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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.

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