Pyrotechnics and Photography: Saltpeter and the Colonial History of Photographic Lighting

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Bengal light was among the earliest commercial sources of artificial lighting for photographic use, patented as Photogen in February 1857. Essentially, a pyrotechnic flare whose vital ingredient was saltpeter, it was mined by low caste laborers in Bengal, which had emerged as the leading global producer of saltpeter by the eighteenth century. Saltpeter was a coveted global commodity because it served as the primary material for the manufacture of gunpowder and also had wide-ranging industrial applications. Its use for photography provides an early instance of the commodification and trade in lighting technologies and materials, challenging dominant assumptions about photographic light as a freely available natural resource accessible to all. It asserts the presence of artificial lighting in early photography to contest invocations to the sun and divine light that dominate characterizations of the period. Finally, saltpeter ties early photographic lighting into a wider imperial trade of commodities for war, to further cement the analogies between the camera and the gun noted in many photographic studies. Encapsulated in its use is an imperial history of global trade that hinged on extraction of natural sources, colonial labor, and alliances between military and industrial technologies of light.