Genius or Fraud?

Hillotype of a print depicting a man fallen from a horse, color pigments applied
Hillotype of a print depicting a man fallen from a horse, color pigments applied Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre invented the black and white daguerreotype, one of the earliest forms of photography, in 1839. No one questioned the French artist's claim to fame.

But when Levi Hill, a Baptist minister from the remote town of West Kill in the New York Catskills, claimed to have added technicolor to the art form, critics did begin to ask questions.

It didn’t help Hill’s case that he refused to disclose his methods.

People suspected he had just dabbed color onto a black and white image. Hill published a book, A Treatise on Heliochromy, on his process in 1856. When still no one could mimic the method, Hill curiously blamed their failures on missteps in the complicated procedure, which required rare and dangerous chemicals. The process never became commercially viable.

The color-hungry public had to wait for that until 1907 when the Lumière brothers developed a way to shoot and develop color photographs. (Check out "In Living Color" by Robert Poole in our September issue.)

Was Hill a fraud? Were his multi-hued Hillotypes--62 of which were donated to the National Museum of American History’s collections in 1933--fakes?

The 156-year-old cold case was recently re-opened by the the American History museum and the Getty Conservation Institute. Using new portable X-ray and infrared equipment, the Hill images were recently re-examined.

So, imposter or inventor?

Ironically, the analysis proved him to be a bit of both. Turns out Hill produced a photograph that picked up the first colors known to photography, some reds and blues, but he added enhancements in white, yellow and green, casting them off as naturally occurring.

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