Archive for January 19th, 2012

I was rummaging around in one of my favorite sites, Luminous Lint, looking for something that would somehow sum up the world of Kodak and Kodachrome film on this day when they file for bankruptcy, the end of an era.  As I flipped through the photos this image caught my eye.  There was a blaze of green that lit up the edge of it and flecked through the faded and vague image of a farmhouse giving it an otherworldly glow. It reminded me of the effect I wanted in much of my early work, of the image seeming to be somehow pulled from time and space, leaving it in a rough-edged cell.

Reading below it I discovered that the photographer was Levi L. Hill and that was taken in 1851 in Greene County in the Catskills of New York.  It also said that this may be one of the first color photos taken and that Hall came across the image accidentally and spent the last 15 years of his life trying to recapture the effect.

Levi Hill Portrait

Intriguing.  I decided I wanted to know more and came immediately across an article from the Catskill Mountain Foundation titled Levi L. Hill: Fool or Fake? by writer Carolyn Bennett.  The whole story is a bit more involved and even more interesting.  It seems that Hill began a Quixotic journey to discover color photography after a discussion with famed Hudson River painter Asher Durand who told him that if he could find a way to capture color with photography he would be far ahead of all of the painters of the time.  The public was crazy for photoimages and especially clamored for color.  The man who discovered a color process would gain renown and fortune. 

So Hill started an intensive search even though he had little training in chemistry or science, performing thousands of experiments.  The image above was one of the few, if limited, successes and that was merely by chance.  His grand quest ended with his death in 1865 at the age of 49.  To get a better sense of this little known bit of photo history I suggest reading the article from the Catskill Mountain Foundation mentioned above or an article from Smithsonian curator Michelle Anne Delaney that talks about Hill’s work and the museum efforts to determine if he was indeed a fraud or a genuine trailblazer.

Whatever the case, I still am intrigued by his image.

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