That Daguerreotype Again (2 of 2)

May 4, 2008 | 6 comments
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Chapters 9 and 10 of Millions Shall Know Brother Joseph Again deal with purported photographs of Joseph Smith, including the Scannel daguerreotype. I have carefully avoided reading Jared T’s review, Part 4, dealing with these chapters, wanting to be fair to author S. Michael Tracy by offering an independent review. But as my drafts grew to page after tedious page, knowing that I would be straining the patience of readers by repeating many of Jared’s thoughts, I have finally read his Part 4. I endorse it, and add only a few paragraphs to what he wrote.

Artificial scholarship. Millions imitates the trappings of scholarship in a way which undermines the confidence of the reader. Two among many possible examples:

Pages 239-241 reproduce a report on University of Wyoming stationery signed by someone with the ambiguous title? credential? institutional position? of “Academic Professional Research Scientist”; this report describes this person’s examination of photos of a skull and death mask superimposed on a daguerreotype. None of the items is identified, but given the context I suppose we are to assume that these are the Scannel daguerreotype, the Joseph death mask, and the skull that Tracy has identified as Joseph’s although everyone else identifies it as Hyrum’s. The report is general in the extreme: he refers to “correspondence markers” but does not identify them; he refers repeatedly to the “placement” of features (presumably meaning that the nose is placed between the eyes and above the mouth?) as being “very similar” to the point where he discerns “a biological” – he means “genetic” – connection between the man in the daguerreotype and the skull. I have more experience with courtrooms than with science labs; I know that no judge would allow this letter to be entered into evidence because its conclusions are so utterly unsupported by the vague and superficial description of the underlying study.

Chapter 9 begins with a brief and very layman-friendly overview of the development of photography – an essential prelude to discussing the possibility that Joseph Smith was photographed, since readers might otherwise not appreciate the very narrow time frame during which such an image was technologically feasible. This overview, however, as useful and necessary as it is, demonstrates the shallowness of this book’s supporting evidence. That is, the overview ends with a reference to Appendix D “for more detailed information regarding the development of daguerreian photography.” That appendix, where the reader was promised in-depth information, consists of a timeline listing 33 events, only 14 of which are remotely related to photography (stretching that relationship to include the birth of Kodak’s George Eastman); the greater share of entries are for presidential elections, the discovery of gold in California, commencement of publication of the New York Tribune, the national tour of singer Jenny Lind, and similar events that tell us nothing about photography.

Wishful thinking. Chapter 9 identifies some time periods where Joseph Smith was physically present in cities where daguerreotypists were or may have been in business, making it at least technologically possible for Joseph to have sat for an image. The author asserts that Joseph was the kind of curious, forward-thinking young man who should have been intrigued by new technology. He reproduces broadcast conversations of LDS archivists who agree that “the possibilities are there” for Joseph to have been the subject of a photograph. Yet all these “possibles” and “we hopes” of Chapter 9 become Chapter 10′s opening line: “As documented in the previous chapter, it is highly likely that Joseph had his photograph taken.” There are multiple similar instances in these chapters where “possible” becomes “likely” or even “proven.”

Inconsistency. The author acknowledges that when comparing skulls to photographs to death masks, the images must all be adjusted to a matching perspective. That is, if a photograph shows the subject turned to the right, the death mask must be turned right to the same degree. Yet he repeatedly draws conclusions while failing to make those adjustments in perspective:

The familiar Carson (the “top knot”) photo-of-a-painting shows Joseph turned somewhat to his right (you can judge that by how much more of his left shoulder and collar are visible than his right shoulder and collar). Yet the image of the skull superimposed over that photo/painting on page 171 faces the viewer straight on. The forward-facing skull doesn’t align to the turned photo/painting? What a surprise!

A similar failure to account for a difference in perspective appears on page 210, where the Scannel daguerreotype is described. Demonstrating that the pictured man has the distinctive “Smith nose,” Tracy says “The nose is strong, even though looking straight on.” Yet the very next sentence acknowledges that the view is not straight on: “You can see the right ear well but the left is hid more, some by hair and some partly by the slight turn of the head toward that side.”

