A Mormon Image: A Photograph of Joseph?

December 3, 2003 | 19 comments
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Some believe that this image is a photograph of the Prophet Joseph Smith. If they are right, it is the only known photographic image of Joseph . . .

According to his son, Joseph Smith III, the Prophet had a daguerreotype made in Nuavoo shortly before his death. A daguerreotype is a very early and primative form of photography that was just becoming available in the 1840s. We know that a Mormon convert in Nauvoo could produce daguerreotypes and he set up a studio and began advertising in the original Times and Seasons shortly after Joseph’s murder. Daguerreotype were very small, about the size of a postage stamp, and Joseph Smith III claims to have had such a daguerreotype of his father. In 1879 he made a copy of the daguerreotype by photographing it. Some claim that this image, now in the Library of Congress, is that photograph. It is much larger than the original daguerreotype would have been, hence the grainy quality. In addition, some of the hair and clothing has been touched up with a pencil or paint. Some skeptics claim that this is a photograph of a painting, probably this one, rather than of a daguerreotype. Defenders of the daguerreotype thesis, however, point to some striking details. For example, there is a small scar on the upper lip of the photograph. We know that Joseph had such a scar as a result of his beating by a mob in Ohio that tried to foce poison through his clenched lips. In addition, the pupils in the photograph are dialted to different widths, a natural reaction to raking light, but one that painters don’t often pick up on.

Bottom line, this is a disputed image, but there is a good chance that you are looking at a photograph of Joseph Smith.

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19 Responses to A Mormon Image: A Photograph of Joseph?

  1. Adam Greenwood on December 3, 2003 at 5:20 pm

    Joseph Smith seems really smooth-skinned in the photo, but is that just because of the poor quality? I notice that I always look more noble and less blemished in blurry photographs.

  2. Paul Smith on December 3, 2003 at 10:36 pm

    I think this is pretty obviously a photograph of the painting. Everything appears exactly the same, even down to the small ray of light in his left (our right) eye. Study it closely, I think you’ll agree.

  3. david gallagher on December 4, 2003 at 9:35 am

    The painting has none of the photographic-looking subtlety of the daguerrotype. Another possibility is that the painting was based on this image.

    The bottom of the tie is obviously retouched, but the lower right corner with the button and coat details are strikingly realistic down to the depth-of-field blur in the most foreground elements.

    I think it’s a retouched photograph.

    Also take a look at this photo. I saw a print of it years ago in person, and it included the body too, if I remember correctly.

    http://wind.prohosting.com/rlanwood/earlyjoe.jpg

  4. david gallagher on December 4, 2003 at 9:36 am
  5. David Gallagher on December 4, 2003 at 9:44 am

    Another useful link. This includes discussion and background of the image:

    http://comevisit.com/lds/faq-dld.htm

  6. Paul Smith on December 4, 2003 at 11:39 am

    I didn’t think about the fact that the paintinf is of the daguerrotype. That seems to be, after reading from the link, the most logical conclusion. Thanks.

  7. Nate on December 4, 2003 at 3:32 pm

    I am curious about the second photograph that David posted. I have never seen it before. I am a bit skeptical. It seems a bit young and the cheek bones seem less promient than they should be. (BTW, we have a good control on what Joseph looked like from his death mask — a plaster copy of his face — taken at Nuavoo shortly after his death.) Also, I have always heard that there was no photographer in Nauvoo until 1844. Obviously, I am no expert on this. I am just curious…

  8. andrew petrou on January 1, 2004 at 10:51 pm

    I am a portrait painter and a member of the LDS church and I can already safely say that the alleged photo is in no way a photo of a painting.
    However,I also possess a degree in Archaeology and it is certainly easy these days to fake a small thing like a photo.BUT if the only debate is that the photo is supposed to be a photo of a painting THEN this is a photo of the Prophet.

  9. Claudia J Stearn on February 14, 2004 at 6:03 am

    Can someone help me with this photo that I have posted. I would like to know anything about it….Thank you..Claudia

  10. Claudia J Stearn on February 14, 2004 at 6:06 am

    I’m sorry here it is. Please email me if you have any info on it….Thank you…..Claudia

    http://imagehost.vendio.com/preview/cl/claudiaandbill/aclock030.jpg

  11. courtney on April 6, 2004 at 9:27 pm

    this is a photograph the LDS church had experts come in and look at it and yes it is real. (they looked at the eye lashes/hair really close up)

  12. matt on May 28, 2004 at 1:18 am

    I don’t have a problem with this being a true photograph, but as I compare it to the deathmask, it is hard to see any resemblance at all. That makes me wonder if it is Joseph Smith or someone else we are looking at.

  13. dave on August 7, 2004 at 8:26 pm

    I am an amateur photographer and I have a very keen eye, but am by no means an expect. I would surmise that the photography posted above is quite similar to the painting linked at: http://www.comevisit.com/lds/1RLDS.JPG

    Observe specifically the orientation of the face, the shadows, and the neckline on the coat. It is almost exactly the same.

    Furthermore, the photo has a certain surreal quality about it. It’s too smooth and clear for a enlarged photograph of an early daguerrotype.

    That’s my opinion anyway… Your mileage may differ! :-)

  14. dave on August 7, 2004 at 8:27 pm

    I am an amateur photographer and I have a very keen eye, but am by no means an expert. I would surmise that the photography posted above is quite similar to the painting linked at: http://www.comevisit.com/lds/1RLDS.JPG

    Observe specifically the orientation of the face, the shadows, and the neckline on the coat. It is almost exactly the same.

    Furthermore, the photo has a certain surreal quality about it. It’s too smooth and clear for a enlarged photograph of an early daguerrotype.

    That’s my opinion anyway… Your mileage may differ! :-)

  15. andrew petrou on November 1, 2004 at 9:33 pm

    Joseph Smith had an unusually smooth face due to the (eyewitness reported) fact that he was unable to grow a beard at all.This is further proof that the photo is real.
    Hence the unusual smoothness of the face.

  16. Anonymous on November 21, 2004 at 12:08 am
  17. Kim Smith on December 14, 2004 at 12:45 am

    My grandma and grandpa smith had copies of the paintings of Joseph and Emma, my great great grandparents, the paintings that hang in the mansion house in Nauvoo. The originals are in Independence. The one of Joseph is almost exactly like this photograph. I have been told by some that is a picture of that painting, but if one compares them there are some slight differences. I can only say that when looking at the picture I can see strong resemblances of family; my son, some of my cousins and my brother. It is hard to trust many images taken from the death mask because Uncle Joseph III said that some features were too pronounced, he felt from damages caused from the impact of the fall from the Carthage Jail. David Lindsley’s portrait of Joseph also resembles much of the family. Personally I feel that this is indeed a true photograph, though I am no expert. It is an interesting exploration, especially for the family.

  18. W Thompson on December 17, 2004 at 4:58 pm

    If you all want to see a REAL photo of Joseph Smith, go to lincolnportrait.com.
    Compare this photo with the death mask-it’s him, moles and all.

  19. W Thompson on December 17, 2004 at 4:59 pm

    By the way, I’m the one who recognized this as being JS.

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