The Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History holds an extraordinary series of early color photographs: sixty-two color daguerreotype plates made by Rev. Levi L. Hill in the early 1850s in Westkill, Greene County, New York, including this image of buildings in that town. This unique collection is what remains as evidence of the “Hillotype” and the experiments conducted by Hill to produce photographs with natural colors. No greater controversy has ever appeared in the history of photography. Approximately 60 related articles appear in journals between 1851 and 1856 while the photography community awaited the details on how to produce a Hillotype.
Notable scientists and daguerreotypists such as Samuel F. B. Morse, Marcus A. Root, John A. Whipple, and Jeremiah Gurney wrote public testimonials to the importance of Hill’s work. But Hill refused to show his pictures immediately after his announcement of success in 1850, and would not disclose the process before it was patented. This caused impatience among other photographers.
Hill was called an imposter. Articles in photography journals pointed to daguerreotype photographers losing much business while patrons refrained from sitting for their photographic portraits; they wanted to be photographed in color. Many photographers felt duped by Hill’s motives, his advertising, and requests for more time to perfect his color process. Hillotypes were continually dismissed or denounced as fraudulent even long after Hill’s death. However, x-ray and infrared studies of the Smithsonian’s unique collection of Hillotypes in 2007 prove that many of these images demonstrate true natural color photography.
This camera view of a front porch and house was probably taken in West Kill, New York, where Hill lived and served as minister of the Baptist church.
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