Graven Images: The hunger for an authentic image of Joseph

April 8, 2008 | 14 comments
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Ardis Parshall has presented in previous postings “The CSI Effect and Mormon History”, 3/20/2008, and “And Yet Another Joseph Smith Photograph”, 4/1/2008, arresting images that have, at first glance, an arguable relationship to our known historical depictions of the Prophet Joseph Smith, but turn out, on further research, to have no chance of being what we wish they were. In commenting on Ardis’ second post (#14, #48), I pointed out the reasons why there are likely to be a great many old images that resemble our mental image of the Prophet, and why it would be extremely difficult to verify any of them as a real image of Joseph.

This process bears a lot of resemblance to the hunt for evidence of UFOs. It is almost impossible to verify that a photo suspected of being a UFO is really one, but you can rule out many of them for various reasons.

The incentive to find a real UFO photo is much like the incentive to find a real Joseph Smith photo among the numerous suspects, which I will call an Unidentified Male Object (UMO): It would just be so flippin’ cool (substitute your favorite age-appropriate adverb and adjective) to find one. It is seen as a “pearl of great price” that is worth an extensive search to find, the gram of radium in the ton of pitchblende, the pony under the pile of horse manure.

Well, some people have strange hobbies (“Save the whales–collect all ten”), in which they become experts about very narrow topics, the hunt (as in the eBay commercials) being a great part of the emotional satisfaction. My wife collects dolls from the mid-Twentieth Century, as well as old quilts dating back to the 1860s. We found some of them in Alabama, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, Oregon and Illinois, in addition to our home states of Nebraska, California, Utah, Washington and Idaho. It is probably no more harmful than hobbies such as dipping plastic strings into rivers and lakes for hours on end (AKA “fishing”).

But the hazard in looking for an original photographic image of Joseph Smith is that it is related to the restored gospel, and thus can become a Gospel Hobby. If we start to give spiritual significance to this activity, there is a danger that it can become more important to us than actually living the gospel. Its pursuit, and our opinions about it, could become more important than our relationships with our spouses and families and fellow Saints. Whether there exists a photo of Joseph or not does not affect our salvation or exaltation, but devotion to finding one, and to trying to authenticate it, could transform it into a graven image that supplants God in our lives.

We know with certainty that we don’t know what Jesus really looked like, and many aspects of our mental image have been formed by the development of conventions in art over 2,000 years. BYU Studies discussed this process in a special issue with four topical articles in 2000 (e.g. Noel A. Carmack, “Images of Christ in Latter-day Saint Visual Culture, 1900–1999″, BYU Studies (2000), Volume 39, no. 3, at 18,) about this process of depicting Christ. The most popular images are reflections of what we want Christ to look like, rather than an image based on historical records or the possible DNA of his closest modern cousins. We aren’t even sure what a Jew of the First Century looked like, not to mention one who was partly descended from non-Israelites like Ruth and women like Bathsheba and Tamar. But the unavoidable inaccuracy of those portraits does not impair their usefulness in helping us picture the actions and teachings of the Savior that are described in scripture. Having a photographic image has nothing to do with the efficacy of the Atonement. We don’t need a photograph to exercise faith in him, or to verify that he is the Son of God, or that he really walked on the water or was resurrected.

The hunger for an authentic image of Jesus or his mother Mary drives the strange phenomenon of seeing, and in some religions even worshipping, random images formed or perceived in the bark of trees (as happened in Salt Lake City ten years ago), the side of a cow, a tortilla, or the surface of a grilled cheese sandwich, or toast. This urge to see meaningful faces in inanimate objects is called Pareidolia, derived from the Greek words para and eidolon, literally “like (an) idol”. The assumption seems to be that an image formed in this way, without purposeful human action, is “painted by God” and therefore is God’s accurate depiction of Jesus or his mother Mary, and as a direct work of God’s fingers, is almost on a par with the engraving of the Decalogue on the stone tablets, or for Mormons, the empowering of the 16 clear stones (including the Jaredite Urim and Thummim?).

The comparable danger is that someone might think that God is leading them to the true image of Joseph, causing them to invest emotional and spiritual significance in an image way ahead of rational verification. The unverified image of Joseph bears the same relationship to the real Joseph that the toast Jesus bears to the real Savior.

In one respect, what would be useful about having an authenticated photo of Joseph would be to verify that he was a man, and not a semi-divine creature, which is sort of the feeling that is produced from the cumulative effect of our appreciation of his accomplishments and the spiritual power of his testimony. The blessing of Richard Bushman’s book Rough Stone Rolling is that we can see divine power working through a real, unpolished man. Having a real photo of Joseph could give us some of the anchoring in reality that is produced by looking at photos of Brigham Young, especially the shot of the back of his head that appears in the endpapers of the book compiling his photos (Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, R. Q. Shupe, Brigham Young: Images of a Mormon Prophet, Eagle Gate, BYU Religious Studies Center, 2000).

There is, as Professor Henry Eyring liked to say, a value in knowing Joseph Smith and other leading brethren of the Church are real mortal men, because it gives us hope that the Lord can accept us, too. But even the pursuit of something worthwhile, “virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy”, if it consumes too much of our resources, can be spiritually harmful.

It is likely that, in light of the internet and the ability it gives us to search and share and discuss old UMOs, there is going to be a lot of UMO spotting anyway. I therefore would like to suggest that creating a formalized process for screening UMOs and evaluating them in an open process would help people keep the hobby in proper proportion, would quell some of the conspiracy theories people cook up about why the Church might rather not find a photo of Joseph, and would, like the case above, help us to avoid spending time duplicating the research already done by others. Since some members in a 13 million member church are going to do it anyway, why not create a methodology that makes the process as efficient as possible, and educates people engaged in the hobby how to do it properly, so they are less likely to think they can rely on inspiration or angelic delivery?

While the newspaper with genealogical information that was miraculously delivered from England to Logan in three days actually led to salvific work being done in the new Logan Temple, there is no obvious direct salvific benefit from verifying a real photo of Joseph, so it is an order of magnitude less deserving of the kind of miraculous intervention that has sometimes been experienced in missionary work and family history research.

Why not take action to inject standards of scholarship and integrity into the process of sifting through UMOs for a possible picture of Joseph, so it is not transformed from a hobby into a Gospel Hobby that interferes with doing what Joseph would actually want us to be doing?

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14 Responses to Graven Images: The hunger for an authentic image of Joseph

  1. Jonathan Green on April 8, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    Calling Bathsheba slutty is really uncalled for. And what does it have to do with how Jesus may or may not have looked?

    [Post has been suitably edited.]

  2. Ivan Wolfe on April 8, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    what does it have to do with how Jesus may or may not have looked?

    While slutty does see over the top, since Uriah was a Hittite and not an Israelite, it seems like his wife was also not an Israelite. That seemed to be the point – that Christ clearly had some non-Israelite DNA.

  3. Adam Greenwood on April 8, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    Great title, sir, and a great post too. Thanks.

  4. Jacob F on April 8, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    Great post. As far as what Jesus looked like, I’ve always thought the Jehovah’s Witnesses put themselves at a disadvantage by depicting Jesus the way they thought he looked (i.e. shorter hair), instead of using a traditional depiction.

    On the other hand, I really liked the wardrobing in New Line’s The Nativity Story movie, where nearly all the people — including Mary — were dressed in colorless, burlap-type clothing. This is in stark contrast to the typical depiction of this period, with people’s robes, sashes, and head scarves representing almost a kaleidescope of colors. The former seems to be a more accurate depiction, and I admit it made the movie feel more authentic. I guess I’m partly idolatrous…

  5. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 8, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    The argument can be made that there is value in seeing ANY image from the period of Joseph’s life, because it tells us about the dress and grooming of his contemporaries, and helps us understand something about how he likely appeared.

    My Japanese grandfather served in Siberia with the Imperial Army right after World War I (a long story), and I have seen no family photo of him in uniform, but I would still love to see a picture of soldiers from that time and place to help me picture what he looked like then. My mother spent the last months of World War II at the silk farm of her mother’s family in the mountains north of Nagoya. I have seen no pictures of their own facility, but I obtained some old stereoopticon slides showing silkworm growing, and my mother confirmed that the images were representative. (She described how the thousands of caterpillars made a loud “zaa zaa” noise as they ate mulberry leaves.)

    So developing an authentic picture of the clothing and hair styles of the time can help us improve our mental images, as well as artistic representations. We should just be wary of letting our desire influence our perceptions about authenticity.

  6. Ray on April 8, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    #1 – Huh?

    Raymond, I think your comment #5 really nails the motivation for the search – a desire to feel connected in a physical way, rather than “just” in a spiritual way. It is understandable, but it also is (perhaps) a benign replacement for admiration and respect for a person – like rosary beads and crosses and other physical objects that make us feel closer to God. Hence, your title – right? When one desires so strongly to connect to an image or object that appears to represent a prophet or God that she is unable to admire or worship without it – that it infringes on the connection that exists *without* the image or object – then it truly has become a graven image, no matter how harmless or even uplifting the image or object is otherwise.

    Thanks for the chance to consider this. I need to think more about it.

  7. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 8, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    Ray (#6): Yes, that is what I am trying to get at.

    With respect to what has been proposed as the photo of Oliver Cowdery, which appears on the cover of the new BYU Studies book about him, the image has a different emotional quality than the artists’ renditions. It gives a feeling of reality to his testimonies about meeting heavenly messengers, including John the Baptist, Moroni, the Savior, Moses and Elijah. With our experience with motion pictures, you almost expect the image to start moving and reciting Cowdery’s flowery prose about the emotional experience of feeling the Baptist’s resurrected hands on his head, ordaining him to a preisthood that had not existed on earth for 1700 years. Certainly the videos the Church has produced portraying Cowdery’s visionary experiences with Joseph are intended to help us feel the reality of what his written testimony really means.

    If we had a clear photograph of Joseph Smith, one that we were confident was the life image of the Prophet, then believing Latter-day Saints would look into his eyes and think of him testifying about how he had seen with those eyes the Father and the Son in the Sacred Grove, seen Christ on the pulpit of the Kirtland Temple and heard with those ears a voice testifying of him as Creator and Redeemer of countless worlds and the inhabitants thereof.

    That emotional connection is similar to the one provoked by the little Church video about the old woman who tells the children a story of how her ancestor shook the hand of the Prophet, and who grasped her hand in turn, telling her to remember that she had that direct connection to the Prophet. Then she takes the hand of each of the children so they can literally feel that connection to Joseph and his remarkable experiences with God.

    So when we look for pictures of the Prophet, we are hoping to experience a confirmation of the reality of his experiences with God.

  8. Bob on April 8, 2008 at 9:57 pm

    I do not care if they prove or disprove the possible photos are of Joseph Smith. But I do think we know what he looked like. Most of the drawings (poor) and paintings ( some very good), are from the Nauvoo period, and I don’t think have ever been challenged (?). Many people who knew Joseph personally, seemed to accept them (?), even during the early Salt Lake years.

    I don’t see a need for physical objects as a drift from Mormonism. I think early Mormonism used the Book of Mormon, not so much as a “scripture’, but as a physical prove of Joseph Smith being a Prophet of God.

  9. Marianne on April 8, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    Anyone who has attended a testimony meeting at Girls’ Camp (or properly, YW Camp) should be naturally skeptical about confusing emotion for the influence of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, we often don’t stop to parse the feelings, trusting in the emotion rather than searching out the Spirit that may or may not be there as well.

  10. Dave on April 9, 2008 at 10:59 am

    Gospel hobbies … like blogging?

  11. Dave on April 9, 2008 at 11:29 am

    The claim that some LDS deeply desire an authentic photo of Joseph Smith as a link to the real Joseph Smith suggests consideration of the LDS depictions of Nephites, which has developed its own stylistic conventions but seems to spring (as far as I can tell) entirely from the imagination of LDS artists and illustrators. In other words, no one claims that standard LDS depictions of Nephites (obligatory headband, colorful dress, surprisingly clean and well groomed for indigenous people, and never ever slutty) bear any relationship to what Nephites might actually have looked like, but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Should it? What relation, if any, does authenticity of depiction (visual truth?) have to the truth of religious assertions? And why would a photograph of Joseph Smith be “more true” than a painted portrait?

  12. Ardis Parshall on April 9, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    And why would a photograph of Joseph Smith be “more true” than a painted portrait?

    Because the painted eyes didn’t see what the eyes in a photograph saw. Because none of the painted portraits are particularly realistic anyway — Maudsley’s several portraits resemble nothing so much as a cartoon, for instance. Because Joseph actually would have sat for the camera (should a photo really exist); Liz Lemon’s portraits, pretty as they are, never crossed paths with Joseph.

    But this is also the reason why it is important to ensure that any purported Joseph Smith photo really *is* of Joseph Smith, not somebody else who kinda sorta might look like him, an image that kinda sorta might have a possibility of having passed down through unknown channels.

  13. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 9, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    To Dave (#11): Of course, your are correct that the underlying truth of Joseph Smith’s work is not dependent on our knowing precisely what he looked like.

    One of my favorite true stories about a person gaining a testimony of the Book of Mormon is the experience of Vincenzo di Francesca, reported in the Ensign (Jan. 1988, at 18), and dramatized in the Church video “How Rare a Possession.” He found a copy on a barrel of ashes, missing its title page and the introductory material, but read it through and gained a testimony of it through prayer. He then began using it to preach sermons in his church, which got him dismissed. It was years before he learned how to contact the Church, and more years before he could be baptized.

    Nevertheless, visual depictions about the Book of Mormon abound, including the Arnold Friberg muscle man paintings inside missionary editions, the versions for children, and the Hill Cumorah Pageant. They are means to introduce the Book of Mormon to our neighbors, and teach our children.

    In the discussion on Ardis’ post, the enthusiasm with which photography spread in America from its introduction in 1840 shows the emotional impact of having an image that has not been filtered through the mind of an artist. That is true for many subjects. People risk their lives to save photo albums from burning homes. The desire for a true image of Jospeh can be understood, but what I hope to point out is that we need to take care that our enthusiasm does not outrun our knowledge.

  14. Mark Steele on April 12, 2008 at 5:38 pm

    We do try and establish paintings of Christ as the \’real\’ ones. \”This woman had a near death experience and met Christ, and after she came back she said this painting looked exactly like him\” kind of thing.

    I vote for the \’realistic to the period\’ approach you suggested, though as you mentioned probably no one alive today really knows what the people of Christ\’s time looked like, and how they dressed.