Are These The World’s First Color Photographs?

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At least that’s what the title page would lead the reader to believe. However, the book was never reviewed by any of the magazines which followed the long controversy, and an exhaustive search has failed to turn up a single record of anybody ever trying the eleven-step Hillotype recipe. Why?

The answer is almost certainly contained in a letter published in the photography magazine Humphrey’s Journal in 1862, six years after Hill’s Treatise was printed. It was penned by Levi Hill’s old nemesis, D.D.T. Davie.

Hill, he said, “has well acted the part of a Judas; nay, a midnight assassin.… To call him a Devil in the pulpit, would be only a waste of words, like rebuking Satan.” After a few more near-hysterical insults, Davie got to the point. The reason nobody ever saw Hill’s book, he said, was that it libeled him and the committee of investigators he led. Davie said he obtained a court order banning the book’s sale; aside from a copy he kept for himself, ”… the whole edition, some thousands of copies, were sold for paper rags.” As for Hill, Davie had no idea of his whereabouts, though he speculated that he might have gone back to Westkill: “the dog has returned to his vomit” as Davie delicately phrased it. Hill was, in fact, living in New York City, and he appeared in the Humphrey’s Journal editorial office, threatening a libel suit. The editor apologized profusely in the next issue, noting he did not see Davie’s acid letter before it was published. Hill, he reported, was still not satisfied with his color process, but would soon write an article about his work.

It never appeared. The February 15, 1865, issue of Humphrey’s Journal carried Hill’s obituary. The inventor had died at the age of forty-eight. There was a poignant note in the author’s farewell to this dreamer who was so long haunted by controversy: “[He] always affirmed to the writer that he did take pictures in their natural colors, but it was done by an accidental combination of chemicals which he could not, for the life of him, again produce!”

Well over a century after Hill’s death, the questions and doubts remain. Did this rural experimenter make the world’s first natural color photographs? If the results were exclusively accidental, why did Hill stick to his claims long after being discredited, and then take the trouble to write a detailed, 175-page book? If D.D.T. Davie had all of the books destroyed (save one), why are there more than a dozen copies known today? And whether or not they were the result of an accident, how were Hill’s colors created? While other experimenters in the last century produced color photographs without dyes, they were unable to achieve any degree of permanency, a problem Hill claimed to have solved. Potentially, the answers to the questions are as tantalizingly close as the Hillotype plates in Washington, D.C.; they are as taunting as the formula for making the pictures—a formula that apparently has never been followed by anyone save Mr. Hill.

Modern analytic techniques could be applied to determine how the Smithsonian’s Hillotypes were made. A preliminary examination using an electron microprobe has already been conducted on one plate by noted photographic conservator Alice Swan. Her findings indicated the image is not a standard (mercury-developed) daguerreotype. A far more extensive study, using the most sophisticated scientific tools, would be needed to learn more of the secrets held by these mute survivors of photography’s past.

And then there’s the formula. The Hillotype recipe is now available, thanks to a facsimile publication of A Treatise on Heliochromy (The Carnation Press, Box 101, State College, PA 16801). Unfortunately, the process is complex, written in archaic chemical terminology, and dangerous: the compounds involved range from common salt to silver cyanide and something called “the fuming liquid of Libavius.” Still, there is a dedicated group of modern-day experimenters who are well versed in the daguerreotype process. In a properly equipped laboratory, with the help of an expert chemist, it should be possible for them to determine whether the formula is a fanciful hoax or the key to a unique method of color photography.

What if Hill proves to be merely a colorful con man, a photographic fraud? If so, we should still hold him in considerable awe, for he has mystified people for more than a century. But if he was a visionary whose inventive genius was stymied by the jealousy and economic worries of his contemporaries, we owe him his place in history.

To those who would try to answer the questions, let the words of Levi L. Hill’s Treatise speak across the decades: “Success and immortal honor to the next adventurer, whoever he may be, who shall go where I have been, and who, perhaps, shall dive into regions beyond, and bring back garlands of exceeding and unfading beauty.”