Smithsonian Unravels Color Photography Mystery

The Smithsonian is tackling one of the biggest mysteries in the history of photography — whether color photography was first invented by an American minister from Westkill, N.Y. His contemporaries called his work a fraud, but a new analysis suggests that the story is not that simple.

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In the history of photography, there is a strange and controversial figure named Levi Hill. He claimed to have made the first color photographs more than 150 years ago. Lots of people said he was just a fraud who just used paint.

Well, now, scientists have completed the first chemical analysis of his photographs and NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on what they found.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: In the 1840s, photography meant daguerreotypes - images produced on silver plates. They were incredibly popular.

Michelle DeLaney is a curator at the Smitsonian's National Museum of American History. She says these images had one problem.

Ms. MICHELLE DELANEY (Curator, National Museum of American History): It's very early in the history of photography. And of course, everything was still in black and white.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then, in 1850, Americans heard that color photographs had been created by unlikely person in an unlikely place.

Ms. DELANEY: Levi Hill was a Baptist Minister working in remote areas of the Catskill Mountains in New York state. In an area where I don't even know how he was able to receive shipments of chemicals.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But Hill said he had figured out a way to capture natural color. The news cost a sensation. Even though Hill refused to reveal his techniques, people began putting off, getting photos, because they were waiting for color.

This infuriated other photographers. Their livelihood was at stake. They called Hill a liar and a fraud. Delaney said things got emotional.

Ms. DELANEY: There were writings that he purchased a gun, he got a watchdog, he was fearful of his life.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hill eventually invited high profile experts to come see his work. One of them was Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph code.

Ms. DELANEY: His verdict was that Hill had something. He had some success, but it wasn't perfected.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In the end, people fell into two camps. Either Hill was a genius or a liar.

Ms. DELANEY: He is a controversy in the history of photography since the 1850s right up until today.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In a small at the museum, Delaney showed me some of Hill's images. Mostly the photos he made of illustration. Here's a girl with a goat or a sheep with green vines and yellow and white flowers her hair. Here's another picture of a peddler with a yellow basket. They don't look anything like today's colored photos.

Ms. DELANEY: They have a bluish tint to them. There's also reddish and brownish tints to them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A couple of months ago, DeShawn Stewliks(ph) came to see these plates. Stewliks is a scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. He flew to Washington, D.C. with two suitcases full of equipment that can reveal a photo's chemical fingerprint.

Dr. DeSHAWN STEWLIKS (Scientist, Getty Conservation Institute): We were looking for, of course, of basic elements which are in the daguerreotype which is silver and copper. But, of course, we were looking for additional element which he put in to embellish the photograph.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Basically, elements that you might find in paint, and they found some.

Dr. STEWLIKS: For example, we found brush and blue pigment. We found some carmine, organic dye pigment.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And a white pigment. So, it looks like Hill did touch up his plates. But it also looks like he was a pioneer of color photography because the study shows that some colors of on the photographs weren't added.

Dr. STEWLIKS: He was able to reproduce some of those color, for example red or blue. But some colors like white or yellow or green are not very well produced by his process.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So, Levi Hill, fraud or a genius? These researchers say he was a little bit of both. They'll be presenting their work this week at a convention of the daguerreotype expert.

Nell Greenfieldboyce , NPR News.

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