Media outlets caused a stir when they announced that the first-known photo of Joseph Smith had been discovered in 2022. The daguerreotype had a stronger provenance than any earlier candidate, but it still lacked hard data prior to 1992, making it difficult to objectively authenticate. In this interview, Curtis G. Weber explains that his amateur forensic analysis may support claims that the man in the the Smith-Larsen daguerreotype could be Joseph Smith.
Editor’s note. This interview is based off advanced notes from Curtis G. Weber’s forensic analysis of the purported Joseph Smith photo that will be shared at the 2023 Mormon History Association Conference in Rochester, New York.
Summarize the current arguments for and against the Smith-Larsen daguerreotype.
There are two main arguments against this and every purported photograph of Joseph Smith.
First, there is no contemporary documentation that Smith was ever photographed, and none of the purported images of Smith have ever been authenticated.
Second, if he had been photographed, where has the photograph been all this time?
Through my research on the topic, I had become fairly convinced that the reason we didn’t have an authenticated image of Joseph was simply that he had not ever been photographed.
As to the Larsen daguerreotype specifically, most of the objections I’ve seen have to do with individual reactions to the image itself, as well as specific claims about various features of the face in the daguerreotype that supposedly don’t match Joseph’s death mask, descriptions of his appearance, or contemporary artwork.
The arguments for the Larsen daguerreotype include the initial work done by Ron Romig and Lachlan Mackay—the two researchers who announced the discovery of the daguerreotype—and my own analysis (which I will describe in some detail in this interview).
What’s the known provenance?
According to Dan Larsen’s account, he received a collection of family keepsakes from his mother, Lois Smith Larsen, before she died in November 1992. Among the items were pocket watches that belonged to Lois’s father, Frederick M. Smith, second president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (RLDS), and her grandfather, Joseph Smith III, first president of the RLDS church, and a smaller locket which Dan assumed was also a pocket watch.
In early 1993 he examined these inherited family items and was unable to open the smaller locket, and he placed them back in the cardboard box in which they had been conveyed to him and didn’t look at them for the next 27 years.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Dan and his wife were discussing family related issues and decided to examine the items Dan’s mother had given him. He still couldn’t open the smaller locket using the release button, so he gently popped it open using a sharp knife he uses as a letter opener. He found the locket did not contain a watch, but he couldn’t quite tell what was inside.
He thought he could faintly see something and used a penlight to illuminate the surface, thus discovering it contained a photograph; and upon seeing the eyes in the image, he immediately thought it could be his great-great-grandfather, Joseph Smith.
We know nothing definitive beyond that story, though there are clues hinting the locket might have once belonged to Emma Smith.
What made you decide to try and authenticate it using science?
I was approached in February 2008 and asked how one might authenticate a newly discovered daguerreotype of Joseph, and I immediately became interested and immersed in the subject. To make a long story less interesting, that image turned out to be a known image of someone who is not Joseph and he didn’t match Joseph anatomy precisely. But in the process of testing that image, I learned that in 1928 the remains of Hyrum and Joseph Smith had been identified, exhumed, and photographed before being reinterred at their current gravesite.
Furthermore, I learned Ron Romig and Lachlan Mackay—two researchers from Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS church)—had conducted “primitive comparisons” between the 1928 skull photographs, death masks of Hyrum and Joseph, and the Scannel daguerreotype (another purported photograph of Joseph) and concluded the remains of the two brothers had been misidentified in 1928.
Shannon Michael Tracy, a computer programmer interested in determining what Hyrum and Joseph really looked like, produced a book in 1995, In Search of Joseph, which ostensibly shows forensic evidence proving Hyrum’s and Joseph’s remains had indeed been misidentified. In reaction to these claims and Tracy’s book, Dee Jay Bawden, an artist and sculptor who has done careful work reconstructing Joseph’s likeness since the 1970s, produced a series of forensic drawings matching the death masks and skulls of Hyrum and Joseph anatomically, claiming that the remains of the Prophet and Patriarch had been correctly identified.
I carefully considered Tracy’s and Bawden’s contradictory evidence and found both to be forensically deficient. I couldn’t believe that in 2008, with all of the scientific knowledge and technology at our disposal, we didn’t know for certain where Hyrum and Joseph were buried!
