Flash powder and trilby hats

“Gives a lovely soft light, does flash powder, better than all this new electric stuff,” Dougie would declare emphatically.

‘But isn’t flash powder explosive and a bit dangerous?” I once asked innocently, recollecting the sight of Dougie lying flat out on his darkroom floor after yet another minor ‘accident’ when his cigarette ash fell into his flash powder mixing bowl. See Flash Powder

“Not a bit. It’s all a matter of knowing what you’re doing and getting the quantities just right. Experience, that’s what counts. You can’t buy the ready-made stuff anymore, but I like to mix my own. You know just where you’re up to when you mix it yourself. I add a dash of sulphur – so it goes off with a bit of a bang. They think they’ve been shot when you add a pinch of sulphur. Makes ‘em take notice.”

press photographers Don McPhee and Philip Dunn
Early days on local newspapers – the late Don McPhee, left, who went on to be one of the great staff photographers for The Guardian, and me, Philip Dunn. I moved on to The Daily Express and The Sunday Times. We are both using reliable Braun electronic flash units. Don’s camera is a Rollieflex T. I am using a Yashica, one of the earliest Japanese cameras to arrive in the UK. We were actually working at a Beatles concert

Smile – you’re on fire

Dougie’s confidence in the safety of this highly volatile lighting system was by no means borne out by the facts. His reputation for causing fire and alarm was legend, and, although these incidents were never reported in the pages of the Advertiser – Mr. Walsh, the editor, preferring to hush things up and deny any responsibility – our opposition, the bigger circulation Express, would make the most of them with headlines such as: ‘Santa’s Grotto goes up in a flash’ or ‘Smile – you’re on Fire!’. But Dougie was quite unabashed by the havoc he caused and nothing could persuade him to abandon his out-dated lighting techniques.

Photographer’s assistant

Dougie’s latest darkroom disaster – described in my previous post – had happened when he was preparing a batch of flash powder to photograph a grand banquet at the town hall. This was to be a glittering VIP event to be held in the ballroom that same evening and, as paper’s the most junior apprentice, I was to be Dougie’s assistant. I’d been looking forward to the occasion, but now that I had seen him very nearly blow himself to pieces, I was less enthusiastic.

Brass and bellows

Dougie had cleaned and tidied himself up by the time we arrived at the town hall and, apart from a few sooty marks on his shirt collar, seemed none the worse for his brush with disaster earlier in the day. He busied himself by setting up a heavy wooden tripod onto which he mounted his antique plate camera; a splendid piece of craftsmanship, all brass knobs, mahogany, and leather bellows. He’d decided on a position on the balcony overlooking the ballroom; a vantage point from which he could look down and photograph the privileged diners below. The ballroom had been transformed. Tables were covered with an ocean of white napery which was set with gleaming cutlery and interspersed with flower arrangements. The VIP guests, who were seating themselves as we arrived, were wearing their best frocks and dinner jackets for the occasion, and liveried waiters stood against the walls beneath the tasselled window drapes.

Dougie pulled a moth-eaten black cloth over his head to focus the camera, and, when all was to his liking, he turned his attention to the flash powder. He produced an old cocoa tin from his leather camera box and carelessly shook a generous helping of grey powder into the flash tray which he handed to me. I took hold of the thing gingerly, and held it at arm’s length. I might have been handed a serpent. With equal nonchalance, Dougie loaded another tray; this one he intended to fire himself, and I noticed he was by no means quite so liberal with his ration of flash powder.

Just press the trigger

“Right, now you stand over there,” he said, pointing to the far end of the balcony. “When you see my flash go off all you have to do is press your trigger. Got it?” I said it was pretty clear, but asked again if he was quite sure that this was safe.

“Don’t you worry about that. Now as soon as the knobs down there are sat down, the head waiter will get ‘em to turn and look this way. Planning, you see. So you have to be ready. Whatever you do, don’t press that trigger too soon, otherwise we’ll have to start all over again.”

I should have said there and then that I would rather not press the trigger at all, but by now I was resigned to my fate.

Somewhere to stick your press pass

In those days, almost all men wore a hat. It was normal. Before I started work at the age of fifteen, my mother had taken me to Burtons and bought me a smart new trilby with a small brim. I was dead against the idea because it ruined my Billy Fury haircut, but she reasoned that I would need somewhere to put my ‘press pass’ after she’d seen a newsreel of a group of press photographers with their passes stuck in their hat bands.

I pulled this hat down over one side of my face to shield it from the flash tray and, placing each foot with infinite care, moved across the balcony to my allotted position and waited.

Below us the waiter rapped on a table to get everyone’s attention. “Mr. Mayor, Lady Mayoress, Ladies and Gentlemen, would you please remain seated and turn to face the balcony at the rear of the ballroom where the photographer from the Advertiser is waiting to take a photograph.”

There was a general murmur from below as everyone shuffled round in their seats to face the camera. Dougie looked at me and nodded. The time had come.

Eyes closed


His flash powder ignited with a blinding flash and a resounding crack. Summoning courage I did not know I possessed, I closed my eyes and pressed my trigger.

The effect was startling. Another great crack and a whoosh. A blast of hot air struck me on the side of the face and sent my hat flying over the edge of the balcony. My ears rang. I opened my eyes, but could see nothing. Only slowly did my vision return and then I looked with horror at my blackened right arm. There was a dreadful smell of burning coat material. I looked over the balcony at the diners below. Every face was turned upwards in my direction, and each wore an expression of bewilderment and shock.

