Designer Restores Likely Oliver Cowdery Photograph

  By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 12 March 2013

Black and white image (left) courtesy of Library of Congress. Color image (right) courtesy of Bryce Haymond.

Article Highlights

  • An 1840s daguerreotype (an early type of photograph) resembling Oliver Cowdery was found in 2006 by researcher Patrick A. Bishop.
  • The image, assumed to have been taken in 1846, is perhaps the earliest photograph of a Church leader in existence.
  • Brother Haymond, a product designer and Internet technologist, decided to try his hand at colorizing this image of Oliver Cowdery.

“Being able to see the hands that transcribed the Book of Mormon as the Prophet Joseph Smith dictated the translation makes this book of scripture that much more real.” —Bryce M. Haymond

A rare photographic portrait likely of early Church leader Oliver Cowdery, discovered in the Library of Congress collection seven years ago by an LDS researcher, has now been digitally restored and colorized by a Church history enthusiast.

Bryce M. Haymond detailed his restoration project in an article he wrote for the online periodical Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, for which he serves as a member of the executive board. His article may be found at http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/author/bryce/.

The 1840s daguerreotype (an early type of photograph) was found on February 6, 2006, by researcher Patrick A. Bishop, who was then a Church Educational System coordinator in Casper, Wyoming. Working on an unrelated project, Brother Bishop was going through online images on an Internet site of the Library of Congress, looking for examples of 1840s style clothing. He came upon one image and immediately recognized it from its similarity to a published engraving as being the likeness of Oliver Cowdery, the “second elder of the Church,” a scribe to Joseph Smith in the translation of the Book of Mormon, who was with the Prophet when the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods were restored.

Through subsequent study and testing, Brother Bishop determined with 95 percent certainty that the daguerreotype was indeed of Oliver, which would make it the only known photographic likeness of the man who, with Joseph Smith, was ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood by John the Baptist and to the Melchizedek Priesthood by Peter, James, and John. Knowing the name of the photographer, J. P. Ball, Brother Bishop was able to identify the general location, the vicinity of Tiffin, Ohio, where the portrait was taken. Oliver would have been practicing law in Tiffin in 1846, the likely year when the photograph was made. Brother Bishop made a grid-line comparison with the extant engraving of Oliver that had been taken from another daguerreotype subsequently destroyed in a house fire. He found the facial features matched with exactness.

Brother Bishop reported his finding later that year in an issue of BYU Studies and spoke of it in a presentation at a November 10, 2006, symposium at BYU marking the 200th anniversary of Brother Cowdery’s birth. The presentation was reported and the daguerreotype published in the November 18, 2006, issue of the Church News.

Earlier that year, the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation commissioned Ken Corbett to paint a portrait from the newly found photograph. Donated to the Church, that painting now hangs in the Church History Library in Salt Lake City.

Brother Haymond’s involvement began in October of last year, when he read an article on an Internet blog of Time magazine telling about some of the classic photographs of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln being retouched and colorized using Adobe Photoshop, the computer imaging software.

Brother Haymond, a product designer and Internet technologist by profession, decided to try his hand at doing similar work with photographs from Church history.

“I don’t claim to be a Photoshop expert, but regularly work in Photoshop in my profession as a designer,” he wrote in the Interpreter piece. “I also recalled having read about the recently discovered daguerreotype that could be Oliver Cowdery. If it is Oliver Cowdery, as research and general consensus seem to suggest, it is perhaps the earliest photograph of a Church leader extant, thought to be taken in 1846. This, I thought, would be a good candidate for a test.”

He told the Church News, “I thought this would be a worthwhile side project, helping to make the early moments of the Restoration just a bit more palpable and real. Sometimes these early people and events from Church history can seem so distant and detached from our experience as to seem almost mythic or legend. Projects like this can help bring them somewhat closer to us and bring them to life.”

He said a significant portion of the work was in retouching the image, a copy of which he downloaded from the Library of Congress, “since most of the daguerreotype was littered with debris and dust, and all of that had to be carefully removed while trying to not distort or alter the original underlying image.”

Thereafter, he had to determine the colors to apply to the photograph. For this, he turned to Brother Corbett, who had done the oil painting based on the photograph.

“[Brother] Corbett’s color choices were certainly far better than anything I could muster,” he wrote in his article. “I contacted [Brother] Corbett, and he kindly gave me permission to use his painting as a color foundation or base for the daguerreotype, utilizing the color values only to colorize most of the image. This method worked very well.”

Through his work, Brother Haymond revealed details not easily seen on the original: a checkered pattern on the bow tie; apparent black-velvet material on the collar; and blood vessels, bones, and thumbnails on the hands.

“Being able to see the hands that transcribed the Book of Mormon as the Prophet Joseph Smith dictated the translation makes this book of scripture that much more real,” Brother Haymond told the Church News. “Oliver Cowdery comes to life as a real person and individual when you can see what he really looks like.”

Brother Haymond is considering other photos from Church history to which he might give similar treatment, particularly of David Whitmer and Martin Harris, who, with Oliver Cowdery, comprised the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon.