Smithsonian's National Museum of American History Receives Grant to Study One of Photography's Biggest Historical Mysteries

September 26, 2006

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History recently received a grant from Getty Foundation that will allow museum staff to examine a 155-year-old mystery that remains, to this day, one of the most controversial questions in photography.

One of the earliest forms of photography, the daguerreotype, is named after French artist and chemist Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, who invented the process in 1839. Daguerreotype photography spread rapidly across the United States and just 11 years later, the Rev. Levi Hill of Westkill, N.Y., claimed to have invented a way to produce naturally colored daguerreotypes, or Hillotypes, as they became known.

At the time, a large number of people had taken on the daguerreotype business and it therefore had become less profitable. When Hill refused to release the details of his process until a patent was filed, the profession denounced Hill as a fraud. In 155 years, no definitive evidence has been presented to suggest that Hill was or was not an imposter.

Though Hills' daguerreotypes were indeed in color, many experts argue that he colored his photographs by hand, while others, such as Samuel F. B. Morse, insisted they were natural. By examining the 62 Hillotypes acquired by the Museum in 1930 from Hill's son-in-law, John Boggs Garrison, the National Museum of American History and the Conservation Institute staff hope to discover some answers. The daguerreotypes in the Museum's collection feature landscapes of Hill's house and of the village of Westkill, N.Y., as well as images of popular paintings and lithographs. While some of the daguerreotypes are in good condition, others show more deterioration.

"The historical importance of these 62 Hillotypes in the field of photography should not be underestimated and we are very fortunate to have received this grant from Getty," said Brent Glass, director of the Museum. "We now have the means to perform a condition survey as well as scientific examination that will hopefully lead to some conclusive results about the authenticity of the natural colors of the daguerreotypes."

Those involved in the project include project director Michelle Delaney, who is associate curator for the Museum's Photographic History Collection, and Corinne Dune, who has an extensive background in photography and the conservation of photographic materials. Grant B. Romer of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House and Dusan Stulik of Getty Conservation Institute will serve as advisors, along with other National Museum of American History staff.

With the assistance from Getty, the 62 Hillotypes will be examined using nondestructive reflectance Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to identify metals, pigments and coatings. This is a crucial element in detecting any falsifications in the colored daguerreotypes by Hill.

Located in Los Angeles, the J. Paul Getty Trust is an institution comprised of the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute, all of which seek to support those endeavors that aim to fortify the knowledge and appreciation of the visual arts; its grant program subsists to further that mission.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. Documenting the American experience from Colonial times to the present, the museum looks at growth and change in the United States. The museum closed for major renovations on Sept. 5 and will re-open in summer 2008. For more information, visit the Museum's Web site at http://americanhistory.si.edu or call (202) 633-1000, (202) 357-1729 (TTY).