Levi L. Hill
Fool or Fake?
By Carolyn Bennett
The house Levi Hill lived in with his wife, Emiline, while he experimented on a formula for color photography. Photograph by Carolyn Bennett
Did he or didn’t he?
Or, put another way, if Levi L. Hill of West Kill, New York had actually stumbled upon the process of color photography, why was he acting like a man with a secret, instead of a man with a discovery?
That question has nagged historians for more than a century and has remained one of photography’s favorite little mysteries.
When Daguerre first showed his daguerreotypes in 1839, the public was disappointed that they were without color. In those early years leading up to wet plate photography, the only recourse of the daguerreotypist who wanted color in his pictures was to tint the daguerreotype by applying color to its delicate surface through electroplating, the use of stencils or hand-coloring. Of course, the best daguerreotypists preferred to leave their work uncolored; still, the public clamored for color.
Then, in 1850, a daguerreotypist by the name of Levi Hill announced that he had discovered a method of color photography. The public, euphoric at the possibility, stopped having their likenesses taken at once. They had longed for a day when they could see themselves in full color. Now that day had come.
Or had it?
In November 1850, Hill published a technical manual, The Magic Buff, in which he wrote:
Several years’ experiments have led us to the discovery of some remarkable facts, in reference to the process of daguerreotying in the colors of nature. For instance, we can produce blue, red, violet, and orange on one plate, at one and the same time. We can also produce a landscape, with these colors beautifully developed—and this we can do in only one-third more time than is required for daguerreotype.
In fact, Hill claimed in his autobiography, A Treatise on Heilography, that the very first color daguerreotype ever produced by his hand was a copy of a color landscape of the picturesque village of Prattsville, Greene County, New York. This shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Greene County history, since that village’s namesake, the Honorable Zadock Pratt, was known for his support of all things modern—including railroad magnate Jay Gould’s early career as a surveyor and tanner. What could be more modern than the discovery of color photography, which, when finally found, would reach across the centuries to make its effect on society, even to the present day?
For Hill, the day of discovery was a red letter day. Daguerre himself had been working on a process for developing color; ever since his invention of the daguerreotype; he’d known that what was missing was color. Hill began his experiments in color photography in 1847 in the valley town of Oak Hill, NY, where his first wife, Emiline Bushnell, was tending a sick relative. The couple and their young son then moved on to the Greene County mountain town of West Kill, where Hill continued his daguerreotype experiments while tending to his duties as pastor of the West Kill Baptist Church. The church still stands today, much as it looked when Hill preached from its pulpit.
This building, diagonally across from the Pratt Homestead (now the Pratt Museum) was given to Levi L. Hill and his brother, Robert Hill, in order to house the first printing press in the Catskill High Peaks. Photograph by Carolyn Bennett
To some, Hill must have seemed like the Wizard of Oz. To others, especially his fellow daguerreotypists who were to suffer great financial losses as the result of Hill’s premature announcement, he seemed like the Devil himself.
Not so nineteenth-century industrialist Zadock Pratt. Pratt was Hill’s benefactor from the start, a relationship that began soon after Hill’s arrival to West Kill when Hill, who had been a typographer in his youth, decided to expand his growing business enterprises with the publication of the “Baptist Library,” a reprint of the standard Baptist works of the time, for which Hill eventually claimed a circulation of 70,000 readers. As this was a sideline business for Hill, one which he engaged in with his brother, R.H. Hill, and one that had begun to demand a full sixteen hours a day of the minister’s time, Hill devised to move his operations, printing press and all, to “the delightful village of Prattsville.”
The Hon. Zadock Pratt, founder of that fine village (justly pronounced the “gem of the mountains”—a gentleman well known and highly esteemed throughout the country—became our generous patron, and afforded us the large monied facilities required by our enlarging our operations, in the addition of some twelve workmen, a well appointed stereotype foundry, and an extensive book and stationery store. He also furnished us a large building for our business there—about three years in all—he utterly refused to take any rent. It is not a little to his credit that just such instances of liberality were ever common to him. I remained in Prattsville only about a year, having sold out to my brother, who continued the business some two years after I left.
Chances are that Pratt, who often boasted that he was the world’s most important tanner—and owned the largest tannery in the world to prove it—had come into contact with the daguerreotype very early in its introduction to America. In 1843, two pioneers of photography, Edward Anthony and J.M. Edwards, backed by chemist Dr. J.W. Chilton, obtained daguerreotypes of all the members of Congress by offering them free copies. According to historian Robert Taft, practically every public figure from 1841 on was portrayed by this new art. In fact, it was a common practice among daguerreotypists to coax celebrities to sit for several portraits, in exchange for a free one for themselves, only to later sell copies of these pictures to an anxious or adoring public. It’s likely that Pratt, who sat in Congress that year, was one of Anthony and Edwards’ subjects.
Hill seems to have been a contentious character long before the premature announcement of his discovery of color photography. He preached against the Anti-Rent Wars when it was far more politically-correct to be in support of the land tenants’ rights. It may even be possible that Hill had some “Calico Indians” in his congregation who certainly didn’t like the political tack his sermons were taking. Hill reports in his autobiography that, after a leave of absence:
The West Kill church urged me to return, and I did. After three or four years the famous anti-rent troubles commenced. In this section several clergymen lectured for, and otherwise encouraged the Calico Indians. I was accused of being an “up-renter,” and was threatened with a “donation” suit of “tar and feathers”. One day a gang of some eighty of these rowdies passed my house, and while I stood in the door they pointed their muskets at me, but did not fire. Perhaps they were in jest; but even such an outrage no friend of good order would be found guilty of. A sermon in which I plainly exposed the rottenness of the whole system of disguise, and the hypocrisy of those professors of religion who countenanced the practice, gave great offence to a few in the church; and being determined not to stay in a church where even a few wished me gone, I left, and settled in the Baptist church in the thriving village of Saugerties.
The Pratt Homestead, built in 1828 by Congressman and entrepreneur Zadock Pratt, who supported Levi L. Hill in quest to find a process for color photography. Photograph by Carolyn Bennett
Hill remained in Saugerties for two and a half years, finding its church and its people “exceedingly pleasant.” It was there that he was struck with a severe attack of bronchitis, a condition from which he would never recover.
Unable to preach, Hill turned his interests towards photography and temporarily took up the trade of traveling daguerreotypist, setting up shop in such towns as Athens, Saugerties, Poughkeepsie and Dover Plains. It was in the latter town that Hill “enjoyed a visit” with Hudson Valley artist Asher Durand. Hill “naturally” supposed that Durand, who had produced a fine painting of Dover Plains, could reveal to him how to color a daguerreotype. Durand, however, laughed at the idea, exclaiming, “reproduce, by means of light, the beautiful colored image on the ground glass of your camera, and you will be ahead of all the painters.” It was Durand’s casual remark that first suggested to Hill the idea of finding a method of color photography. Shortly after his conversation with Durand, Hill embarked on his “grand theme”: the discovery of a process of color photography, which he pursued with a passion. The experience, he said, was like “studying arithmetic on a battlefield…like balancing on a tightrope in a tornado…like Thomas Scott, writing a commentary, with a cross baby on his knee.”
Hill described himself during this period as a “human owl, grubbing about, with great blurry eyes, after a glow-worm”; like one “fishing for pearls in a thunder cloud.” His scheme, he admitted, could be ranked with that of the search for “perpetual motion.” Family, friends and acquaintances laughed at him. The public-at-large did the same. With few exceptions, scientists the world over shared the public’s skepticism.
Color photography? It couldn’t be done.
Hill was the first to admit his unfamiliarity with chemistry. Nonetheless, he conducted thousands of experiments, some logical, some absurd, in his search for Buleah Land (Land of the Beautiful). Day after day, night after night, he mixed chemicals as if they were potions and he was Merlin, trying to force magic from his mixtures. Prussic acid, phosphorus, cyanogens, nitrous oxide and bromide: he used them all. Little by little, as he worked his magic, these chemicals worked their ill effects on him and his wife, who had become his laboratory assistant. Eventually, science would exact its price: Hill was to suffer from a hemorrhage of the lungs, and Emiline was to die to consumption.
There were other dangers, too. There were unexpected explosions sparked by mis-matching often volatile chemicals. In his autobiography, Hill was careful to caution all who came after him. “May future experimenters who read these lines take warning from my example…Remember, thou art mortal.”
Hill began his experiments in color photography during the spring of 1847. By 1850, he still saw no results, although occasionally, he reported a change in the tone of his daguerreotypes, which showed tints of red or green.
Then, in 1850: Eureka! Hill produced his first color photograph, a copy of a large colored lithograph of the village of Prattsville.
Or so Hill claimed.
Upon his discovery, he shouted “like a Methodist,” threw open the doors of his house, which had suddenly become “too small,” and rushed into the woods where he could exclaim to the sky’s blue dome and the hemlock’s green fir.
On the self-professed “verge of insanity,” brought on, no doubt, by his important discovery, Hill suddenly remembered that he had not written down the formula and tried, then and there, to commit it to memory. This, he claimed, he was able to do, and so he produced a second color picture. The method of his success assured, he and his wife signed a pact that henceforth they would refuse to show his pictures “except for security and protection.” No other reason is given for this unusual action.
Elated, Hill let slip an announcement of his discovery, never dreaming (or so he said) that it would deal a near-death blow to the daguerreotype business. Thus the controversy began.
Before it was over, Hill would have to solicit “certificates” from men of impeccable character, like Samuel Morse, to protect himself from further scandal. In the end, he received over 8,000 letters on his behalf. He also received many “visitors” and “visitations” from believers and skeptics alike.
One such visit was from a “Committee” of the New York State Daguerrean Association, which was made up of D.D.T. Davy, a photographer from Utica, Mr. Clark of New York and Mr. Tomilson of Troy. The “alleged effect” of Hill’s announcement, according to these men, was that “by holding forth that such a marvelous improvement” as color photography had been discovered had caused people wanting their pictures taken to hold off until Hill’s discovery was available. This, however, was never to happen, hurting the regular business of daguerreotyping almost irreparably. Hill, never one to back down from a fight, describes Mr. Davy as “notorious” and says that he was threatened with force by the “committee” who warned him that a “banditti of ruffians” would break into his laboratory and forcibly remove Hill’s controversial formula if the minister-artist refused to produce the proof himself.
Hill, who seemed to delight in these mock battle preparations, almost had his show-down, too. One evening, Hill heard Colonel Pratt’s dog, whom he had borrowed from the Colonel as protection against just such an incident, howling in the night. Hill opened his door, ready to pounce on any one of the “banditti of ruffians” he could lay his hands on. Instead, he was greeted with the apparition of his old cow.
Davy’s crew didn’t come to the Catskill Mountains after all, and the West Kill Police were disbanded.
Hill’s troubles didn’t stop there, however. Accused of needlessly holding back his formula for color photography from daguerreotypists whose business in black and white daguerreotypes had all but come to a halt, Hill’s name was to go down in the history of photography as that of a malicious fake.
Before Hill’s trials were through, however, some of the world’s most famous early photographers were to travel to the “wild” mountain valley of West Kill to pronounce Hill’s discovery of color photography genuine: Morse, Whipple, Root, Gurney. They had seen the proof, and pronounced it genuine.
So, was the Reverend L. L. Hill a fake?
Or is he the true “Father of Color Photography?”
Perhaps we will never know.