipment miles inside the Mammoth Cave cannot be dwelt on with comfort. Our powerful electronic slave-linked flashguns and cameras weighing a couple of kilograms cause enough problems when negotiating right cave passages. So, in his book, Chris Howes brings alive the torment and dedication that must have driven the pioneers. He also gives comprehensive details of how these early masters produced remarkably good photographs. The flares and explosive mixtures necessary to light the caves read like an alchemist's nightmarek. Chris Howes' account of 'Moving Pictures' (ch. 10) deals, inter alia, with cine-photography in the early 1920s, in the Cango Caves. A good deal of local detail is provided, with quotations from the Oudtshoorn Courant.

Modern developments are dealt with in much less detail, due no doubt to the ground being covered already in his Cave Photography. However, a very interesting account of the post-war development of underwater photography outlines perhaps the most important attribute of any good caver, i.e. the ability to attack a problem and to devise a means of surmounting it. To summarise, any cave sitting out the frustration of an enforced lay off from active caving would be well advised to buy a copy of this excellent historical work and soak up the atmosphere of our pioneering ancestors.

Bulletin of the South African Speleological Association
Vol 30, 1989, pp87-8, by T.J. Hall

Photographica World by Brian Wilkinson

WHILE most of the various photographic processes have been described, often in considerable detail, writers on the pioneers of photography have usually concentrated on work in natural light. When Chris Howes wanted to write a history of cave photography he found that he would first have to carry out extensive original research into the origins and development of photographic flash.

The result is an entertaining and authoritative account of each stage from limelight to modern electronic flash, the main emphasis being on the dangers and discomforts of the first hundred years. As a scientist the author is well equipped to deal with the theory behind the inventions but takes care to explain the practical problems which limited the effectiveness of most of the early sources of light. Nadar's work with battery powered electric arc lamps is brought to life as is the romantic history of magnesium. In view of the author's success in tracking down hitherto disregarded contemporary sources of information his account of the origins of the flashbulb must be accepted as definitive.

The subject is of enormous scope so that this one 100,000 word book cannot include everything. My own correspondence with Mr Howes leads me to believe that he has sufficient material to write a sequel. With over 160 illustrations, five appendices, and 27 pages of notes and references [which are in addition to the word count above], To Photograph Darkness is a source of information far more diverse than a mere history of underground and flash photography.

Photographica World
(61), June 1992, p34, by Brian Wilkinson

NSS News by Kevin Downey

MOST cavers have tried making photographs underground. Most quickly learn to avoid any part of cave photography. It can be irritating, boring, frustrating and worse. However, when well done, cave photographs can be spectacular images, and the dedicated will suffer gladly in this pursuit. Without actually saying so, Chris Howes' new book tells us how lucky cave photographers are today, for it is an exploration of the evolution of underground photography from 1862 to the present, with emphasis on the 'good old days'.

This is, therefore, photography at its most basic, where photographers make their own plates, struggle to devise lighting and then drag it all underground. Anyone who has tried it will understand and be impressed.

Howes is a very well known Bristol [Cardiff] cave photographer who became intrigued by old photos of caves that were cleverly done without the aid of 'modern' technology. How were they made? Who made the first underground photos? When? Inquiries into such questions soon generated a greater interst and (after 12 years of research) culminated in this book. To my knowledge, this is the first publication on the origins and development of underground photography. As such, it will likely be both a standard of reference and (inevitably) incomplete. This seems the fate of all ground-breaking works, and this case is no exception. Although Howes has provided a wealth of detail in many areas, there are some omissions (mostly early photographs or confusion over locations as in 'Jewell Cave, West Virginia'). These details should not detract from the exceptional work done here and shouldn't deter readers. The book is more important than a mere cataloguing of images, caves and dates. For most cavers, the real value is the journey back in time to the days when making photographs underground was a truly incredible test. One can't help but admire the ingenuity and dedication of those pioneer photographers. What's more, the book reads well – a rare achievement.

Howes gives most of his attention to the development of technology to solve various problems. Since the invention of photography 150 years ago, photographers have sought better films, processes, cameras and lighting. Cave photography was no exception, and it was here that the need for brighter, faster or simpler methods gave rise to many creative solutions. These are well chronicled here, both the dieas that worked and those that did not. The book is not written in a technical manner and it can be understood and easily appreciated.

