Lachlan Mackay was anticipating a variety of responses when he and his uncle, Daniel Larsen, released a new daguerreotype last week that they believe is Joseph Smith after keeping it a secret for two years.
The overall reaction was wide and mixed, he said, as they received inquiries from people in the United Kingdom, Japan and across the United States, with the highest level of interest — not surprisingly — in Utah and the Intermountain west.
“It’s kind of startling to first see something that might be a real person instead of a mythological creature,” said Mackay, a Smith descendant and member of the Community of Christ’s Council of Twelve Apostles. Joseph Smith, of course, was a real person and founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The search for any photo image of him has been going on for decades.
But there was also something Mackay didn’t anticipate.
“I was surprised at how quickly people seem to be swinging towards ‘We think it’s him,’” Mackay said. “I, of course, think it’s him. I just expected that it would take people longer to process, and most of these people have not read the paper yet.”
Mackay is referring to the spring/summer 2022 issue of the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal where he and fellow historian, Ron Romig, published the details of their two-year effort to authenticate the daguerreotype before making it public.
Mackay said a statement released by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding the daguerreotype was “a thoughtful statement.” He’s confident Community of Christ won’t release a statement saying the image is of Joseph.
“We don’t take positions on historical matters,” he said. “Our team of world church historians, as individuals, are convinced, as am I, but the church is not going to take a position.”
Mostly people have questions, which Mackay welcomes.
“I hope folks will come forward with good questions,” he said. “I think they will and some already have. ... I am thrilled that we can talk about it finally after two years. I’m excited to see other peoples’ excitement and interest. I’m excited to continue learning more. This is a process.”
What steps might be taken next to validate or learn more about the image?
The Deseret News spoke with Mackay, historians and others with expertise in historic photography to ask opinions of the image and find out what else can be done with the Joseph Smith daguerreotype. Here’s what they said.
Learn more about artists, provenance
For Mackay, the next step is to learn more about 19th century portrait artists, and it’s already happening.
“Online I’ve seen art historians talk about how artists stylize the person to make them look refined — longer, thinner noses, smaller mouths, smoother skin, straighter hair. You weren’t supposed to look like you ever had to work a day,” he said. “I’m seeing lots of examples of that with a daguerreotype and portrait, side-by-side, and in some cases, it’s the same setting.”
Mackay has listened with interest as dentists and physicians have examined the image and offered insight about facial structure and other physical characteristics.
“What I love is that people with different life experiences are already coming forward with many different approaches that help us learn more about the object,” he said. “These are small pieces that will add to what we understand. None of these things are going to be a slam dunk, but these are small pieces that continue to help us understand the object and image.”
Mackay also wants to learn more about the locket and daguerreotype’s provenance.
“I’m hoping that’s one of the things that will start turning up as more people are seeing documents,” he said. “I think we will find more stuff.”
‘Personally, it doesn’t look like Joseph Smith to me’
There were traveling photographers all over the country in the early 1840s and Joseph Smith was a notable figure, said Richard Bushman, prominent historian, scholar and biographer of Joseph Smith.
“You would think someone would have stopped by Nauvoo and taken a picture,” he said. “It’s a little bit strange that nothing yet has appeared that persuades everyone.”
His reaction to this latest image? It doesn’t persuade him either.
“This is one in a series of discoveries of photos of Joseph Smith, every five or 10 years it seems like a new one appears. And always there’s a substantial bit of evidence to support the claim, but they don’t hold up. They all seem to fade into the background. None of them have been finally accepted by historians, generally,” the historian said. “Personally, it doesn’t look like Joseph Smith to me. Judging from the death mask, I know they made the comparisons, but somehow his mouth doesn’t look right to me. So I’m going to remain among those who are doubtful and wait to see what develops.”
‘The age thing alone is problematic’
William “Bill” Slaughter has been here before. Every now and then during during his 38 years as a photograph archivist for the Church History Department, someone would come forward with a photo claiming it was Joseph Smith.
“We had images that looked more like Jim Bridger to guys that were effeminate, like they were from a French court,” Slaughter said.