So, I decided to conduct my own forensic study, improving on previous efforts by fitting photographs of the two earliest known sets of death masks over the photographs of Hyrum and Joseph’s skulls using tissue depth studies and principles of anatomy and craniofacial reconstruction.
My research showed that Bawden was indeed right: The remains of Hyrum and Joseph were correctly identified in 1928.
So, since February 2008 I’ve developed a habit of forensically examining purported images of Joseph Smith, using my library of over 700 photos of the two oldest sets of death masks of Hyrum and Joseph to test anatomical correspondences between purported images of Joseph and his death mask. I learned of the Larsen daguerreotype the day it was announced to the world, and I thought I would be able to dismiss it within 15 to 20 minutes.
Instead, I have been studying the image for the past 10 months, and I have been continually surprised and even stunned by the evidence I’ve found.
Describe your process.
I’ve demonstrated through my research that the death masks of Joseph Smith are reliable depictions of the profile and vertical spacing of Joseph’s face; and I showed with precision to the quarter millimeter how Joseph’s mask matches only his skull—and I showed the same for Hyrum’s mask and skull.
Therefore, I use Joseph’s death mask and the 1928 photographs and dimensions of his skull as the primary basis for analyzing purported images of him. Using my 700+ mask photographs and the recently released Church History Department 3D models of the death masks, I attempt to place the mask at the approximate angle of the face in a given image and test how they align—a technique known in forensic anthropology as a photo superimposition. To be forensic, you have to account not only for the relative angle of the face but for lighting, lens size, and distance from camera to subject as much as possible.
Using the skull photos with this technique is a little more difficult as we only have two useable 1928 photographs of each skull—right lateral and anterior views—and the mandibles were not positioned in an anatomically correct position relative to the cranium in any of them. Fortunately, most purported photos show anterior views of the subject’s face, so the anterior photos of the skulls can be used as-is to some extent. However, we can also create 3D models of the skulls which can be used with some degree of confidence. If we cannot demonstrate a reasonably close match to Joseph’s mask and skull across multiple features, the odds of an image being authentic are probably quite low.
I’ve also used Dee Jay Bawden’s forensic drawings in comparisons since I have demonstrated they are based on accurate source material, even if there are relatively minor inaccuracies in them. I also use historic depictions of Joseph, written descriptions, and images of genetic relatives for comparisons in my work.
What’s your professional background or relevant expertise?
Truthfully, I was a little tempted to entitle my presentation “Let an unlearned linguist teach you a little craniofacial reconstruction”! My education and work experience are in history, languages, and technology—nothing specific to this topic—which causes some people to reject my work outright.
When I began contemplating whether I could perform my own study of the skulls and masks, I had to study textbooks and articles written by experts in the pertinent fields: anatomy, craniofacial reconstruction, and photography. I’m still in that process of learning about anything and everything related to this subject, but I feel I have a strong understanding of the primary sources and methodologies that can and should be employed in this research.
I’ve presented my work to one forensic anthropologist with 18 years of experience, and he concluded my work is methodologically sound. I’m confident the majority of forensic anthropologists would make the same assessment, though I know there are some who are dismissive of at least aspects of the methodologies I’ve employed.
What Joseph Smith painting hung in Emma Smith’s bedroom?
Junius F. Wells visited Emma Smith Bidamon in her Nauvoo home during the winter of 1875–76, and she allowed him to see an oil painting of Joseph which hung in her bedroom. Emma conveyed this painting, along with the companion painting of herself, to Joseph Smith III before her passing, with explicit permission to have the portrait of Joseph photographed.
Joseph III had photographic copies of the painting made and sold them for many years. The painting remained in the Smith family and passed into the possession of the RLDS church. The painting currently hangs in the Community of Christ Temple in Independence, MO.
Photographic images derived from a daguerreotype of the painting of Joseph were also created and advertised in 1885 by Utah photographer Charles W. Carter as “Joseph Smith, the Prophet, copied from the original daguerreotype, taken at the City of Nauvoo, in 1843”, which prompted Wells to state publicly that Carter’s images were simply copies of the painting Emma had shown him during his visit with her ten years earlier.
How did it’s attribution change?
