Photography's Colorful Past


Albumen portrait of the Reverend Levi L. Hill, Baptist minister and early daguerreotypist, West Kill Just when we think that we must have at last thoroughly covered photography’s short history something else shows up. In the twenty years since we celebrated the sesquicentennial of photography’s announcement to the world, dogged researchers and an inquisitive public have alerted us to those areas that were overlooked the first time we rushed through the writing of a history of photography.  The Smithsonian’s Hillotype collection has long been a kind of “holy grail” for students of early American photography. No one had reason to doubt Levi Hill’s claim that he had invented natural-color daguerreotypes. But his reluctance to exhibit the work, his puffed-up circulars, appeals, products, and processes for sale at inflated prices, and the lawsuits he threatened to bring against his near competitors, cast suspicion on his accomplishments. His Hillotypes, dark images that grew increasingly murky, didn’t help the case. The larger world of photography lost track of Hill and his color experiments and his darkened images disappeared. Until now, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History,  Hill and his plates are out of storage and now being given the kind of detailed research they deserve. As Michelle Delaney’s click! article suggests (and a recent all day symposium of expert speakers pondered further)  there is still a lot more to be considered about Levi Hill’s controversial claim to have discovered color photography. For most of photography’s life color has been one of the biggest problems. Though as Delaney points out, Daguerre himself speculated about color, the execution of color in a photographic world was elusive. Color in photography was considered neither true to life or stable to keep over time. To achieve acceptable color most photographers turned to artists who hand tinted each printed image, selecting colors long after the negative was made by the photographer. Most of the first half of the twentieth century was spent in black and white because until Kodak made Kodachrome available, color simply couldn’t be controlled. Woman in Oriental inspired gown, sitting in wooden throne, c. 1915, by Unknown photographer, color p However at the turn of the twentieth century there was one short-lived moment of luminous color:  the autochrome (more about autochromes in the video below). The process was invented by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, who are also famous for having invented the cinematograph, and for having made the first motion picture. The autochrome plates they concocted out of a now dubious sounding recipe of pulverized and dyed potato starch offered photographers what they had dreamed of for generations, true, and stable color photography. But the end result was hard to view without bright light or a special apparatus and because each plate was unique (like a daguerreotype) harder still to distribute. Nonetheless when the light is right the image offers colors that seem alive. Autochromes brightened all kinds of subjects. Besides the first autochrome made in America and portraits of important Americans made by master photographers at the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian holds images made from original autochromes, from views of southwest landscapes and native ceremonies in the National Anthropological Archives, to luscious views of Gilded Age gardens in the Archives of American Gardens. Whether the autochrome provides a true picture in color can be debated, but it certainly makes the past look brighter than the present.


Video provided by Photo Induced

Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.

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