Started in the 1880s, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has the oldest collection of photography in an American museum, and includes many unique photography collections and related cameras. It includes early examples of color photography made in the 1850s by Reverend Levi L. Hill, a daguerreotype photographer in the remote hamlet of West Kill, New York, in the heart of the Catskill Mountains. The museum has the only set of Reverend Hill’s 62 early color experiments, originally donated in 1933 by Hill’s son-in-law.

Read about this 160-year old photographic mystery and Hill's claim that he invented colour photography back in 1851 in this April's issue of the Smithsonian found here:

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  • I will take my hat off, however, to Prof. Joseph Boudreau who recreated Hill's process in its entirety, and obtained some faintly coloured images. His work is reported in Ostroff (Ed.) 'Pioneers of Photography', SPSE 1987. He deserves a medal for his courage, persistence, and survival skills! Nonetheless, the difference between a scientific genius like Maxwell and a mountebank like Hill remains: it is the difference between contributing to the pool of human understanding, and just muddying it.
  • Thanks for your comments, Mike. Couldn't agree with you more !
    Without a patent and reproducible results, photographic history would probably remember Hill as more of a charlatan. Questions about the authenticity of the “Hillotype” were frequently raised in The Photographic Art Journal, The Daguerreian Journal, as well as newspapers from 1851 until his death in 1865.
    Delaney, curator at the National Museum of American History, believed he developed a very complicated chemical formula that was not easily reproduced by others. According to her, Smithsonian/Getty scientists show there exists “Hillotypes” with a range of colors of the spectrum with no evidence of additional hand-coloring being applied - but these were only on a limited number of plates. Others have had their color enhanced through the use of added pigments and dyes. After more than 160 years, Hill’s claim and that of the “Hillotype” process are still 'evolving' !
    Time will tell .........
  • In view of the word "true" in the title question, the answer can only be: Maxwell, although he did not create a 'single' photograph. His demonstration in 1861 of additive 3-colour separation photography was based on rational thought and known science (Thomas Young's theory of trichromatic vision of 1802, elaborated in 1850 by Hermann von Helmholtz) - even if Maxwell was a bit lucky with his result (a long story). In contrast, the procedure described by Reverend Hill in his publication of 1856 is clearly, to any chemist, an unequalled farrago of hazardous nonsense, informed by no perceptible reasoning whatever. As an outstanding example of the "eye of newt and toe of frog" school of photochemistry, it entailed the use of about 40 different chemicals - some of them quite lethal - in a secret procedure, characteristic of those mountebanks of photographic process who intrude on the subject from time to time. Admittedly, Hill's images do bear some residual traces of colour, but so do other experiments of the period on halogenated layers on silver plates, which were achieved by rather simpler means. A quick shave with Occam's Razor now seems in order - but it doesn't make such an entertaining story!

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