I have not been able to find anything on the painting’s provenance. According to Nelson Wadsworth’s published research, and conversations I’ve had with Lachlan Mackay, the painting was once attributed to William Major, an artist who arrived in Nauvoo after Joseph was killed.
Sometime prior to 1972 the attribution was changed to “artist unknown” after it was noted the style of the portrait does not seem to match Major’s skill level and style.
Glenn Leonard either conducted or commissioned research on the painting about 16 years ago, and he concluded it was painted by David Rogers. According to Joseph Smith’s journal, Joseph sat for a “Brother Rogers” on four days during a five-day span in September 1842.
Community of Christ accepted that unpublished research at face value and have been displaying the painting with the David Rogers attribution ever since.
Is there any evidence that the painter used Joseph’s son as a live model?
There is no contemporary evidence indicating who the artist was or when the painting was created—only claims made decades after the fact; so, there is nothing in writing about how the painting was created (unless you believe it was painted by Joseph sitting for Rogers in September 1842).
The only evidence about the creation of the painting of which I am aware is the forensic evidence I have discovered indicating Frederick G. W. Smith was used as a live model for the artist, with details of Joseph’s face added to the painting using the Larsen daguerreotype and a copy of Joseph’s death mask (see below for more details).
Was the painting was created from the Smith-Larsen daguerreotype?
There are at least 52 correspondences between the painting and the unreversed Larsen daguerreotype, 40 of which are high or precise. Everything from the angle of the head and the shape of the hair (not the height) to the shape of the eyes, nose, nasolabial folds, and mouth match these features in the unreversed daguerreotype. Even many of the shadows and highlights in the painting match the daguerreotype, and there are two details in the painting which may have come from optical illusions caused by flaws or scratches in the protective glass over the daguerreotype.
When I saw this evidence, I realized several things almost immediately:
- Unreversed daguerreotype. This famous portrait of Joseph Smith appears to have been created from the unreversed Larsen daguerreotype—and implies the man in the daguerreotype is indeed Joseph Smith!
- Laterally reversed. The painting is backwards—laterally reversed—just as the daguerreotype is reversed (daguerreotypes are essentially mirrors and thus almost always backwards; and the precise correspondences to Joseph’s death mask only exist when the daguerreotype image is laterally reversed).
- Post-martyrdom. This painting was likely created after Joseph was killed—the most plausible explanation as to why his face was painted backwards!
Forensic evidence in support of a Joseph Smith photograph
I was stunned when I discovered this; and I was surprised yet again every time I discovered more evidence to support each of these conclusions.
Here’s what I’ve discovered so far:
1. Joseph’s face is not symmetrical.
Joseph’s face is not symmetrical. The right half is wider than the left, as seen when each half of his mask is mirrored; but the opposite is true of the painting. What is supposedly the “right” half Joseph’s face in the painting is the narrow half (which is also true of the unreversed Larsen daguerreotype).
2. His nose curves to the right.
The tip of Joseph’s nose in the mask curves gently to his right, while the tip of the nose in the painting gently curves in the opposite direction.
3. Daguerreotypes are different.
Daguerreotypes don’t capture colors the way modern black and white photography does—reds, oranges, yellows, and greens all turn out very dark.
Existing locks of Joseph’s hair match descriptions by those who said it was flaxen, chestnut, or golden brown—colors in the orange family which deceptively appear much darker in a daguerreotype.
Apparently, the artist wasn’t aware of this scientific fact and painted the hair very dark based on the daguerreotype, indicating he had never seen Joseph in life—or at least not his hair!
4. There are significant differences.
There are noticeable differences between the Larsen daguerreotype and the painting—most notably, eyebrow size, shape, and position; eye size; nose height; mouth width; ear size and shape; and the width and shape of the face at the ears. I was stunned to discover that each of these different shapes in the painting match the features of Joseph’s second son, Frederick G. W. Smith.
In all there are 22 precise correspondences between the painting and Frederick’s face as seen in the three known images of him. Positing Fredrick as a live model explains much about the painting:
- It matches Frederick’s face. The width of Joseph’s face in the painting is about 5% wider than Joseph’s face in reality (as shown by Bawden forensic reconstruction); but the painting’s face width matches Frederick’s face perfectly, including the asymmetrical shapes at the left and right sides of Frederick’s face!