Provenance. This, you might suppose, is the big question for me, the one I am in the best position to evaluate. How does Tracy deal with the problem of provenance? He doesn’t. He acknowledges that “no photograph has an exact provenance linking it back to Joseph Smith,” but then proceeds as though that were no problem. It is a problem. The problem is more than the lack of a type of evidence that would have been useful had it existed; the problem is that the lack of provenance introduces problems that Tracy completely ignores. I won’t rehash the problems of a lack of provenance which we have been over in previous posts. It is enough here to say that scholarship demands that reasonable objections be addressed. It is not acceptable merely to present evidence in support of your thesis while ignoring contrary evidence.

The extraordinary thing is that Tracy does introduce new details into the provenance of the Scannel daguerreotype: I did not know until reading Millions that the daguerreotype was donated together with an Emma Smith-compiled hymnal bearing the name of William Orr Scannel, presumably its one-time owner. This establishes at least a whiff of a connection between the Scannel donors and Mormonism. Oddly, however, Tracy reports no attempt to develop this connection. There is no suggestion that he traced the genealogy of the donor back to the Smith ancestor (something I accomplished in a little more than an hour), or that he attempted to establish a family link between Emily L. Smith (the Scannel ancestor) and Joseph Smith, or that he investigated early LDS or later RLDS records to know whether or discover when and where the Scannels were connected to Mormonism.

Illogic. When Tracy administers his tests (and Jared has outlined the lack of background information on these tests for a reader to judge their evidentiary quality), he proceeds with an astounding logical error. He announces that “this study will assume each image is Joseph until proven otherwise.” The fallacy of such a methodology should be obvious: It presupposes that in fact we do have a photograph of Joseph Smith among the candidates, and says, in effect, that “I will prove this image is Joseph Smith by beginning with the assumption that it is Joseph Smith.”

I do expect that this book will do well in the LDS market. It appeals to a desire common to many of us to connect with the Prophet Joseph Smith by looking into his eyes. It is a handsome book. It has the whiz-bang glamour of science. Unfortunately, however, readers are given no way to understand, no reason to place confidence in, those whiz-bang tests and claims. Too many book buyers (as opposed to book readers) will be deceived by pretty but unexplained illustrations. That is wrong.

My hat is off to S. Michael Tracy, however, for his civility. I visited his open house early in the afternoon when Tracy was surrounded by curious visitors, then went back later to buy a copy of the book to review. My second visit was a quick in and out. I was halfway across the lobby of the Joseph Smith building when I heard someone call my name. It was Tracy, who had to know that I was highly skeptical of claims advanced for the Scannel daguerreotype. Yet he make a positive effort to face me, shake my hand, and say a few kind words. I did not expect that.

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6 Responses to That Daguerreotype Again (2 of 2)

  1. Edje on May 4, 2008 at 11:50 pm

    Thanks for the review, Ardis.

  2. Ardis Parshall on May 5, 2008 at 12:02 am

    KUED (Channel 7, Salt Lake market) has scheduled a Utah NOW episode for next Friday, 8:30. The website blurb says:

    Picturing Joseph Smith
    May 9th, 2008
    An early form of the photograph called the daguerreotype has reemerged recently which is raising some interesting questions. The researcher Michael Tracy insists it is the only known photographic image of the Mormon founder Joseph Smith. Next week on Utah NOW, we’ll look at the forensic and historical evidence and explore the power of an image.

  3. David G. on May 5, 2008 at 12:45 am

    Thanks Ardis for this clear and concise review.

  4. Jared T. on May 5, 2008 at 2:58 am

    Ardis, great job. Yea, I forgot about that “Time line of the Daguerreian Era”. I think the author might be able to get away with this in that the title says clearly that this is about the era when daguerreotypes were in use, not a time line of the history of the daguerreotype. I guess it’s fine the way it is–given it’s stated objective. But honestly, wouldn’t it have been more helpful to lay out a time line of significant places, people, and events (especially those relating to the specific time and topic at hand) connected with the history of daguerreotypes?

  5. Ardis Parshall on May 5, 2008 at 9:08 am

    Jared T, the title of Appendix D does call it “daguerreian era,” but the text sent me to Appendix D with the promise of “more detailed information regarding the development of daguerreian photography.” It was a very plain example of repeated — failed — promises to provide supporting evidence.

  6. Kevin Barney on May 5, 2008 at 10:28 am

    Thanks for this, Ardis.