Media Sophistication Relaxes Expectations
I recently caught an interesting documentary on the Smithsonian Channel – originally aired in 2007-- about an early photographer named Rev. Levi L. Hill. While students of history and technology might know the name, I did not, and yet, it’s been at the heart of a controversy for 160 years.
Hill lived in upstate New York during the mid-1800’s. In keeping with the technology of the day, he worked with daguerreotypes—a process that captured black-and-white images on copper plate. According to Carolyn Bennett of Guide Magazine, Hill was inspired by Hudson Valley artist Asher Durand to pursue a way to capture color.
Using a complex chemical formula in 1850, Hill produced the first color photographs, or so he claimed. Luminaries like Samuel F. Morse endorsed his efforts, but daguerreotypists who felt their business threatened, were quick to call him a fraud.
Many scholars and scientists have examined this enigma. University of Houston professor John Lienhard reports that art historian Joseph Boudreau found a copy of Hill’s book and replicated the color. However, the folks at the Smithsonian weren’t convinced.
They used a variety of metrics to test Hill’s claims. Results showed that Hill had indeed achieved some chemically-generated color, but remnants of organic pigment indicated he had hand-tinted parts of his photos. While the Smithsonian credits him for his early findings, they did not remedy his tarnished reputation.
I think critics have been too tough on this guy.
After all, whether air-brushing images 30 years ago or Photoshopping them today, countless photographers have manipulated their work. We accepted “burning” and “dodging” in the wet darkroom to increase or decrease blackness. We now control brightness, hue, and opacity with computer software. We alter resolution and improve viewing by calibrating our monitors.
If Hill’s work were photojournalism, that would be different, but he was creating visions of bucolic towns. Was there really any harm in making the blue sky bluer or the grass greener? One could argue that, as an artist, Hill was entitled—maybe even mandated—to create drama.
Unfortunately, history has deemed the Hillotype a fake, but if Hill had been born later, he might have won a mixed-media award.