- The artist copied shadows. The main lighting in the painting differs from the lighting of the face in the Larsen daguerreotype. The man in the daguerreotype is lit more strongly from his left, while the painting is executed as if Joseph was strongly lit more directly over the forehead, casting the strong shadow directly beneath the nose in the painting. However, the artist copied other highlights and shadows from the daguerreotype (i.e., those around the nasolabial folds, orbicularis oris, and glabellar fold).
5. The shape matches Joseph Smith’s death mask.
Fifth, the asymmetrical shape between the lips in the painting, including the large, upper central tubercle, matches this shape neither in the Larsen daguerreotype nor in any of the images of Frederick; but it perfectly matches this shape in Joseph’s death mask! I and others have long suspected the lips in Joseph’s mask are slightly deformed, either from some post-mortem process or from the death mask mold creation process, and the perfect match of this shape in the painting indicates the artist used this detail from the mask.
6. Emma’s portrait is similar.
The companion portrait of Emma also appears to have been created not from live sittings but from her first known daguerreotype which was created more than a year after her husband was murdered (see below for details).
Who painted the companion painting of Emma Smith?
We don’t know. The portrait of Emma was clearly meant as a companion piece to the portrait of Joseph, with each sitting in a similar setting with complimentary poses facing each other (expect Joseph’s head is not turned towards Emma!). Therefore, it has been assumed her painting was created by the same artist who created the portrait of Joseph.
But there is even less evidence about her painting. All we have is the painting itself. Joseph’s journal mentions him sitting for a profile tracing (by Maudsley) and a portrait (by Rogers) in 1842, and we do have drawings of Emma that were created by Sutcliffe Maudsley.
But there is no mention anywhere—neither in Joseph’s journal nor in any document of which I am aware—of Emma sitting for a portrait.
Is there evidence that it wasn’t created from a live sitting?
The only evidence that Emma’s portrait was not from painted from live sittings is the 27 precise correspondences between the painting and the first known photograph of Emma—the daguerreotype of Emma, with David Hyrum sleeping in her lap, taken circa September 1845.
As with Joseph’s portrait and the Larsen daguerreotype, the angle of her head and the shapes in her painting match her daguerreotype—but in her case, only when her daguerreotype image is laterally reversed!
My favorite detail is how the artist handled her left jowl in the painting. Instead of removing the jowl and reshaping her cheek, he simply connected the outer edge of the jowl to her chin with a continuous curve, creating a jawline she never had in life, young or old!
This artistic shortcut is key, unmistakable evidence the painting was created from the daguerreotype.
Did the same artist create paintings of Joseph and Emma?
I don’t know. The color palettes and tonal qualities of skin differ in each portrait, suggesting they might have been created by different artists.
We also don’t know the conservation history of the two paintings (whether one had been cleaned or even touched up or repainted, etc.), so we will need to wait and see what art historians and examiners will discover through forensic analyses of the paintings.
Is there evidence that the artist painted others the same way?
Since we don’t know who painted the portraits, we can’t make any comparisons to other known works and compare them to photographs of their subjects. However, the practice of painting portraits from daguerreotypes is attested; and according to Nelson Wadsworth, there is at least one example of an artist painting a portrait of a Mormon church leader from a daguerreotype: William Major’s full-body portrait of Brigham Young.
Who do you think created the paintings?
I really have no idea, and we may never know! It would be amazing if the artist secretly signed the paintings and then painted over it—a known practice of some artists and which x-ray imaging of the painting might reveal.
But I have researched very little about potential artists and will likely leave that work to others with more expertise, time, and interest.
How likely is it that the artist used this technique for other paintings?
Since I don’t know who painted these portraits, I can’t say. Creating fine art portraits from photographs has been a technique used since the invention of the daguerreotype and is still used today.
But I don’t know how common it was (or still is) to use a live model combined with photographs of a deceased individual.
I’ve visited with three artists with forensic training about this evidence, and one said this is how they would have created the portrait of Joseph, while another told me he painted a portrait of a deceased individual using photographs of the man and a daughter who strongly resembled him as a live model!
So maybe the practice is more common than one might suspect.
