The April 1st posting of this article may tempt you to think this is an April Fool’s prank. I wish it were. It is not.
I happened to be chatting with one of the archivists at LDS Archives this morning and asked whether there had been a recent upsurge in proposed Joseph Smith photographs. He said there had been — and he showed me that the file of proposed images, which had been merely a thick hanging file the last time I saw it, has now grown to four fat binders.
The most recent contribution is this one, submitted as having been found in the Library of Congress as an unidentified portrait:
Note the prominent nose — the hair combed forward on his cheek — his height, at least in comparison to the chair — the familiar upturned collar. There is as much to recommend this image as any of the other unprovenanced images, so somebody sent it to LDS Archives for investigation.
Archives staff does not ordinarily “investigate” these submissions. There are far better uses for their time, for one thing. For another, the likelihood of any one of these proposed “Joseph Smith” photographs being genuine is remote; the likelihood of being able to prove genuineness is remoter still.
Without a provenance, there is no starting point — exactly where would YOU propose starting to “investigate” this image? Well, you would doublecheck the Library of Congress to see whether there was some clue in their file, but if it is truly an unidentified photograph without a provenance, there is nowhere to go from there. You can’t research an unknown photographer to know whether he was in business during Joseph Smith’s lifetime; you can’t research an unknown studio location to know whether Joseph Smith was ever in the neighborhood; you can’t investigate an unrecorded chain of ownership to assess the likelihood that the image had ever been owned by someone with reason to have a picture of Joseph Smith.
Without provenance, you’re left with a nice looking image with many familiar characteristics. You can compare those familiar characteristics with other portrayals of Joseph Smith. You might find very, very many points of correspondence — enough, say, to commission a painting or write a book or go on the lecture circuit, regaling rapt audiences with your elaborate simulations and measurements.
You might even suggest in carefully worded copy that the spirit will whisper that this is, in fact, the Prophet.
But the spirit testifies to the truth of all things, not to wishful thinking.
This anonymous image is not, in fact, anonymous.
The Library of Congress’s website notes that “Stuart” is scratched on the face of the plate, in the way old-time photographers used to identify their plates. Old-time photographers like Matthew B. Brady, most famous for his Civil War battlefield photographs, and frequently called “Mr. Lincoln’s Cameraman,” whose studio produced this “Joseph Smith” daguerreotype.
“Stuart” is Alexander Hugh Holmes Stuart of Virginia, who was Secretary of the Interior from 1850-1853.
You can read about Stuart many places on the internet, including this Wikipedia article, which reproduces this “anonymous” photograph.
I understand the desire to have a photograph of Joseph Smith. I understand the drive to make a name for oneself by discovering a valuable historic document. What I don’t understand is allowing one’s desire and drive to overcome common sense and principles of scholarship. The spirit — the one we ought to be listening to — does not testify to falsehood.