Images of the Prophet Joseph Smith are plentiful through artists’ renditions. Consistent with the custom of the time, there was even a plaster “death mask” taken of his face just after the martyrdom of Joseph and his brother Hyrum on June 27, 1844.
But what about photography? Are there any extant photos of Joseph Smith?
That question was posed to William W. Slaughter during the question-answer session just after his Oct. 18 lecture at the Church Office Building on the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. A photo archivist with the Church History Department for longer than two decades and the author of several books on Church history, he is in a position to know.
His response to the question of whether any photos of the Prophet exist is terse: “The possibility is great — but we don’t have any.”
He noted that daguerreotype photography, the first commercially successful photographic process, was introduced in France early in 1839. That was the year the city of Nauvoo, Ill., was settled by the Latter-day Saints. With Joseph’s death occurring in 1844, there would have been a five-year window of time in which he could have been exposed to the process.
“He was a man who was very curious about life and would have been interested in this,” Brother Slaughter remarked.
In the United States, “Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. had daguerreotype shops,” he said. “And then, right toward the end of Joseph’s life, there was a daguerreotype shop opening in Nauvoo. But we don’t know.
“He does talk about sitting for his ‘likeness,’ which is a loose term. You could say that about a painting, a drawing.
“What I can tell you is that there isn’t one that we know of, and we’ve looked at all sorts of possibilities. It hasn’t appeared yet. But you know, things come up, and we’re hopeful that it will.”