Brigham Young Photo Donated to BYU

Brigham Young Photo Donated to BYU

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PROVO, Utah (AP) -- Historians believe Brigham Young sat for two photographs taken by Salt Lake City's lone commercial daguerreotypist during a single sitting in 1852, '53 or early '54.

The images captured that day are two of the five earliest-known images of Young, and one of them is now in the possession of the school that bears his name, Brigham Young University.

One of the fragile daguerreotypes is on display in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian. Daguerreotype detectives like BYU historian Richard Holzapfel feared the other had been damaged and thrown away or was otherwise lost or destroyed until Bountiful residents Mark and Suzanne Richards donated it to BYU in December.

"This is a rare item. My guess is that it has to be worth at least $25,000 to $40,000," said Holzapfel, co-author of "Brigham Young, Images of a Mormon Prophet."

Historians knew one of Young's daughters gave the daguerreotype to Richards' grandfather, Preston Nibley, in the 1930s. Nibley included the image in a 1936 biography titled "Brigham Young, The Man and His Work."

Nibley died in 1966, and Richards was 16 when his grandmother died in 1980 and the daguerreotype passed to him.

"When I first got it, I didn't realize it had as much value as it does," Richards said. "The last few years, as I learned more about daguerreotypes, I thought it probably would have a lot of historical value."

An appraiser told Richards last year that the photo was worth $25,000. He decided his grandfather, who was an official LDS church historian from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s, wouldn't want him to sell it. His thoughts turned to BYU even though he never attended the university.

"I thought because of the name of the university and its affiliation with the church and the special collections facility they have at the Lee Library, BYU was a good place to donate it so if anyone else wanted access, they could have it," he said.

This image of Young was nationally known in June 1854, when a woodcutting of it appeared in an issue of what Holzapfel described as the People magazine of the day. Young was one of the most famous Americans of the 19th century, a polygamist who led the Mormon exodus to the Utah desert. Sales of copied photographs of Young in the 1860s and '70s rivaled those of Abraham Lincoln and Civil War generals.

"Mormons were a curiosity," Holzapfel said.

Today, daguerreotypes are a curiosity. Invented by Frenchman Louis Daguerre in 1839, they were created by coating one side of a thick copper plate with silver, buffing the silver coating to a mirror finish, sensitizing it to light and exposing it in the camera. The result was like a Polaroid, a unique image that couldn't be reprinted like prints from a negative.

In fact, daguerreotypes were like negatives in one respect; they were reversed, so the daguerreotype of Young shows him with his hair parted on the right instead of the left, as he wore it.

The images were crisp and recorded detail many photographic methods wouldn't match for decades, but daguerreotypes were delicate and had to be kept in glass display cases. Many images were preserved for history only because they were later photographed using newer methods before the originals were lost. With mass printing, many old images are easy to find. A reproduction of the Young daguerreotype was included in both Nibley's book in 1936 and Holzapfel's in 2000.

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," said Tom Wells, curator of BYU's photographic archives. "As you look at the image and know that Brigham Young also looked at that very same image, it's a rush."

The picture also provides, literally, a different image of Young from the stereotype of him as a stern taskmaster, said John Murphy, another curator at BYU's Harold B. Lee Library and the man who secured the donation from Richards.

"It's an extraordinary image," Murphy said. "It's a young Brigham Young. He's dapper in his suit, handsome. He has a nice little smile on his lips. For the day and time, it's a relaxed image."

The daguerreotypist probably was Marsena Cannon, who ran ads for his business in the Deseret News with the picture of a cannon. The other image he took that day was in a private collection until it was purchased by the Marriott family and donated to the Smithsonian.

The donated image is in excellent condition, much better than the one at the Smithsonian, Holzapfel said, but BYU preservationists are restoring its case.

"We won't do anything with the daguerreotype itself," Wells said. "It's extremely fragile. What we do is preserve it and stabilize it so it doesn't deteriorate."

Wells said BYU won't put the daguerreotype on permanent display for preservation reasons. Instead, it generally will sit in a special vault that controls temperature and other elements that could damage it. However, it might be on display in limited exhibitions, and it will be digitized for people to view on the Internet.

Wells said the donation was "like Christmas" for the library. It's also proof the era of historic finds is not over.

"You literally believe nothing else can be found," Holzapfel said, "and then you get a phone call that someone's aunt has died and something amazing has been found in a trunk in the attic that hadn't been opened for 50 years.

"The fact this daguerreotype is in a repository is even better," he added. "It's much safer there. Private collectors should realize that no matter how much you love it, your kids or grandkids might not love it, or a kid might pick it up and play with it like a toy, or it could be lost in a flood or a fire."

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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