Three More Points About That Picture

After the initial splash of the purported Joseph Smith photo being revealed there have been various strands of takes, two of which I thought worth briefly addressing. Also, there’s one more point I haven’t seen anybody address but thought I should raise.

  1. He’s too old!

I’m surprised at how many people, some of them rather educated and sophisticated, are pointing out that the picture clearly shows a man who is older than Joseph Smith’s 38 years at the time of his death.

The fact is that in a world before SPF-50, air conditioned offices, and relatively low maternal and infant mortality, people aged faster. As an example, Dorothea Lange’s famous depression-era photograph The Migrant Mother showed a struggling woman later identified as Florence Owens Thompson. In the 21st century I would guess her age as somewhere in her mid-40s or even early 50s. She was 32. 

By the time of his death Joseph Smith had suffered through half a life of abject poverty as an outdoor laborer, Zion’s Camp, Liberty Jail, the death of several children, plus all the spiritual stressors outlined in D&C. While there are other grounds for skepticism for that photograph, age is not one of them.

2. Hubba Hubba

As various people have pointed out, the photo is much more attractive than the paintings and our popular image of Joseph Smith. At first glance this helps resolve a discrepancy between the collective visual image of Joseph Smith based on the death mask and paintings, and accounts that emphasize his striking appearance. The photo looks like a man with the magnetism and charisma needed to lead a new religion, the paintings not so much.

However, once again this perspective risks lapsing into presentism. With a few possible exceptions (e.g. youth), what is considered attractive is culturally determined and varies across time and space, and while I’m not a historian of 19th century beauty norms my understanding is that the outdoorsy, rugged sense of attractiveness was less of a thing back then than the softer, pretty-boy attractiveness of the aristocratic class. While in our 21st century perspective the photo is more attractive, there is a good chance that by the beauty standards of his day the paintings were actually idealizations and would be considered more appealing. (However, whatever the beauty norms, Smiths’ piercing eyes mentioned in some accounts definitely show up in the photo and not in the paintings.) So when early 19th-century accounts mention Joseph Smith’s handsomeness it’s hard for me to use that information to inform my internal image of Joseph Smith, since I’m not looking at his likeliness through 19th-century eyes.

3. Hair Color

While it’s hard to discern hair color in early photos, it appears that the hair color is a darker brown, whereas the locks of Joseph Smiths’ hair that we have suggest that his hair was light brown, almost blond. I’m curious what validated dark blond/light brown hair looks like in a daguerreotype (and blonder hair can look pretty dark when it’s wet), but the hair in the photo looks pretty dark.

23 comments for “Three More Points About That Picture

  1. While infant mortality rates affect actuarial statistics such as average life expectancy, the infant mortality rate does not affect elastosis (wrinkling), either solar or senile. A much better picture of Joseph and Emma from 1844 has been available for years in the Grice Collection in the Library of Congress. see: Francis Henry Grice’s Daguerrean Views – Rod’s Ramblings and Ruminations (

  2. This photo kerfuffle has thrown me for a loop. There are a handful of people that I’ve studied intensely throughout my life, who I’ve spiritually connected to through their words, art, or music. These are the people that I find myself having day-dreams of accidently meeting and striking up a conversation. I always assumed that I’d instantly recognize these people on the other side of the veil.

    Before you start looking for special resources and medications for me, I’ll emphatically say- I’m not alone, I’ve heard many a historian shift into this fanciful “Midrash”, including David McCullough, Truman Madsen, and Lincoln biographer Dorothy Kunhardt. By the way- I dearly wish Truman Madsen were alive and able to chime-in on the photo.)

    So many saints, spiritual giants I admire, say these are the eyes of Joseph, and so many who say they aren’t. To me this is 100% someone else- maybe his brother William, certainly a relative, but not Joseph.

    I wonder how many of us could pin-point the Savior in the afterlife, if His image has been written in our countenances sufficiently for a joyous reunion, or if (without trumpets and a red robe) we’d recognize him if he were talking about LGBT, minority persons, women’s roles, or the moral direction of certain current leaders. Certainly our world is split right now. Perhaps the silence and hidden identities keeps us discerning the truth ourselves, maintaining our choice, even in the afterlife.

    We need look no further than our very own constitutional originalists to see how fetishizing historical figures often goes off the rails and ultimately becomes a mirror into the aspirations, power claims, and biases of the interpreters. (Mike Lee, I wasn’t meaning to stare at you for any particular reason. Ok. Fine. I was.)

    So, my point is, who can discern? Do we all believe we have Liahonas, but like the I’ll-fated safari drivers- have we placed our compasses on the dashboard where we’ve followed the magnetic pull of our own engine blocks thinking it was “north” for hundreds of miles?

    Maybe so, but I’m trying to calibrate my heart and my heart tells me this is not Joseph.

    Also, scientifically, the maxiofacial lines (parentheses around his mouth) in the photo aren’t Joseph’s, but William’s. The nose in the pic is pointed, not bulbous, the hairline in the photo is too high (the death mask hairline was lower), and the space between the brows is wrong. The lips in the photo are too thin. And the hair color is NOT right- every flipping description of Joseph’s hair was lighter.

