Recently donated to BYU's Harold B. Lee Library
A rare, original photograph of LDS prophet Brigham Young has been donated to the L. Tom Perry Special Collections at Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library. It is the oldest original photograph of the prophet BYU has in its possession.
The “daguerreotype” was donated by Utah residents Mark and Suzanne Richards last December. Mark’s grandfather, Preston Nibley, served as an official Church historian from the mid-1940s through the early 1960s and wrote the book “Brigham Young – The Man and His Work,” published in 1936.
When researching the book, Nibley became acquainted with several of Brigham Young’s descendents, including his daughter Clarissa Young Spencer. Mrs. Spencer presented Nibley with a few of her father’s personal possessions, including a handkerchief with “Prest. B. Young” printed on one corner, a metal spoon with the initials “BY” on its handle and the daguerreotype.
Mark Richards says the items were kept in his family, transferred from his grandparents to his parents and then to him. Recognizing its significant historical value and the necessity of preserving it using the best means possible, Mark and Suzanne donated the daguerreotype to Special Collections.
“I feel that it is appropriate that the daguerreotype of Brigham Young should go to the university that bears his name,” Mark said in a recent interview, “not so much for its monetary value, but for the memory of my grandfather and his preference for things of real value over material possessions.”
A copy of the daguerreotype can be seen in Preston Nibley’s book. Another book, “Brigham Young – Images of a Mormon Prophet” written by BYU professor Richard Holzapfel and R.Q. Shupe, also contains a copy of the same image. In that work, a caption indicates that the actual daguerreotype is “nonextant,” meaning its whereabouts were unknown to the authors at the time.
Holzapfel has estimated the date of the photograph to be around 1854.
Tom Wells, photo archivist for Special Collections, explains that the daguerreotype method of taking photos was invented in France in 1839 and was introduced to the Salt Lake Valley in 1850 by photographer Marsena Cannon, who is believed to have captured the image of President Young.
The images were created by coating one side of a thick copper metal plate with silver, buffing the silver coating to a mirror finish, sensitizing it to light and then exposing it in the camera. Since the resulting image is backwards, the daguerreotype depicts the prophet with his hair parted on the right instead of on the left side as he wore it.
Wells says that with digitizing and mass printing, photos or old images are easy to come by. “But to have as an artifact the copper plate bearing Brigham Young’s image that was actually in the camera that he sat in front of is very exciting,” he said. “As you look at the image and know that Brigham Young also looked at that very same image, it’s a rush!”
Special Collections and the Lee Library’s conservation lab will build a customized box to house and protect the daguerreotype and make it available for students, patrons and other researchers to view.
Writer: Michael Hooper