U.S. readers of this book may find themselves a bit confused by the British expressions used, but fortunately most are explained in the glossary included for this purpose. Howes made an effort to prepare a book of interest to as wide an audience as possible, a wise idea considering both the narrow topic and the expense of the volume. There is some material included that is not related to caving directly, such as photography in mines, pyramids and early indoor portrait studios that used artifical light. While these may not seem that relevant to cave photography, they are important to understand the evolution of techniques. Despite the broad approach of the book, it is overwhelmingly devoted to caves, however the portions involving sewers, catacombs, etc. are also interesting.

The great majority of the work in caves deals with 'early' photography. Also, there is a lof of European material, much of that being British, which should not be surprising. The sections on more recent work are slim. It seems that once flashbulbs and strobes were available, the story ends. I felt a bit disappointed in this, as the last 30 years have seen a lot of impressive work, even if there have been few 'revolutionary' advances. Despite the strong British influence of the book, there is a healthy quantity of material from around the world. The U.S., Australia and Africa are there as well as much from France and some of eastern Europe. A number of major world karst areas are conspicuous by their absence (i.e. Spain, Italy, Asia), and one is left to wonder about photography done there. The publication of this book will certainly trigger new research, and more publications will likely be forthcoming

Although this book is a history and contains a lot of material about technical development, it is surprisingly well balanced on the human side. There is insight (brief but useful) into the photographers themselves, their times, methods and styles. The results of their work are there to be seen. Most of the photos are large enough to be appreciated, and there are many examples provided. However, this is not an 'art' book; that is, it does not have philosophical debates and aesthetic criticism. That job is the reader's and you are free to make your own judgments. The volume is well printed and the black and white photographs are fairly well reproduced. There are several appendices including a chronology, glossaries and an extensive, detailed set of reference sources.

So, who should buy this book? Because of the price [$42 in the USA, after shipping from the UK where both the UK and US editions were printed], probably only a few will do so. That is a shame, as it has a lot to offer. Publication of 'narrow market' books is an expensive process. Despite the price, it should be on the shelf of any speleo-historian, and likewise any serious photographer. Anyone who collects cave post cards, stereos or photos will also want this book as an important reference. As for cavers without a special interest in photography, the book will probably not be that attractive, but it may surprise some by being more interesting than they thought.

NSS News
May 1990, Vol 48 (5), pp138-9, by Kevin Downey

Also see the author's note

Western Mail (anon)

HAVE you ever wondered how the earliest underground photographs were taken?

I must admit it's not the question I ask myself every day, but it did occur to me when I heard about the first in-depth survey of 125 years of underground photography.

A new book, To Photograph Darkness by Chris Howes, of Cardiff, is the result of a decade of research into techniques used to produce photographs in caves, mines, and underground structures – from the catacombs of Paris to the Pyramids of Egypt, and from American caves to Cornish tin mines.

The book begins with the earliest experiments to record images without the aid of the sun in the 1860s, and documents the development of the flash. Early photographers risked their lives to take pictures using magnesium mixed with gunpowder to make the first crude flash.

Packed with 160 photographs – most of which have not been published before – this is a major authoritative source for cavers and photographers all over the world. Chris Howes has been involved with underground photography since 1968, when he went on a school field course. Since then, he has developed his own techniques for recording the unique world to be found below ground. In 1981 he was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society for cave photography. His research for his book has taken him from Europe to America in search of material. He lived in Cardiff, where he works as a biology teacher and freelance photographer and journalist. He has just returned from Kenya on a photographic trip to the Kitum Caves, famous as a source of salt for the elephants.

Western Mail
2 October 1989, by anon

South Wales Argus by Jenny Barnes

IF your idea of hell is crawling along on your stomach with water flowing in through the neck of your clothes and out by your feed in a cold dark cave, you are in good company.

According to Chris Howes, before this century caves were quite literally thought to be the gateway to Hell.

