Are These The World’s First Color Photographs?

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They don’t look like much.

Housed in some tired cardboard boxes and old wooden cases in a back room of the Smithsonian Institution are sixty-two metal plates. Most are about 8½ × 6½ inches. They are photographs, copies of tinted engravings, and their surfaces present a slightly enameled appearance with muted colors. A visitor coming across them would be unlikely to give them a second glance; far more beautiful and compelling photographs are everywhere in the Smithsonian’s collection. But these plates have a significance beyond their physical appearance: they are the only remaining evidence of one of America’s strangest controversies. And they are, quite possibly, the world’s first color photographs.

A clue to the meaning of these tantalizing relics is revealed by the accession papers in the Smithsonian’s own files. The plates were donated to the museum in 1933, by a New Jersey physician who noted they were made by his father-in-law, the Reverend Levi L. Hill, in the middle of the last century. Mr. Hill, he writes, was an inventor greatly interested in photography, who “became absorbed in the subject of obtaining natural colors and was a pioneer along that line.”

But that’s where the story ends. It begins one hundred and thirty years ago.

By that time, Hill was already known to many of America’s professional photographers as the author of one of the earliest successful photography manuals. The book was the result of firsthand knowledge; Hill became a daguerreotypist when bronchitis forced him to leave his job as a Baptist minister. He lived in Westkill, Greene County, New York, but traveled around the rest of the Catskills taking daguerreotype portraits, small photographs on mirror-polished plates of silvered copper. Then, in 1850, Hill startled his fellow photographers by announcing his discovery of a method for taking daguerreotypes in natural color.

The photography business was only a decade old at the time of Hill’s revelation. The daguerreotypists and their clients welcomed the news at first, for the lack of color in daguerreotypes was felt to be a serious shortcoming. But the photographers themselves quickly became anxious about Hill’s claim. Their potential subjects had begun to postpone having their daguerreotypes taken, preferring to wait for the color portraits.

They waited in vain. Levi Hill offered excuses, pleaded for time, complained that ill-health, isolation, and limited resources were preventing him from perfecting his process.

A trade association of New York daguerreotypists finally determined to force the issue. In November, 1851, this group sent a “committee” of three investigators, headed by the photographer D.D.T. Davie of Utica.

They visited Hill in Westkill; Hill would later claim “the notorious” Davie had threatened his life and warned that his discovery could be taken by force. Whether or not this lurid scene took place, the committee returned to report publicly: “Mr. Hill has deluded himself, thoroughly and completely—the origin of the discovery was a delusion and the only thought about it, in which there can be no delusion, is for everyone to abandon faith in Mr. Hill’s abilities to produce natural color daguerreotypes—the whole history of which has been a delusion.”

The daguerreotypists’ business soon returned to normal.

But Levi Hill did not go away. He insisted his experiments were progressing, and defended his secrecy by stating that he wished to perfect the “Hillotype” process and protect his right to profit from it.

As the decade dragged on, the photographic trade papers, once Hill’s enthusiastic supporters, began to attack him.

In October of 1852, Hill’s health weakened and he feared death was imminent. Determined to salvage his reputation, he summoned one of the leading figures of the time to his laboratory. Samuel F. B. Morse, a painter and daguerreotypist as well as an inventor, was held in high esteem by the photographic community. Morse taught the art of the daguerreotype to many of the nation’s foremost practitioners, including Mathew Brady. On this, his second visit to Westkill, the great man closely inspected Hill’s plates—and was convinced. Hill recovered from his illness; Morse’s glowing testimonial was published in the New York papers, describing Hillotypes of colored engravings, landscapes, and portraits from life.

There were many other testimonials over the next four years. But there was also much controversy. Hill received impressive offers to buy the rights to his color process, but the inventor kept pleading for more time. When he issued a new edition of his daguerreotype manual to raise funds, the photographic journals—now thoroughly hostile—suggested the Hillotype was merely a scheme to sell books.

At last, in 1856, the inventor issued an announcement: the Hillotype formula would be revealed in a new book discussing his color experiments. The price: twenty-five dollars. Titled A Treatise on Heliochromy; or, the Production of Pictures, by Means of Light, in Natural Colors, it was published by Robinson and Caswell of New York.