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Are These The World’s First Color Photographs?

July 2024
6min read

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.

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.”


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