A new photograph of Joseph Smith seems to pop up every few years. However, all of the candidates have been ruled out—until now. While not the slam dunk some media outlets would have you believe, the Smith/Larsen daguerreotype makes a stronger case than we’ve seen before. In this interview, Lachlan Mackay walks through some of the historical details.
Read the full article about the Smith/Larsen daguerreotype by Lachlan Mackay and Ron Romig.
Table of Contents
- Who discovered the alleged photograph of Joseph Smith?
- How is it different from other possible Joseph Smith photos?
- Does it align with descriptions of the Prophet?
- What’s tricky about daguerreotypes?
- Why did Joseph Smith III get confused?
- PHOTO: Joseph Smith III
- Did Joseph Smith ever have his picture taken?
- Is the photo consistent with the mid-1840’s?
- How important is provenance?
- What is the post-1992 provenance?
- What is the pre-1992 provenance?
- What about the death mask?
- Has facial recognition been applied to other people?
- PHOTO: Smith/Larsen daguerreotype overlaid by oil painting
- How have historians responded?
- Does it shed light on other artifacts?
- How could it impact history?
- What convinced you it’s Joseph Smith?
- Who is Lachlan Mackay?
- Where can I learn more?
** Style note: Lachlan Mackay uses “Latter Day Saint” to refer to members of all traditions connected to Joseph Smith Jr., and “Latter-day Saint” when referencing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Who discovered the Smith/Larsen daguerreotype?
The daguerreotype was discovered by Daniel M. Larsen, a great-great grandson of Joseph Smith Jr.
Dan’s mother, Lois Smith Larsen, gifted several family related artifacts to him in 1992. The objects included a Joseph Smith III monogrammed pocket watch, and a second smaller object—also apparently a watch. However, Dan couldn’t open the smaller watch because the release mechanism didn’t work. So, he put the gifts from his mother away and forgot about them for 28 years.
In the early days of the pandemic he stumbled across the collection again. This time, he was able to get the smaller watch open. What he found surprised him. Inside he found not the face of a timepiece—but of a man. The object was not a watch, but a watch locket.
It looked just like a pocket watch when closed, but when opened it revealed a daguerreotype.
How is this photograph different from other purported Joseph Smith photographs?
Several photographic images purporting to be Joseph Smith have circulated in recent decades. Our research has clearly shown that they are not photographs from his life, but retouched photographs of an 1842 oil portrait of Joseph Smith attributed to David Rogers of New York City.
Of the non-portrait based potential Joseph Smith images in circulation, only one—this Smith/Larsen daguerreotype—has a Joseph Smith Jr. family provenance.
Does this photo align with descriptions of Joseph Smith at the time it was taken?
Yes, particularly in the eyes. Church leader Parley P. Pratt is quoted as saying of Joseph Smith’s eyes that:
There was something connected with the serene and steady penetrating glance of his eye, as if he would penetrate the deepest abyss of the human heart, gaze into eternity, penetrate the heavens, and comprehend all worlds.Parley P. Pratt
Although overblown, his statement does describe the intensity of the individual’s eyes in the Smith/Larsen daguerreotype.
Why does the nature of daguerreotypes generate confusion about Joseph Smith photos?
The nature of daguerreotypes generates confusion for several reasons, all of which obscure the subject of the photograph:
- Flipped background. Since early daguerreotypes laterally reverse the image, the pose and background are flipped from the painting to the photographic image.
- Lack of color. Although some daguerreotypes were hand tinted, most are not color images, which further reduces the visual clues connecting the photographic image to the painting.
- Animation. The animated nature of daguerreotypes, with the image appearing and disappearing as the light reflects off the highly polished silver plate, also brings the pictured individual to life in surprising ways.
- Scratches. Daguerreotype plates tarnish and are easily scratched, partially obscuring features.
Why did Joseph Smith III think an oil painting of his father was a Joseph Smith daguerreotype?
In this case, the mechanics of memory likely played a role as well. Joseph III grew up in the shadow of the oil portrait which hung in private rooms of the family homes. This certainly impacted the development of Joseph III’s memories of his father’s appearance.