    Also, the idea that the Smith women misplaced or “hid-too-well” a picture of Joseph is utterly ridiculous. Give them a little credit! Why do historians always paint women so clumsily? (Sexism and implicit bias!) A photo of Joseph would have been much more treasured. Tucking away William’s picture for posterity to forget about in a junk trunk seems more likely- he’s someone they would want to erase from history.

  3. I am with Mortimer. This doesn’t “feel” like Joseph. To me, the eyes are not the “penetrating” eyes, as people described Joseph, but a cynical doubter, like William. Joseph was an optimistic dreamer. The personality just doesn’t fit.

    I have seen the “he’s too old” argument several places, and I could accept the harsher living conditions, lack of sunscreen for hours of outdoor work kind of explanation for the wrinkles. But not for other signs of aging, such as changes in the size of ears. This guy is older than Joseph lived to be.

    Then there is the death mask as compared to this photo. Somewhere in all the discussions about the picture there is a comparison of the death mask and the “lost” photo.” It warps back and forth between the two. The deep set eyes of the photo bulge forward as it changes to the death mask. The eyebrows shift. The eyes move closer together. The cheekbones shift. Those are bone structure shifts.

    Then compare it to the portrait. The one has slight ear lobes, the other has no hangydown part with an attached lobe. The portrait has the same eyes as the death mask as opposed to the deep set eyes of the photo. There are differences in the distance between the eyes, shape of eyebrows, and other things. I can accept the idea that the portrait wasn’t really a good likeness because artists sometimes try to make people “prettier” according to the beauty standards of the day. But the portrait is closer to the death mask than the photo is.

    I also don’t buy the idea that it would be a picture of Joseph that got forgotten about. It just doesn’t fit with how important history gets handed down.

    I think the assumption that it was in the possessions of the descendants of Joseph Smith means it HAS to be Joseph is wishful thinking. No, it means it could *possibly* be Joseph, or one of his brothers. The provenance is good, so it is a genuine photo of someone and not a fraud. But that fact doesn’t tell us who it is a photo of.

  4. Dag #1368 in the Library of Congress Grice Collection is Joseph and Emma Smith, taken in Nauvoo in 1844 by Francis Henry Grice in Lucien Foster’s studio. “The Painting” was made from this Dag. The “proof” is that the artist depicted Emma’s hand with the wedding band as Joseph’s hand. The Grice Collection also has a Dag of Oliver Cowdery, possibly taken by Grice or Foster on their way to Nauvoo in the spring of 1844.

  5. As a faithful member of the church who has studied the photo and story behind it, I have 0 doubt that it is authentic.
    Every major line and the shape of the head of the only oil painting done of him matches the photo. And the nose, that was painted too long, better matches the death mask.
    Interestingly when I looked at the painting I noticed a long vertical scar to the top right of the nose. I said to myself, ah ha! Is that also in the photo? And to my surprise yes it is! In the exact same spot and shape.
    Within a year I think 95% of members of the church will come to the conclusion that it is the prophet.
    And honestly the photo is much more real and majestic than the painting.

  6. There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that the image promoted by Rodney Nelson is Joseph Smith. His website conveniently crops out the image of the woman seated next to the man, who is most definitely NOT Emma Smith, as he asserts in his comment here. The image is believed to have been made in Rochester, New York in 1855 (a place Joseph Smith did not visit in 1843 or 1844; neither was Emma there). There is simply no reason to take seriously this claim that it is a Joseph Smith image.

  7. Ardis, I am sorry you mistook my comment that included the word “proof” in quotes to indicate I am certain. Dag 1368 has been in the LOC since 1999. I found 1368 (as I described) while looking at the LOC collection for more information about Reverends Augustus Conant and Arthur Buckminster Fuller, who visited Nauvoo in the summer of 1844. Of one thing only am I certain: “Only a fool is positive.” More research is needed, but the circumstantial evidence, for me, is quite strong.

  8. You are perhaps not familiar with the looooong history of proposed Joseph Smith images offered without historical or documentary or scientific evidence. Readers of this blog are; searching “daguerreotype” will list a surprising number of past posts dissecting the claims of other failed portraits. This one is absolutely NOT Joseph Smith, but you muddy the waters by throwing in yet another unverified, unverifiable claim.

    There is NO circumstantial evidence other than the asserted connection to Grice — which is even weaker than a connection to the extended Smith family (i.e., is every picture of an unidentified male with a presumed connection to Grice assumed to be Joseph Smith?). Even this tiny, tiny connection is vastly outweighed by a single glance at the full image. We do know what Emma looked liked, from nearly contemporary photographic evidence, and this isn’t her. That you cut the obviously-not-Emma out of your posted image suggests that you aren’t been entirely honest, or at least have no idea of the standards of legitimate history.

    Also, before you or anyone else suggests, “Well, maybe this was one of Joseph’s other wives,” just don’t. You can’t pile supposition upon fantasy upon “what if” and expect to be taken seriously.