Slowly, Dougie’s urgently whispered entreaties got through to me. “Get a move on. Let’s get out of here.”

He was beckoning me over his shoulder as he hurriedly folded up his tripod and stuffed his camera back into its box.

“Why the rush?” I croaked, still shocked and a little wobbly on my legs

“Just you look up there,” he said jabbing a thumb upwards towards the ornate pastel-painted ceiling and the crystal chandeliers above our heads. He snapped shut the catches on his camera box.

Dark clouds

I looked up and my sore eyes eventually focused on two greyish clouds hovering just below one of the chandeliers. They were floating slowly and with what seemed like dreadful menace towards the centre of the hall; they looked like storm clouds about to unload a very nasty deluge. Some of the diners were pointing up at them now and others were simply staring; transfixed by the approaching threat.

“All that lot’s bound to come down soon and when it does I’d rather not be anywhere near, so get your ‘at and let’s sod off.”

By the time we had scrambled down the stairs, the sooty outfall from Dougie’s flash powder had already begun to fall in spits and spots Dark grey smuts could be seen on the white table linen and on the shoulders of the guests. Men were on their feet dabbing with white napkins at the soot-speckled faces of their wives; waiters were flicking their tea towels at grey flakes that had floated down onto the flower arrangements and bread rolls. The place was in turmoil..


Through the melee strode the formidable figure of the mayor’s attendant. Jack Bradley was a former regimental sergeant major and stood well over six feet tall. I had always thought of Jack as a kindly man, ever ready to help, and so he was, but right now there was murder in his eyes. He held my singed hat.

“I think this belongs to you,” he said, thrusting the blackened trilby in my direction. I looked around for Dougie’s support, but he was nowhere to be seen. Jack calmed himself a little and lowered his voice to a threatening whisper.

“Just tell Dougie from me that if he ever sets foot in here again with his flash powder, I will personally pack ‘is arse with the stuff and rub his legs together till he goes off like a bloody roman candle!”

I never went near flash powder again after that and whenever Dougie was in need of an assistant I would make myself scarce. Dougie hid in his darkroom for several days until the row died down. He would peep round his door to see if the coast was clear before emerging into the daylight to dry his photo sales prints.

Electronic flash

It was not long after the flash powder incident that the photographers were issued with new electronic flash units. These flash units were pretty much in their infancy in the early 1960s and, by today’s standards, would seem heavy and primitive. But they were very effective and meant an end to disposable flash bulbs that had to be replaced after each shot. There were many other advantages including a flash of shorter duration enabling far speedier action to be caught by flash photography. The wet-cell re-chargeable batteries and electronics were housed in a large, heavy unit that could be hung over the photographer’s shoulder, and the flash head itself was attached to this by a spring-coiled cable. Extremely high voltage was built up in the unit and then released though a gas-filled tube to create a brilliant flash of light. Of course, like any new technology, electronic flash suffered from a few teething problems.

When I arrived outside the mayor’s parlour in the town hall, I was not entirely sure what sort of welcome I would get, but I needn’t have worried, Jack Bradley was far too big-hearted to bear a grudge. I had been sent to photograph the mayor accepting a cheque from a local crown green bowling club, which each year raised funds for the Mayor’s Christmas charity for needy children. Jack slipped into the parlour to let the mayor know I had arrived.

Wedding cake town hall

The form was that he would tip me the wink when I could go in and take my picture. I waited outside and admired the grandeur of the town hall’s white marble staircase with its heavy bronze stair rail and its elegant black marble columns and their decorated capitols. The town hall really was splendid. The exterior resembled a huge white wedding cake with tier after tier of columns topped by a clock tower with a decorative white dome. The whole effect was enchanting, and in a northern industrial town more noted for the architecture of its mill chimneys and terraced houses, the town hall stood out like a jewel. The townspeople were rightly proud of it.

“Right, come on in, son. And wipe your feet.” Jack had poked his head around the great mahogany-panelled door and was beckoning me in. When the mayor caught sight of me I was sure I saw a momentary nervous tic cross his features, but if he did harbour any resentment after Douglie’s debacle at the banquet, he hid it well.

“Now, where would you like us,” he said, ushering everyone around him for the photograph.

“Just where you are, Mr. Mayor, please. Now if you can just be handing over the cheque. This way, please.”

Something’s burning

Something was wrong. I sensed a warm feeling creeping up my side, it quickly developed into a burning sensation. The astringent smell of melting plastic reached my nostrils. I thought it best to take the picture while I had the chance, so I pressed the shutter. The report that accompanied this simple action might have come from a shotgun. I felt as if I had been kicked in the side. Looking down I saw that the flash unit had exploded, its casing had partly disintegrated and smoke was pouring from my coat. I ran for the door, which was already being held open by a startled Jack Bradley. As soon as I was outside I dumped the remains of the wrecked flash unit on the marble steps and removed my smouldering coat.

From the half-opened door I heard the mayor’s trembling voice; “I don’t mind doing my civic duty, but I’m damned if I’m going to put up with a bloody arsonist every time I have my photo took. Me heart won’t take any more of him.”

Read more about Philip Dunn’s adventures with flash powder

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