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19th Century Joseph Smith Latter-day Saint History

Has a Joseph Smith Photograph Finally Been Found?

While not the slam dunk some media outlets lead you to believe, the Smith/Larsen daguerreotype makes a stronger case than we’ve seen before.

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


** 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.

It has the potential to replace the myth with the man.

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.
The experimentation of Louis Daguerre and Nicéphore Niépce resulted in the first daguerreotype in 1839.

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

Joseph Smith III grew up with an oil painting of his father in the private rooms of his home. This photo of Joseph Smith III circa 1900 has been cropped from the original and the digital quality has been reduced for online publishing. Courtesy Community of Christ Archives.

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.

You could be fooled by a doppleganger.

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 locket

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.

Daguerreotype plate

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

The Smith/Larsen dagguerreotype at 50% opacity overlaid by Michael Streed on the Rogers oil portrait. This digital image has been cropped from its original size and the digital quality has been reduced for online publishing. ©2022 Dan Larsen. Courtesy Community of Christ Archives.

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.


Further reading

Joseph Smith photograph resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

6 replies on “Has a Joseph Smith Photograph Finally Been Found?”

With all due respect, this photo/daguerreotype is not an image of Joseph Smith Jr.. This photo is an image of a stern faced and much older man than was the Prophet Joseph. This doesn’t resemble anything like the death mask or of any of the living portraits done of Joseph. By all accounts, Joseph Smith had a cheery disposition which is the opposite of the man in the photo. As a first cousin (five times removed) of Joseph Smith, there is no family resemblance in the photo in question. The extensive examinations of several people heralding the possibility that this new found photo may indeed be the image of Joseph Smith is spurious at best and should be dismissed out of hand.

I don’t think so. As Brien Smith said, the man in the photo appears to be about 50 years old; Joseph Smith was killed at age 38. In his later years, Joseph was a bit portly; the man in the photo is not. The hairstyle doesn’t match Joseph’s as portrayed by Sutcliffe Maudsley, who did several portraits of Joseph from life in 1842-1844.

In my opinion, the photo looks more like any one of the following people than it does Joseph Smith:

William W. Phelps
Ira Eldridge
Orson Pratt

There are some good descriptions of Joseph by his contemporaries here (scroll down):
https://latterdaysaintmag.com/hidden-things-what-did-joseph-smith-actually-look-like/

Note the description given by the Weekly Gazette of St Louis, Missouri: “His forehead is white, without a furrow, and notwithstanding the small facial angle, somewhat symmetrical. His hair is quite light and fine, complexion pale, cheeks full, temperament evidently sanguine, lips thin rather than thick.”

The man in the locket definitely has a furrow across his brow, and his hair is not light and fine. Joseph’s hair was actually blond; there’s a sample of it at the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum in Salt Lake City.

Adam Wothington has done some striking work on Joseph’s appearance

Sculptor Dee Jay Bawden has done serious work on Joseph’s appearance, trying to reconstruct Joseph’s face from the death mask and photos of Joseph’s skull taken in in 1928 when his body was exhumed:
https://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/digital/collection/RelEd/id/331/rec/4
https://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/digital/collection/RelEd/id/333/rec/5
https://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/digital/collection/RelEd/id/2191/rec/3

Probably the most thorough treatment of all this has been done by Shannon M. Tracy and his team (an anatomist, a maxillofacial surgeon, and experts in the use of CAD, Photoshop, and computer modeling) in the book In Search of Joseph. If you can find a copy, it’s well worth having for the photos alone, including full-page photos of the skulls of Joseph and Hyrum along with reconstructions of their faces.

There’s an excellent analysis by Curtis G. Weber here:
https://ensignpeakfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Skulls-and-Crossed-Bones-A-Forensic-Study-of-the-Remains-of-Hyrum-and-Joseph-Smith.pdf

Through the exacting efforts of these good folks, we actually know quite well what Joseph Smith looked like. He did not look like the man in the locket.

More analysis here:
http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2022/07/27/is-it-joseph-smith-the-scotch-verdict/

Based on eyewitness accounts of the person, the image is plausible as JS. He was said to have penetrating blue eyes, a Roman nose, a strong chin, and a large mouth. By all accounts, he was rugged, powerful, and handsome, a fine figure of a man. The painting and death mask cannot be trusted to capture likeness.

I have no doubt the photo is authentic. And honestly the actual photo is so much more majestic than the painting.

Thanks for sharing.

People just don’t have facial bones that protrude like the death mask of Joseph unless they fall headfirst from a two story building and land on their face. The temperature must also be very hot causing swelling. The death mask is accurate as to how Joseph looked after falling headfirst. The death mask is accurate in showing severe dehydration and sunken eyes. Joseph’s body was propped up when plaster was used in making the death mask. The weight of the plaster caused both lips to move downward. No one has lips that are misaligned to this extreme. Finally the death mask is highly accurate is showing scars that match perfectly with the scars of the newly discovered photo. Follow the lower lip from left to right. You will see a scar that matches perfectly with the death mask. If you look closely, you can see the scar surrounding his mouth. This is also present in the death mask. It is this scar that makes him look older. You must go to a site that shows the correct Death mask that has not been changed in any manner. By comparing these two, you can know absolutely that the Photo is Joseph. Hopefully those who are considered experts will look at the matching scars and not the facial features of a deceased person. We now know what Joseph looked like before he died

Sitting for several minutes to have your photo taken with a bright light shining in your face (as evidenced by the reflection in the eyes) can wear on the nerves and could account for the somewhat stern look. Also, the lines on the forehead appear to be concentric circular scratches on the metal plate. When an edited version of this eventually comes out to remove imperfections of the plate, I think it will soften his appearance. Also, as mentioned in the article, the death mask did not cover his whole face, only the very front. If you look at the photo and imagine the jawline cropped off the face does look just as narrow.

We have grown up seeing depictions of a youthful man who looks like a young clean-cut missionary. Joseph Smith would have been 38 when this was taken, back in the 1800’s when life was much rougher and life expectancy was much shorter, it is not surprising that he would look to be in mid forties of today.

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