Chris's fascinating book is the result of many years of work that has taken him all over the world. A biology teacher who lives in Cardiff, Chris says he is primarily a photographer fascinated by wildlife. A field trip initially fired his interest in the specialised ecological structure of caves. 'I then became intrigued with the difficulties involved in taking photographs in dark and often wet places. My first book, Cave Photography, was inspired by the number of people asking me how to take good cave photographs.'

Chris explains in his book that caves were shrouded in superstition and folklore. The portrayal of caves by the intrepid explorers in Victorian times were therefore fascinating to the fireside traveller. The story of their discovery and charting is also the story of how people lit caves and mines, and other underground places, to photograph them.

'Early photographers had to have intense light to expose their slow films. This was produced by magnesium flashes which were 'controlled' explosions. As the relationship between humidity and the spontaneous explosion of naturally occurring methane gas [in mines] was not discovered until 1910, the control must have been illusionary. If you did not blow up the cave [mine] you were forced to stay still whilst eveloped in pungent magnesium fumes and showered with white ash.

Chris financed the trips to libraries on every continent in search of old photographs by the sale of wilflife photographs. Underground photography now, as 100 years ago, requires much patience and a devoted backup team. 'Most wilflife photography is a solitary affair, but in caves it needs team work to carry stuff in, hold the slave units and set up the shots. You have to work pretty fast or the team gets unhappy.'

Chris's book, although expensive at £25, is good value for money as it is full of rare, fascinating photographs, and is written with a wry sense of humour. It will interest cavers, geologists, miners, divers, biologists, historians and photographers. A pretty wide field; it will also interest those of us who prefer to see the unknown from our armchair!

South Wales Argus
12 October 1989, by Jenny Barnes

The Bookwatch (anon)


Reviewer's Choice

TWO gripping caving accounts will engross readers interested in caving issues, discoveries and documentation challenges. Chris Howes' To Photograph Darkness is a photography-oriented review of the history of photographic efforts and challenges in caving. Technical considerations of underground photography limitations and tricks for success supplement reviews of the methods individuals used to photograph caves over the decades. The result is an engrossing photo history and documentary of the efforts to represent caves on film.

The Bookwatch, the newsletter of The Midwest Book Review
Vol 11 (5), May 1990, anon

To Photograph Darkness by Chris Howes is a highly readable, wonderfully illustrated account of the difficulties early underground photographers encountered, including explosions, falling rocks, fumes and dampness. 160 photographs, engravings and line drawings are featured. Highly recommended!

The Bookwatch, the newsletter of The Midwest Book Review
Vol 11 (6), June 1990, anon

Photographic Resource Center Newsletter by Janet Marier-Marti

HOW could a 19th century photographer record the image of a stalagmite formation miles underground? To Photograph Darkness is a well-researched account beginning with the dangerous early experiments with magnesium ribbon lighting and continuing to modern electronic flash and holography. In addition to caves, the book explores coal mines, Parisian catacombs, and Egyptian pyramids. The 160 illustrations include engravings, line drawings, and photographs. Author Chris Howes is a noted British photographer and spelunker.

Photographic Resource Center Newsletter
Vol 15 (3), c.. April 1990, by Janet Marier-Marti

The Journal of Spelean History by William Halliday

THIS new British book is a monumental achievement of interest to cave photographers and spelean history buffs in much of the world. Although there are two chapters on photography in catacombs and sewers (mostly in Paris), and mines, the major part of the book is about caves. Entire chapters are devoted to Mammoth Cave and to Carlsbad Caverns, with mention of early photographers of many other American caves.

While much of the book is about the development of photographic techniques, it also includes significant contributions to spelean history, including some spun off from Howes’ 1987 Cave References in Scientific American which is not known to most American cave historians yet. Many of the illustrations themselves are of historic significance, such as the photo of Eldon Hole which shows how many rocks have been thrown down its entrance in this century, obstructing access to the reported lower chamber. Oddly, however, there is no mention of the numerous views of Fingal’s Cave, nor of ‘flash sheets’, the thin wafers of magnesium used admirably by George Adams in Carlsbad Caverns in 1908 or 1909. Nor of Adams himself.

For the American sections, Howes contacted several authorities, including Emily Davis Mobley, Red Watson, Art Palmer, Peggy Palmer, Ron Kerbo and Kevin Downey. He also made good use of the extensive files at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Nevertheless, his coverage is spotty. The wonderful Caulfield and Shook postcard views of Mammoth Cave are not mentioned, and the extensive still photography of Russell T. Neville (‘The Cave Man’ of the 1920s and 1930s) receives little mention. But these are faint damns; I praise the book. (Neville and Adams will receive due notice in the forthcoming photographic history of Carlsbad Caverns by this reviewer and the late Bob Nymeyer.)

It is hoped that the American edition will include more coverage of western and northwestern pioneer cave photographers such as F. Jay Haynes in Yellowstone’s Devil’s Kitchen, Hugh Stevens Bell at Carlsbad and points west, the extensive Patterson and Kiser postcard views of Oregon Cave, stereo and other views of the Paradise Ice Caves, the Summit Stream Caves of Mount Rainier by H.L. Toles and others, and the early anonymous ‘American Series’ stereo view of California’s Bower Cave. Some little errors might be of significance to American caves but not to the British, such as the misspelling of Tom Meador’s name as Mellow, the wrong year for the end of the Civil War, the consistent misspelling of Richard Burges in the Carlsbad Caverns story, the confusion of quarried-away Jewell Cave, West Virginia with Jewel Cave, Tennessee and the like. In the preface the author acknowledges that his book is only a beginning and that he would welcome additional information. All collectors of cave stereo views and postcards should respond – and get this notable book.

The Journal of Spelean History
Vol 24, (3), July 1990, by William Halliday

Also see the author's note

Author's Note

AS author, I will permit myself a brief comment on the reviews in The Journal of Spelean History and NSS News, to the extent that when I wrote To Photograph Darkness I aimed to detail not only the people involved in underground photography, but also their techniques and technologies – and the latter is the overriding theme throughout To Photograph Darkness. The chapter arrangement is by technique and the technologies required, then who and how these were used, rather than by location or person (though some chapters do concentrate on a single site where a new technique is being developed or there is a significant historical accomplishment, such as at Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns).

The book could have been filled with the names of the hundreds of photographers that were investigated during research; I limited the inclusion to those who made significant advances in technique or were influential in some area, perhaps by reason of their published images. This might go some way to explain the absence of some of those photographers mentioned in reviews as ‘missing’; it was not possible to include everyone around the world (nor every region or country), especially as numbers of photographers increased towards the end of (and after) the 19th century. If they were not (in my view) influential to the course of history, they were more likely to be considered outside the scope of the work and dropped from the text – which the publishers indulged enough as it was, exceeding the contract by over 30,000 words and numerous photographs. More space would have permitted expansions at the risk of increasing minutia ... and price!

As for the 'American edition', there was never one planned that had any major change. The British publisher, Alan Sutton, saw the publication as a solid investment but also wanted a tie-in with an American publisher, to increase the sales base and therefore the print run, thus bringing the cover price into a viable range. With the help of Emily Davis and Red Watson, the US publisher (SUI) was approached and the university press soon signed on with the project. The 'different edition' was printed by reason of only altering the first section of pages to change the publisher's name and details (the rest of the book is identical in both editions). This also explains the loss of the dedication from the US edition – simply put, they forgot to retain it when that section was typeset, instead leaving a blank page.

The date for the end of the American Civil War should have read 1865 not 1864 (p49), which will remain as my overriding embarrassment as a typo in the book. Other than that, thankfully, little has come to light that would alter facts relating to the photographers and their techniques. For those interested, three only are worth recording here: that Charles Waldack did not die in Cincinnati (p71) but instead, just before his death, returned to his native Belgium as a very sick man to die there with his family (though his wife remained in the USA and continued his photographic business after his death). Second, rather than ceasing his cave photography around 1895 (p127), Charles Kerry is now known to have continued into the early 1900s. And lastly, mention of Charles Burrows' glass plates having been cleaned to make a greenhouse appears to have been slightly incorrect, in that the construction was a conservatory.

To judge the worth of these comments, you will have to open To Photograph Darkness and read it yourself.

Chris Howes

Peter M. Hauer Award for significant speleological history research, 1993

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