Have historians looked into this before?
The only other example of which I am aware is the painting of Brigham Young which was painted from a daguerreotype, according to Nelson Wadsworth’s research found in his 1975 book, Through Camera Eyes.
Does this potentially create a way to authenticate the photo without provenance?
Even if additional forensic evidence is discovered which confirms the paintings were created after Joseph was killed, or even that they were created using the daguerreotype of Emma and the Larsen daguerreotype, we still could not rule out the possibility that the Larsen daguerreotype is merely someone who resembled Joseph so closely that whoever commissioned the paintings supplied the daguerreotype to the artist knowing it wasn’t a photograph of Joseph.
Of course in such a scenario, that mystery man in the Larsen daguerreotype would have to have been someone with hair styled to match the Maudsley’s drawings of Joseph—down to the height of the pomp and the hair sweeping over the top of but not covering the outer and lower portions of his right ear; and he would also have to be essentially a genetic twin to match the bone structures of Joseph’s skull (i.e., his flattened left side of his forehead, the more prominent supraorbital ridge over his right eye, and the angles of his mandibular rami) and match the asymmetries in Joseph’s cheeks, nose, nasolabial folds and mouth as captured in the death mask.
Do you think this is a Joseph Smith photo?
Yes, I think it’s a photo of Joseph Smith. There are six main sets of evidence I’ve discovered so far in my research on the Larsen daguerreotype:
- When the image of the man in the daguerreotype is laterally reversed, it shows striking, precise correspondences with the asymmetrical features and bone structures evidenced in Joseph Smith’s death masks (both the Pedestal and Dibble masks).
- When the image of the man in the daguerreotype is laterally reversed, it matches extremely closely nearly every feature of a 1995 forensic reconstruction drawing created by Dee Jay Bawden.
- When the image of the man in the daguerreotype is laterally reversed, it matches details of Joseph’s appearance as depicted in the contemporary artwork produced by Sutcliffe Maudsley.
- The daguerreotype in the locket, with the image left unreversed, matches 40 precise details in the famous front-facing oil portrait of Joseph Smith that once hung in Emma Smith Bidamon’s bedroom.
- When the image of the man in the daguerreotype is laterally reversed, it bears a resemblance to images of all four sons of Joseph and Emma; and in the case of Frederick, Alexander, and David, the resemblance is strong.
- When the image of the man in the daguerreotype is laterally reversed, it bears a strong resemblance to images of Joseph Smith’s uncle, John Smith, and to his nephew, Joseph F. Smith (Hyrum’s son); and individual features of the man in the daguerreotype bear a resemblance to other Smith relatives, both male and female.
No single piece of this evidence on its own is sufficient to draw any real conclusion, and I remain open to additional evidence, whether confirmatory or contradictory of the evidence I’ve discovered.
Taken together, however—and considering the daguerreotype has been owned by two descendants Joseph and Emma, Joseph Smith III, and Frederick M. Smith—the evidence overwhelmingly compels me to conclude that the Larsen daguerreotype is the first and only known photographic image of Joseph Smith.
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About the interview participant
Curtis G. Weber is an independent enthusiast with education and work experiences in the areas of history, languages, and technology. He presented a forensic analysis of the purported Joseph Smith photograph at the 2023 Mormon History Association Conference in Rochester, New York. He is also the author of “Skulls and Crossed Bones?: A Forensive Study of the Remains of Hyrum and Joseph Smith” published in the Fall 2009 Volume 10 edition of Mormon Historical Studies.
- Is This a Joseph Smith Photograph?
- How Well Do You Know Joseph Smith?
- Why Did Emma Stay in Nauvoo?
- What Are Latter-Day Myths?
- What Did Archaeologists Find at the Smith’s Tunbridge Farm?
Joseph Smith photo forensic analysis resources
- Skulls and Crossed Bones?: A Forensive Study of the Remains of Hyrum and Joseph Smith (Mormon Historical Studies)
- Blood, Bullets, Pistols, and Mobbers: A New Look at Solving a Carthage Jail Mystery (Journal of Mormon History)
- Deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith (Church History Topics)
- Physical Evidence at Carthage Jail and What It Reveals about the Assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith (BYU Studies)