Red Light Bulb


In the summer of ’76, the year Linda and I were married, we went to the Cayo district in Belize so I could better appreciate where and how she’d lived for a year, teaching English to high school students under the auspices of the Papal Volunteer’s—the Catholic church’s version of the Peace Corps. We hired a taxi at the Chetumal, Mexico airstrip to drive us a hundred miles into the jungle. For hours, the only lights we saw were the taxi headlights on the deeply pitted dirt road and occasional kerosene lamps flickering through the trees.

Linda’s dear friends were excited to reunite with her and they welcomed us to stay with them. That same night, a roach as big as my forefinger was on the sheet when Linda pulled back the blanket. And the fluttering I heard as I brushed my teeth in a basin, turned out to be a bat. I said I wanted to leave in the morning. But she informed me that there weren’t any taxies in town, there was no bus that day and the only telephone line had been destroyed by the Maya burning their fields for planting. So I resigned myself to stay one more day. The next morning I stepped outside and into a jungle with dripping leaves, parrots, glistening lime trees and sparkling bright sunlight. I ran and got my camera. I was in photography heaven.

So what’s that got to do with a lightbulb? Appreciation—for the gift of electric power and the lack of it. At that time, San Ignacio had neither televisions nor electric refrigerators. Most energy came from kerosene, which was very limited, and the town’s electric generator shut down at ten o’clock after three hours of use. So as darkness approached our hosts, friends and Linda and I sat around a 60 watt bare bulb that hung from the ceiling on a wire—and we talked. As I remember it, these were less like conversations and more like family reports on who did what, who went where, when certain animals would be slaughtered for market, who said what to whom and what politicians were doing. When the generator shut down the talk continued for another hour, by the light of a kerosene lamp.

The light bulb in this image evokes memories of that challenging and wonderful week, in particular an appreciation for the luxuries—and necessities—that electric power affords. I understand now, how the light bulb became the symbol for the word “idea.” Now, instead of sharing the news and gossip of the day with family, friends and neighbors, electric power allows us to converse, interact, read and watch movies at night, and in the comfort of our well-lit and air-conditioned homes. It’s staggering to consider how much has been gained because of access to consistent, affordable and abundant electricity. Don’t we notice, whenever it goes down, for whatever reason, our appreciation awakens and grows with every passing hour.

But something has also been lost. We no longer sit together, face-to-face in the evenings, sharing the close-in happenings of the day with family members, friends and neighbors. It’s not that I miss what’s been lost. I don’t. But the light of that 60-watt bulb in San Ignacio, Cayo gave me a fresh appreciation for how people—and our not-to-distant ancestors—managed and thrived without electric power. The light of that little bulb created a context, a call to gather without distraction. And share.

We forget just how painfully dim the world was before electricity. A candle, a good candle, provides barely a hundredth of the illumination of a single 100 watt light bulb.

Bill Bryson

About This Image

Title: Red Light Bulb

Theme: Electricity

File #: T13

This photograph was made as part of an assignment at R.I.T. The bulb was about 12 inches tall. Someone had discarded it and I wanted to see if it worked. Not having a proper socket to screw it into, I stripped the end of a lamp cord and taped the wires to the terminals. When I plugged it in, the filament glowed yellow.

The setup was simple. I unrolled a length of red seamless paper, punched a little hole for the wire that ran under the paper, and used modeling clay to stand the bulb upright. I critically focused on the filament and set the camera’s aperture to wide open so the taped base of the bulb and the clay would not show. After setting two flood lights to evenly light the paper, I found that there were distracting reflections on the glass. So I darkened the room and moved the lights to minimize the reflections. I plugged in the bulb, did a last minute check of focus with the filament burning and made two exposures on Kodak 4×5 Ektachrome film.

I invite you to visit my portfolio site: David L Smith Photography

One thought on “Electricity


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