The giftedness and training of David Rogers, the New York artist who painted the portrait in September 1842, also comes into play. Rogers studied with the well-known artist John Vanderlyn (1775–1852), a portrait painter who trained in Paris and was known to be extraordinarily talented in painting “translucent, life-like skin.”
The quality of Rogers’ work, particularly when transmitted through the daguerreotype of the painting, brings additional life to the image. It made it easier for a young Joseph Smith III to recall the oil painting as a photograph.
Joseph Smith III photo
Is there any historical context indicating that Joseph Smith sat for this photo (or any photo)?
Joseph Smith III reported that Lucian Foster made a daguerreotype of his father. Foster was a Latter Day Saint leader in New York City, a hotbed of Daguerrean activity, who moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, in April 1844, two months prior to Smith’s death.
Foster initially lived in Joseph Smith’s Mansion House Hotel and he is advertising his services as a daguerreotypist in August 1844. It’s unclear if he was making daguerreotypes prior to August.
Daguerreotypes of Joseph Smith, and his brother, Hyrum Smith, are also referenced in an 1852 Kanesville, Iowa newspaper advertisement. Similarly, a Nauvoo, Illinois newspaper editor reported being presented with a daguerreotype of Joseph and Hyrum in 1875.
What evidence indicates this is consistent with Joseph Smith’s time?
There’s quite a bit of evidence indicating the daguerreotype is consistent with Joseph Smith’s time period, including the Daguerrean locket, daguerreotype plate, and a circular locket possessed by Lucy Mack Smith. None of these authenticate the photograph on their own, but they all establish a mid-1840’s historical context.
Daguerrean lockets are advertised in a May 1844 Latter Day Saint newspaper in New York City by a supplier of lessons and equipment. Watch locket housings are difficult to date, but this one appears to be typical of those produced in the mid-1840s.
The daguerreotype plate itself is also consistent with the period and the image it holds reveals a man with a hairstyle and clothing, including neckcloth, that reflects the fashions of the 1840s.
Lucy Mack Smith’s locket
A carte-de-visite photograph of an earlier daguerreotype of Lucy Mack Smith, mother of Joseph, surfaced in the Smith family in the 1990s. This image is of a circular locket insert but not yet set in a locket.
The existence of the Lucy image confirms that the tools and talent necessary to cut round locket inserts out of rectangular daguerreotypes were available in Nauvoo by the mid-1840s and that Smith family members were taking advantage of the opportunity presented.
How important is provenance in authenticating a Joseph Smith photo?
People have dopplegangers—or lookalikes—so provenance is very important. Without provenance, you could find photographs that look like Joseph Smith but have nothing to do with him.
For example, facial recognition software is being used to turn up images around the world with facial characteristics similar to Joseph Smith. But without a compelling provenance, these are nothing more than people who look a little (or a lot) like Joseph. In other words, without provenance, you could be fooled by a doppleganger photo.
What is the post-1992 provenance?
Daniel Larsen has had the object since 1992 when it was gifted to him by his mother, along with a monogrammed pocket watch which belonged to Joseph Smith III.
The watch locket was stored with the pocket watch and other Smith family heirlooms when Dan again encountered them in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is the pre-1992 provenance?
Smith family members were seen with it
The watch locket makes appearances in the visual record of significant Smith family women, including seemingly:
- Emma Hale Smith (wife of Joseph Smith, Jr.);
- Bertha Madison Smith (wife of Joseph Smith III); and
- Emma Josepha Smith McCallum (Joseph III’s oldest child).
The locket ended up with Fred Smith
Although the path between these individuals is not clear, the locket passed from Emma Josepha to the family line of her brother and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) prophet, Fred M. Smith.
It likely passed to his daughter after his death
His daughter, Lois Smith Larsen, and her large family made their home with him on his farm. At Fred M.’s death in 1946, Lois inherited the farm and many of Fred’s personal effects. It is likely that the locket passed to Lois among those effects.
What are the pros and cons of using the Joseph Smith death mask as a “photo” of Joseph Smith for facial recognition purposes?
