Friday, November 02, 2007

Early Colour Daguerreotypes

Christian Patterson has been running an occasional series on the history and origins of colour photography.

He put up an intriguing post the other day about the early colour daguerreotypes of Levi Hill dating from around 1850

This process - the Hillotype - has been known about for a long time, but it was considered most likely to be fraudulent and not really the first colour photographic process. But the Smithsonian (which owns the Hillotype above), Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Foundation as well as historian Joseph Boudreau have been researching the process. The Smithsonian and the Getty appear to have come to the conclusion that although Hill did add some hand colouring to some of his plates to enhance its effectiveness. In reproducing the difficult process from Hill's writings, Boudreau found he could actually produce naturally colored "dingy, but distinct, color Daguerreotypes".

Conservation scientists from the Getty Conservation Institute likewise found that although they could detect additions to some of the images - such as Prussian Blue - there were other naturally coloured parts of the daguerreotypes which did indeed seem to be inherent to Hill's photographic process. In all likelihood Hill seems to have added colour pigments later in the areas where the natural colours of the process were weak.

Which puts the birth of colour photography pretty close to the birth of photography itself. Hill was probably something of a flawed genius - part instinctive scientist part fraud. But it also seems there was a genuine basis to his experiments in early (very early) colour photography.

Incidentally, I love this bit from John H. Lienhard's article. His experiments were seen as a direct threat to the photographic status quo - which sounds rather reminiscent of the more fundamentalist factions of current "analogue" vs. digital debate - I can just see a mob from APUG turning up with their pitch-forks and flaming torches... :-)

"One myth of early color photography holds that the Reverand Levi Hill of Westkill, New York, invented it as early as 1850. That seems too preposterous to take seriously, but art historian Joseph Boudreau looks more closely at Hill. When Hill announced his process, he was visited by a group from the New York Daguerrean Association. They told him to keep quiet or they’d wreck his lab. Daguerreotypes were becoming obsolete and they feared for their livelihood.

Hill bought a revolver and a mean guard dog, and he forged ahead. People like Samuel F. B. Morse inspected his work and declared it sound. In 1856, Hill published a rambling account of what he now called the Hillotype process. But he also used the book to attack the Daguerrean Association. They, in turn, got a court order requiring all copies of the book to be destroyed...

..Boudreau found a surviving copy of Hill’s book and set about to replicate the process. It was long and difficult, but it actually worked. He managed to produce some dingy, but distinct, color Daguerreotypes. Hill had actually succeeded — 80 years too soon."

Listen to the story on NPR

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