The man in this latest daguerreotype appears to be too old and weathered, in Slaughter’s opinion, although he does find the object’s provenance to be interesting in a positive way.
“I doubt very much that it’s Joseph,” he said. “It would be nice but the age thing alone is problematic.”
Accounts describe Joseph as young-looking and fair-skinned, even “rotund” in his later years. That doesn’t match the deep-tan, gnarled look of the “fit guy” in the image, according to Slaughter.
“Now, that said, I do believe if we ever do find an image of Joseph Smith, if it still exists, I think we’re going to be quite surprised by the way he looks,” he said. “There is indication, he talks about having his likeness taken, and it would have been not too far from his death. Whether we ever find it is a whole different game.”
‘Even less likely to be him’
Randall Dixon, another former photographic expert for the church who is familiar with the 1842 Rogers painting, death mask and more, said his first reaction was “disbelief.”
“Over the years I have seen other images that were claimed to be the prophet Joseph but none has proved to be what was claimed,” Dixon said. “This one seems even less likely to be him.”
He read the John Whitmer article but was not convinced by the evidence presented.
“More research on the type of daguerreotype and the style of clothing may prove that it was created after Smith’s death. I expect that to be the case,” Dixon said. “It would be wonderful to have a real photo of him but it is more likely that one was never taken.”
‘Vague and suspect’
Nelson Wadsworth, an author, retired photojournalist and a pioneer of Utah photographic libraries at the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Utah State University, has always believed that Lucian Foster made a daguerreotype of Joseph Smith, but doesn’t think this one is it.
“The image is similar to those made during the 1840s, but the background is vague and suspect,” he said. “I don’t know of any way to prove who is in this particular image. It could be anyone. I don’t think it’s Joseph Smith. Of course, I could be wrong.”
‘Slow and cautious’
Patrick Mason was as intrigued as anyone when the image first went public. His first reaction was that it didn’t look like him, but he’s keeping an open mind.
“The provenance of the item, and the fact that it is authentically a period piece, make it plausible that it could be Joseph,” said Mason, an author and the Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.
“But it could just as easily be another guy from the 1840s. Many people, for instance, feel like it has a stronger resemblance to Hyrum’s (Smith) death mask. And family collections are often full of all kinds of random pieces.”
Authentication will be tricky because there is no solid baseline to go from, only paintings and a death mask, which is not a straightforward task, Mason said.
“Of course we would all love to find an authentic historical likeness of Joseph Smith. No real person actually looks like they are portrayed two-dimensionally in paintings,” he said. “But I don’t think we need to rush to any judgment on this. We should be slow and cautious, consulting as many experts as possible and considering as many plausible contrary possibilities as arise. In the end, absent any other evidence that either decisively confirms or rules out this likeness, we may be forced to land on the very unsatisfactory conclusion of ‘maybe.’”
‘A lesson in historical complexity’
Benjamin E. Park, assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University, outlined the following four thoughts regarding the Joseph Smith image.
- “I lean toward it being possible, but I think the provenance issue is, as of yet, too porous for us to put a lot of weight on. Unless we get more information on the provenance and chain of custody, it will always remain in the ‘plausible’ but not ‘conclusive’ category.
- “I think vehement calls to dismiss MacKay and Romig’s meticulous research and defiantly claim ‘it’s not Joseph’ to be premature. This alleged photograph is far, far more likely than any other that has been proposed to this point. If a real photograph were to ever emerge, it’d probably be in circumstances like this.
- “I find any attempt to compare the photograph to oil paintings, sketches and even the death mask, either to prove or disprove the photograph, to be wrongheaded. Angles, depth, postmortem alterations and even artistic skill/likeness have made direct appeals to fidelity unsubstantial.
- “The whole dialogue is a lesson in historical complexity. As much as we want clear-cut answers on something so seemingly simple as ‘is this Joseph Smith?’, historical context and evidence are far more opaque. Credentialed and experienced historians debate this question ad nauseam, rarely with a consensus opinion. I hope that people can learn from this the importance of asking questions concerning how we receive documents, records, and narratives before jumping to conclusions.”