Facial recognition works by comparing facial measurements from one photo to those of another. That raises several pros and cons in the case of the Smith/Larsen daguerreotype.
The downsides to using the death mask are significant for a few reasons. First, the limited scope of the mask doesn’t include the sides of the face and ears. Second, the mask is an artistic representation. And third, the death mask’s quality would have been impacted by the physical death surrounding Joseph Smith’s assassination—and the natural processes that occur following death.
But the pros are equally significant. In this case, there’s no authenticated photograph of Joseph Smith to compare with the Smith/Larsen daguerreotype—or any other candidate.
In other words, there are liabilities inherent in using the death mask’s measurements for facial recognition purposes. But it is far and away the best known data that exists.
Has the facial recognition process been applied to any other candidates? If so, what were the results?
The facial recognition process used to authenticate the Smith/Larsen daguerreotype of Joseph Smith wasn’t applied to any other candidates. However, we look forward to seeing the results as the study is broadened.
For context, we focused our efforts on Joseph Smith based on the provenance and significant similarities between facial features visible in the Smith/Larsen daguerreotype, the death mask, and the oil portrait of Joseph.
Smith/Larsen daguerreotype overlaid by oil painting
How have Latter-day Saint and Mormon historians responded to your claims?
Generations of Latter Day Saints have imprinted on the image portrayed in the 1842 David Rogers oil portrait. So, as expected, the initial reaction to the image was mixed.
As historians have had a chance to read our article, “Hidden Things Shall Come to Light: The Visual Image of Joseph Smith Jr.” in the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, the responses are shifting significantly in a positive direction. As hoped, they are asking the questions that should be asked.
And we are excited to finally be able to engage in the public discussion that will move the authentication process forward.
Does this daguerreotype shed light on any other Joseph Smith artifacts?
The publication of our article will help clear up significant confusion generated by the 1879 and 1885 photographic images of Joseph Smith which are based on the oil portrait.
The daguerreotype is also generating significant discussions between art historians and the public on the techniques used by 19th century portrait artists who regularly lengthened noses, straightened hair, narrowed mouths, smoothed out skin, etc., in order to give their subjects what was then considered a more refined appearance.
How could a Joseph Smith photograph impact approaches to Mormon history?
The Smith/Larsen daguerreotype could be seen as an extension of “New Mormon History,” the movement which started around 1950 to professionalize and contextualize Latter Day Saint history.
Latter Day Saint history was, and still is, often written to promote faith and the mythological Joseph Smith seen in the 1842 oil portrait and built upon by countless artists in the 20th century supports that approach.
The Smith/Larsen image has the potential to replace the myth with the man, and in the process humanize not just Joseph Smith, but his story.
What convinced you this is a photograph of Joseph Smith?
I didn’t think the Smith/Larsen daguerreotype was Joseph at first glance and it wasn’t one single factor that did convince me. It was instead the combined weight of the evidence, the provenance, both objective and subjective facial analysis, and the historical and visual record. For both myself and for Ron Romig, who I co-wrote the article with, the case is compelling.
About the author
Lachlan Mackay serves as Director of Historic Sites for Community of Christ, which includes the Joseph Smith Historic Site in Nauvoo, Illinois. He has been studying and writing about the visual image of Smith family members for thirty years.
- What Have Scholars Learned about the Book of Mormon?
- How Has the Church History Library Changed?
- How Can You Recognize Historical Myths?
- Why Does Historical Context Matter?
- Do You Know These Stories about Brigham Young?
- What Have Church Historians Learned about Brother Joseph?
Joseph Smith photograph resources
- Hidden Things Shall Come to Light: The Visual Image of Joseph Smith Jr. (John Whitmer Historical Association Journal)
- Church Responds to Possible Photo of Joseph Smith Discovered by One of His Descendants (Church News)
- Is It Joseph Smith? The Scotch Verdict (KeepAPitchinIn)
- Joseph Smith Headlines Went Too Far (Deseret News)
- Photographs (Journals, Histories, Other) (Joseph Smith Papers)