What We Remember
Photography changes the historical research curators do
Michelle Anne Delaney, curator of the Photographic History Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, investigates some controversial examples of early color photography.
Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre is credited with the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, and almost immediately afterward speculation swirled about the possibility of a color photography process. Would color increase the medium’s impact and potential? Many 19th century photographers and their customers thought so, and soon photographers in Europe and the United States competed for the right to claim the invention of a color process.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History holds a unique and controversial collection of sixty-two early experimental color photographs made by the Reverend Levi L. Hill, who worked in West Kill, New York, in the late 1840s and 1850s. They were acquired in 1933 when Hill’s son-in-law, Dr. John Boggs Garrison, of Hopewell, New Jersey, donated what he described as “a number of silver plates on which are photographed, more or less distinctively, the colors of the things” that Hill placed before the camera, an original printing of Hill’s 1856 “Treatise on Heliochromy,” and a portrait of Hill in an ambrotype case. While the “Hillotypes” have been seen by few researchers since, they have always been surrounded by mystery and controversy.
Questions about the authenticity of the “Hillotype” color and Hill’s promotion of his process were frequently raised in articles that appeared in leading photographic journals (such as The Photographic Art Journal, The Daguerreian Journal, and Humphrey’s), and national and international newspapers from 1851 until Hill’s death in 1865. Knowing that the validity of Hill’s work is doubted to this day among my colleagues, curators, and conservators in the United States and Europe, my decision to finally move forward with research on the “Hillotypes” was difficult. Some colleagues believe that Hill invented a legitimate color process; others who believe him a humbug, fraud, or charlatan, remain equally vocal.
From my current research, I believe Reverend Hill developed a very complicated chemical formula for color photography which was not easily reproduced by others, and so was not a commercially viable or marketable process. It has been my goal—using research and scientific evidence funded through a 2007 Getty Foundation Conservation grant—to bring a 21st century perspective to this collection and a better context in which to understand Hill’s process, and what colors, if any (and including organic and inorganic pigments), were added to “enhance” Hill’s daguerreotype plates, as some photography historians have suggested.
The results of the Smithsonian/Getty research confirm that the sixty-two “Hillotypes” are truly experimental images. A few of them are portraits or landscapes. Forty-six are reproductions of European colored lithographic prints. In general, these “Hillotypes” are different from conventional Daguerreotypes; they are violet-reddish brown in color. Getty scientists’ work shows there are “Hillotypes” with a range of colors of the spectrum that show no evidence of additional hand-coloring having been applied. But that’s only on a limited number of the existing plates. Some others in the Smithsonian collection are monochromatic, with no colors evident at all. And, still others have had their color enhanced through the use of added pigments and dyes.
These findings are encouraging and suggest to me that it is time for a broader investigation of Reverend Hill’s work as well as the work of other important New York State Daguerreian-era photographers. Hill and his contemporaries—an active community of itinerant photographers, studio owners and workers, and camera manufacturers—worked near the Newburgh/New Windsor town border in the Lower Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountain region. In this hub of 19th century photographic activity, which was actually called Daguerreville for a few short years, people experimented technically and competed at an international level to move the new medium and technology forward.
The 1840s and 1850s were also a boom time for art as well as for photography in upstate New York. Hill lived not far from the homes and studios of several of the most successful Hudson River School painters, including Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand. In fact, it was in conversation with Durand that Hill first articulated his interest in color daguerreotypes. In the autobiographical section of his Treatise on Heliochromy, Hill notes that he asked Durand to show him how to color a daguerreotype, and Durand’s response inspired Hill’s work for the next decade. Durand “laughed at idea, remarking, ‘reproduce, by means of light, the beautiful colored images on the ground glass of your camera, and you will be ahead of all painters.’” And Hill set out to do just that.
We may never know if the “Hillotype” plates at the Smithsonian are the best examples of Reverend Hill’s work with color photography. I’m only in the early stages of documenting this fascinating and creative photographic community in New York’s Catskill region. But the Smithsonian’s collection of Daguerreian-era photography is a good place to explore formerly hidden connections that will shed light on the beginnings of both American and color photography.
My research has intentionally triggered an international discussion among curators, photography scholars, and conservators by suggesting new perspectives and introducing new facts regarding experiments in 19th century color photography in the United States. After more than 160 years, Reverend Hill’s history and that of the “Hillotype” process are still evolving.
- Albumen portrait of the Reverend Levi L. Hill, Baptist minister and early daguerreotypist, West Kill, New York and New York City, b. 1816-d. February 9, 1865.
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Albumen portrait of the Reverend Levi L. Hill, Baptist minister and early daguerreotypist, West Kill, New York and New York City, b. 1816-d. February 9, 1865.
Inscription on reverse, “Levi L. Hill, Died February 9, 1865, He is Asleep in Heaven”.
- A monochromatic Hillotype plate from Reverend Levi Hill’s early experiments in color photography, possibly one of the houses on the street where Hill lived or nearby in West Kill, New York, circa 1850s.
- Levi Hill often photographed color lithographic prints, mostly European images, when attempting to perfect his Hillotype color process. This print of a girl and small animal shows his achievement in capturing natural colors on a daguerreotype plate, circa 1851-56.
- Hillotype photograph of a European lithographic print of a man fallen from his horse.
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Hillotype photograph of a European lithographic print of a man fallen from his horse.
Reverend Hill or an assistant chose to add lead and Bismuth pigments to this Hillotype photograph of a European lithographic print of a man fallen from his horse. The hand-applied color in the saddle area was detected under X-ray and infrared analysis. Many contemporary critics of Hill’s color photography considered him a fraud for enhancing any colors on the plates. The Smithsonian’s collection of Hillotypes is a truly experimental collection including successful true natural color images, monochromatic views, and some images with added hand-applied color.