Unlocking a photography mystery


This year I’ll celebrate twenty years working at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, curating the history of photography collection. Started in the 1880s, it is the oldest collection of photography in an American museum, and includes many unique photography collections and related cameras. My current research project is the Hillotypes Collection, early examples of color photography made in the 1850s. Reverend Levi L. Hill worked as a daguerreotype photographer in the remote hamlet of West Kill, New York, in the heart of the Catskill Mountains, and experimented in making color images. The museum has the only set of Reverend Hill’s 62 early color experiments, originally donated in 1933 by Hill’s son-in-law.

Hillotype_resized With the help of research grants from both the Smithsonian and The Getty Foundation, these earliest of American color photographs have been analyzed by X-ray and infrared technology to determine whether Reverend Hill’s process was a true color process. This has been a huge controversy in the history of photography. In fact, an international competition of sorts was brewing in the mid-1900s to see which country’s photographer would invent the first commercial color photography process, France or the United States.

Little research on the photographs themselves has been done until now. Our current research shows Reverend Hill succeeded in making color photographs, but also hand-colored some with pigments and dyes to better his results. This Smithsonian collection is a truly experimental collection of the earliest color photographs made in America.

My research, and that of my grant colleagues, will continue. What I didn’t expect in the beginning of this research was to find out the Hill’s home in West Kill, New York, was just an hour or so away from where I grew up in Newburgh, New York. Reverend Hill was just one of many early New York photographers working from Manhattan to Albany, and west to the Catskills. There is a strong history of the beginning of American photography in this region. I intend to search it out.

Michelle Delaney is Curator of Photography in the Division of Information Technology & Communications. Recently she was awarded a Smithsonian Scholarly Studies Grant to continue research on the museum’s collection of Hillotypes.