    There is simply no reason to take seriously this claim that it is a Joseph Smith image.

    And thus endeth my participation in this farce.

  9. Really Ardis? “The man from this image has been flipped horizontally, cropped, and enlarged on the
    following page.” This how I described exactly why I cropped and flipped the original LOC image (see page 32-33 of the essay) (dag’s are mirror images, like a negative). I wanted to present the man in the image in the same perspective and size as the Carter image. I did not post an “image.” I posted a link to where you could download a 63-page document (mostly dealing with Grice images of the Reverends Conant and Fuller.) BTW, I suspect other Nauvoo Mormon images may be in the Grice Collection. I offered two examples in an appendix. I did include a later picture of Emma Hale Smith for reference. You have made up your mind. Are you positive?

  10. This is another Grice Daguerreotype in the LOC collection. My purpose here is not to afflict the comfortable. However, this link may be to an image of Oliver Cowdery. Patrick Bishop found a Ball Daguerreotype of Cowdery in the LOC. Some will find any link between LOC Grice image #1352 and LOC Grice image #1368 pure gossamer. However, if the quest is for a “lost daguerreotype” how can the possibility be excluded that the sought likeness has been hiding in plain sight?

  11. Hi Jonathan: I meant I did not intend to upset anyone.
    What do you think – is the cited LOC Grice image Oliver Cowdery? My opinion is that, more likely than not, Cowdery is depicted. Mormon record keeping and record preservation is exceptionally good. When Lucien Foster returned east in the late spring of 1844 he visited several people along the way. I suspect he may have done the same on the way to Nauvoo. The evidence I have found is all circumstantial when it concerns Dag #1368. I am very confident (but not certain) that Grice and the Reverends Conant and Fuller were together in Nauvoo shortly after the murders in Carthage, and both have Grice images. To my knowledge, Fuller never again went west after 1844-5. Another example of a small detail is that of all of the Grice Dags that I have looked at are1/6th (“sixth’) Victorian plates, except one: #1368, which is a 1/2 (“half”) plate. I have not seen a brass dag surround debossed with “L. Foster” which leads me to wonder if Francis Henry Grice might have been the more experienced photographer with the means to obtain personalized surrounds.
    IF, and it is a big if, Dag 1368 is of the Smiths, that “fact” presents a logical paradox. Daguerreotypes could not be duplicated. A “gold standard” cannot be either absolutely proven or disproven by comparing it with secondary surrogates. I am not trying to be the “champion” of 1368’s authenticity! Historical “facts” are subjected to many biases, not the least of which is survivor bias. Premature closure is also a source of many historical errors. I await further creditable data!

  12. Rodney: No, you said “afflict the comfortable,” which is used in journalism as shorthand for taking on big government, rich industrialists and other powerful people and institutions in society. It reveals a lot about what you think of yourself, and what you think of people who disagree with you: while you’re the feisty underdog fighting for a righteous cause, they’re comfortably privileged, although I have no idea what privileges you’re alluding to. It’s your justification for acting like a jerk towards people who have good factual reasons to doubt you. If you didn’t mean to insult people – and you certainly have done so – then you might choose to respond another way once you’ve been informed of the fact. Or if you’re okay with insulting people, you can continue blithely rambling on about daguerreotypes.

  13. Rodney: Maybe take a second to identify these comfortable people you refer to, and identify what their comfortable privileges are. If you can’t, maybe you could apologize for being rude.

    And this side-conversation has exactly as much to do with the image in question – the one from Stephen’s post – as any comment you’ve made so far (which is to say, zero).

  14. Alas Jonathan, quite possibly we have both violated the first rule of polemics: “Never enter a battle of wits with an unarmed man.” If you are the only violator, then I offer my sincere apologies for my rudeness!


  15. The excellent video presentation ( of Romig and McKay provides support for the hypothesis that the Larson Watch Locket Daguerreotype is an image of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. I have taken a first pass through their printed version which is also available for $15. ( I will need more time to digest the paper as it is very detailed. One very basic question I have concerns the mirror image “flip-flopping” of the Rogers Portrait. The image on p38 is a daguerreotype of the Rogers portrait on p31. The evidence presented by Romig and Mckay that Rogers painted a portrait of Joseph Smith, Jr., in September of 1842 is robust. Obviously if the surviving portrait is the 1842 portrait painted from life, it is not a mirror image. I have nominated Daguerreotype #1368 from the Grice Collection at the Library of Congress [Unidentified man and woman, three-quarters length portrait, seated] | Library of Congress ( as an image of Joseph and Emma Smith. This nomination might die without debate for lack of a second, and for understandable reasons. The evidence that Grice’s image is the Smiths is mostly circumstantial. The hand with the ring in the Rogers Portrait is a bit awkward. If 1368 was taken in the late spring of 1844, it would have been shortly after the King Follet Discourse that featured a ring. This was the Prophet’s last discourse. Perhaps this is all coincidental. A Francis Grice Image of Joseph Smith, Jr. or his Doppelganger? – Rod’s Ramblings and Ruminations ( But look at the eyes in 1368.

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