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The Joseph Smith photo mystery

SANTA CLARA, Utah (ABC 4 News) - A woman discovers an early daguerreotype photograph among her Grandmother's treasures. There is only one known photograph of LDS Prophet Joseph Smith, could this be the second?
ABC 4's Barb Smith talked with Kim Marshal of Santa Clara to find out if this is a real photo of Joseph Smith.
ABC 4's Barb Smith talked with Kim Marshal of Santa Clara to find out if this is a real photo of Joseph Smith.
SANTA CLARA, Utah (ABC 4 News) - “It’s so exciting when you start talking about it you can’t stop.” Kim Marshall is energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate about a family heirloom handed down from her Grandmother Carolyn Grant. Grandma Grant died three years ago at the age of 84. She gave Kim a scrapbook full of genealogy, family histories, and a collection of newspaper clippings featuring the founder of  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith . Among those yellowed articles, was an old black and white photograph.

Marshall hadn’t thought much about the photo. She remembers her Grandma Grant telling her it was given to her by a now unknown acquaintance in Texas. Grant was serving an LDS mission with her husband at the time. “The man who gave it to them, I don’t think he thought there was any value in it. That was my impression. He was just kind of like, oh, you’re LDS you would appreciate this.”

Marshall says her Grandmother also didn’t see the photo as unusual. “I just don’t think she knew.”  But, the photo was well cared for. Grandma Grant put her name on the back of the cardstock, along with her Texas address, she enveloped the photo in a plastic sheath and tucked it into the scrapbook with her other treasures.

About a month ago Marshall says she became interested in family history and the early LDS Church. She was online researching when she came across the Library of Congress photo of Joseph Smith. She was reading about the controversy surrounding that photo. Experts weighed in on whether it was an actual early daguerreotype photo of the founder of the LDS Church, or if it was a photo taken later, of a painting. It was then that Marshall thought of the photograph in the family scrapbook. “I was on the internet and that’s when I thought, they are saying that’s the photo of him, but don’t they have this photo?”  There is only one known photograph of Joseph Smith. The image owned by the Library of Congress.

That began a quest to find out what Grandma Grant had really given her. “It snowballed and I just non-stop studied it. I didn’t sleep for like a week. You start going is this real? Is this real? You know looking at the little details of it. What if this really is what everybody has been looking for?”

After hours of study and careful scrutiny of her photo, Kim Marshall reached a bold conclusion. She says “It’s and un-edited version of what the Library of Congress has.”

Marshall believes her photo is from the same glass negative used to create the Library of Congress print. But, unlike the one owned by the Library of Congress, hers was never retouched. Retouching photographs with paint was common in the 1800’s. She points out the differences between her photograph and the Library of Congress version. Marshall says the hair on the Library of Congress photo was clearly masked by an artist to create a smoothed look. Her photo shows curly, unruly hair. She says the eyes in the Library of Congress painting were slightly enlarged, and darkened. She says the eyes on her image were bright and clear, and a crooked nose was straightened on the re-touched photo. She says there are other subtle differences as well. “The Library of Congress version is more cropped, it’s not elongated. You can’t see part of his arm.”  She describes her photo as a daguerreotype photo taken from an original negative.

Kim Marshall was convinced she was right about her grandmother’s photograph, but how could she prove it? She tried contacting historians but wasn’t making much progress. That’s when she emailed me.  I drove to Santa Clara with photo journalist Bill Brussard to meet with Marshall and see the photo. We then arranged for her to meet with LDS Church historian, Bill Slaughter. Marshall says that while he seemed very interested in her photo he told her it would take more time to unravel the mystery.

A meeting with independent photo-historian Al Thelin turned up more clues. He held his loupe to the photo, a large magnifying glass. He immediately confirmed it to be an 1840’s daguerreotype photograph. He said no brush strokes could be detected. “It’s the eyes I am looking at. The rest you can do, but it’s the eyes that are the tell-tale part.” Thelin also says “Where ever that came from, it had to be a negative from somewhere, and it had to be a negative of substantial quality because you maintained that sharpness. Whoever made that print had a copy negative, and at that point it would have been a copy negative made of glass.” Thelin says it also would not be unusual for Joseph Smith to have sat for a photograph. “It would not have been uncommon for a head of a church to have a daguerreotype taken because everyone who was the head of anything was having daguerreotypes taken.”

The age of the photo, and the negative, confirmed what Marshall believed, but while solving some mysteries, Thelin added one. The photograph was printed on Kodak paper from the late 1940’s or early 50’s.  Which begs the question where is the negative?  Marshall and Thelin says we may never know. In the meantime, Kim Marshall is content that Grandma Grant’s gift is one that should, and will be, treasured. “It’s an image and a high quality image. You know, where the negative is, I don’t know.”

Kim Marshall writes on her blog about her efforts to authenticate the photo. We've glot a link right here on ABC4.com.

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