Photographic History Collection: Levi Hill

Photographic History Collection: Levi Hill

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One of the earliest forms of photography, the daguerreotype was invented in 1839. Interest in the new medium spread rapidly across the United States, and daguerreians anxiously waited for a viable color process to share with their customers. Photographers in the United States and Europe vied to be the first to succeed. New York State especially, embraced the business of photography in the era of the daguerreotype, 1840-60, with a profusion of photographers working from New York City to Albany and west to the Catskills. In 1850, Rev. Levi Hill of West Kill, N.Y., claimed to have invented a way to produce daguerreotypes in natural colors, or Hillotypes, as they became known.
When Reverend Hill refused to release the details of his natural color process until his patent was filed, many in the profession widely denounced him as a fraud. For more than 150 years, Hill’s authenticity was questioned. Though Hill’s images on daguerreotype plates did exhibit color, many 19th- and 20th-century experts argued that he colored his photographs by hand, while others, such as Samuel F. B. Morse, insisted they were genuine.
In 2007 the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Hillotypes team completed a six-month Getty Foundation Grant for the conservation survey and scientific analysis of the 62 Hillotypes in the Museum’s Photographic History Collection. It was the Smithsonian’s first attempt to fully document this rare and historic collection of early experiments in color photography made by Rev. Levi L. Hill in the 1850s, and to plan for the most appropriate long-term preservation of the plates.
Funding for this effort was primarily provided by the Getty Foundation Grant, with in-kind support from the Smithsonian and the Getty Conservation Institute and written support from the national Daguerreian Society. By examining the 62 Hillotypes acquired by the Smithsonian in 1933, scientists from the Getty Conservation Institute discovered some answers. Results from the first round of scientific testing conducted on the Hillotypes-- X-ray and chemical analyses for 250 spot tests-- support both Hill’s process and his work with pigments to enhance achieved colors. The Hillotype collection is truly experimental in nature.
Little information on Hill’s life before 1850 exists. According to autobiographical information shared in his 1856 book, Treatise on Heliochromy, Hill was born in 1816 in Athens (Greene County), New York, and raised by his mother after his father’s death when Levi was 12 years old. Led by his strong religious beliefs, Hill trained and served as a Baptist minister in several parishes. During a visit with the minister of West Kill, New York, Hill met and fell in love with a local girl, Emmeline Bushnell, whom he married in 1836. They remained in West Kill, where Hill served as church minister, and printed and reprinted Christian publications.
When poor health and suspected bronchitis interfered with his ministry, Hill looked to daguerreotype photography as an alternative career, innocently believing the deadly chemicals iodine and bromine used in the process would assist in the treatment for his disease. Emmeline actively supported and assisted Hill’s new endeavor. Hill trained with the Meade Brothers in Albany, R. E. Churchill in New York City, and Francis Norwood of Schoharie County. These efforts proved worthwhile, and he reported earning a good living as a traveling daguerreotypist moving through the Catskills and Hudson Valley region with his wife and son. Eventually, the family returned to West Kill to care for Emmeline’s ailing sister.
With no other employment, Hill began experimenting with the photography of natural colors in 1847, without any formal training in chemistry. To sustain this expensive pursuit, he published A Treatise on Daguerreotype in 1850, which remains one of the best manuals for the process ever printed. He also took in students when possible. In January of the same year, Hill announced his success in achieving color on a prepared daguerreotype plate. But he would not divulge his process for another five years. He wanted to perfect the process and could not easily duplicate the formula.
Hill insisted that his “heliochrome” color process, a direct positive color photographic process based on color sensitivity to certain metallic salts, was different from that being developed in France by M. Niepce de St. Victor and M. Becquerel. Only Hill and his wife knew his exact chemical process, and neither would share the details until they were assured a “suitable compensation.”
Discussions regarding the complicated formula and ensuing controversy surrounding the Hillotypes and Hill’s handling of the promotion of the process appears frequently in the articles of the period’s leading photographic journals-- The Photographic Art Journal, The Daguerreian Journal, and Humphrey’s, as well as in national and international newspapers from 1851 to Hill’s death in 1865.
Hill reported receiving as many as 8,000 letters in response to his announcement, and many visits from interested photographers. Samuel F. B. Morse visited and encouraged belief in Hill’s process. Others, like D. D. T. Davie and his committee from the New York State Daguerreian Society, declared their contempt for Hill. Hill's attempt to protect his interest in the invention and patent the process created impatience and hardship within the community of daguerreotypists. Many patrons decided to delay their portrait sittings until their portraits could be prepared in full color.
Unfortunately, years of experimentation did not yield Hill a commercially viable process nor was he able to obtain a patent from the U.S. government. In 1855 Hill lost his wife to consumption, or possibly the ill affects of the great variety of chemicals used in the Hillotype process. A year later he published his Treatise, disclosing his color formula. But Hill’s earlier reluctance to share his process had a continued impact on his life and success, and his reputation as a photographer continued to suffer. He moved to New York City, and turned to other ventures outside photography, patenting inventions related to gas and petroleum experiments.
Smithsonian researchers and associates continue to investigate the best long-term care and preservation of the Hillotypes in the context of the beginnings of American photography, for continued study, and to better interpret Reverend Hill’s work and that of his contemporaries, the earliest New York photographers. New research on the Smithsonian’s significant early photography collections, patent models, and photographs and camera equipment may also offer unexpected insights into the early effects of New York daguerrians on the business of photography in America.
Object Name
Levi Hill Collection
Reverend Levi L. Hill Collection
Hill, Levi
ID Number
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Work and Industry: Photographic History
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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