Three books on visual images in the history of the Church [1]

Review

Contents

WILLIAM W. SLAUGHTER. Life in Zion: An Intimate Look at the Latter-day Saints, 1820–1995. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995. x; 196 pp. $24.95.

EPICENTER COMMUNICATIONS and MATTHEW NAYTHONS, comps. The Mission: Inside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. New York: Warner Books, 1995. 226 pp. $49.95.

RICHARD G. OMAN and ROBERT O. DAVIS. Images of Faith: Art of the Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995. xii; 202 pp. $49.95.

Much of today’s visual experience is vicarious—mediated through films, television, videos, and reproduced photographs in printed materials. Visual images reproduced in media as a source of information are both entertaining and enlightening, often providing multiple layers of information—particularly when coupled with text material such as a caption. The viewer’s experience of the image may be informed as much by the caption as by the details within the image itself. Roland Barthes, a cultural historian, argues that the text may simply amplify a set of connotations already given in the visual image or it may produce an entirely new significance that is retroactively projected into the image, so much so as to appear denoted there.1

Thus, a portrait of a woman and a small baby painted in the primitive style looks simple and unimportant in Images of Faith until one reads the caption: “Phoebe Carter Woodruff and Son Joseph . . . the portrait held special significance for the Woodruffs. To them young Joseph was a ‘covenant’ child because he was their first child born after they were sealed in the Nauvoo Temple. Less than a year later, little Joseph died at Winter Quarters” (8). Suddenly, the visual image becomes an artifact charged with both historical and emotional significance. Consequently, the portrait has value not only for its artistic merits, but also for the viewer’s associations with the thing it pictures. Nothing could be more true than Barthes’s observations for the visual images presented in these three outstanding books, which express very different points of view.

I

Utilizing hundreds of historic photographs, William W. Slaughter’s Life in Zion is a successful attempt to create a “family photographic album” for the institutional Church. Format and content lead the viewer on a visual tour of the Mormon past, covering the period of 1820 to 1995. Slaughter’s choice of images, coupled with the captions, give us a point of view that represents an intimate look at the Latter-day Saints. One spends time with some old familiar friends as well as some new ones.

It is virtually impossible to reproduce a significant collection of Latter-day Saint images from the nineteenth century that has not been previously published, given the relatively small collection of photographs of Church leaders and historic sites from this period. Images of Joseph and Emma Smith, Eliza R. Snow, Alexander Doniphan, Palmyra, Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Salt Lake City found in the pages of this work are well known to many Latter-day Saints. Yet Slaughter unearths some remarkable images that previously had not seen the light of day in the twentieth century. The 1856 image of Fort Bridger (28) is fascinating—a remarkable find.

Additionally, two images placed on the same page apparently taken during the same year (1860) are most interesting. The first photograph is of nineteen-year-old Joseph C. Rich as he began his first mission, and the second photograph is of sixteen-year-old Ann Eliza Hunter. The caption brings the two images together, informing the reader that the two young people married nine years later (42). One would expect such discoveries from the photographic archivist for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for he has spent years helping patrons identify photographs in the Church collection. There are many more hidden treasures in this book, making it an important contribution to Latter-day Saint visual history.

Life in Zion is divided into five chapters covering specific periods of Church history. The first basically covers the Joseph Smith period, ending when the Saints made their departure from Nauvoo in 1846; the second reflects Brigham Young’s administration; the third covers the administrations of John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow; and the fourth treats the administrations of Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant. The remaining Church Presidents’ terms of service are included in the final chapter.

Unlike the earlier periods in Church history, the time periods covered in the last three chapters have much larger collection of Latter-day Saint–related photographic images (particularly those of individuals and families and those from settlements and growth areas beyond Salt Lake City). Some of the classic views are present, like the sacrament service in the Ephraim Tabernacle about 1900 (104), but many images appear in print here for the first time.

In particular, the last chapter is a who’s who of employees in the Historical Department of the Church where Slaughter works. Readers who have done research in the Church archives may recognize these people, but for those who do not, the images are still important because they represent the growth of the modern Church.

Additionally, because this section includes many images that are taken by nonprofessional photographers, it looks more like a personal photo album than do the earlier chapters and gives the reader a familiar, yet original, view of the Latter-day Saint experience. Photographs of “regular people” from around the worldwide Church—like the view of the missionaries in the California San Jose Mission in October 1983 (177)—lend personality and a sense of intimacy to the work.

In an effort to present historic photographs in an interesting manner, Slaughter gives us an image and then some contemporaneous source (diary, letter, or autobiography) that brings the image to life, thereby layering the information from text and image.2 Among the small group of photographic historians interested in the Latter-day Saints, such sharing of photographic images and design elements has yielded wonderful fruits, and this is one of the best to date. When he cannot provide such a gem as a contemporaneous source document, Slaughter gives us some basic information about the individual(s) or place shown.

Deseret Book is to be congratulated on the fine quality of this publication: they provided the author with quality paper to showcase these important documents of the past. Some of the images are crystal clear, perhaps because Slaughter, due to his employment, was able to assure quality control on the reproduction of some of these images by eliminating one step in the reproduction process when he provided original photographs to the publisher. Other photographs, however, are not sized carefully or are second-generation images and thus on occasion appear blurred or out of focus.

Slaughter’s work is a model of the documentation that is required when an author uses any type of sources (holographic or published secondary sources), including photographs. The LDS historical community could learn from his work. Unless historians begin to take photographic documents as seriously they do written ones, Latter-day Saint historical activities associated with visual documents will fall below the professional standards being set in the larger historical community.

Slaughter provides an important window to the past. His professional expertise and knack of identifying interesting photographs is no better evidenced than in this exceptional effort. It represents another important step in utilizing historic photographs in a responsible way. There are so many wonderful images in this book that provide “an intimate look at the Latter-day Saints” that Life in Zion should become an important resource for historians—a visual library.3

II

The Mission is also a photographic work recently released but this time by a large national publisher who hopes that sales will go beyond the Mormon market. According to promotional material by the publisher, it is “an extraordinary look by a team of international photojournalists at the customs, culture and spirit of the people of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”4 It reminds one of the popular photographic series A Day in the Life, in which professional photojournalists spread out across a country, state, or city and in a twenty-four-hour period photographed everything from a hospital delivery room early in the morning to a mechanic working on a truck in a garage late at night. In the case of The Mission, the photojournalists spent one year journeying to six continents to capture the Latter-day Saint story. Unlike Life in Zion, which utilizes historic photographs found in archives, this collection presents many “never-before-seen,” recent color photographs that do not require the daunting task of identifying photographer, location, and dates.

Joseph Walker, communications director at Geneva Steel Corporation and the editor of Pioneer, a magazine for the National Society of the Sons of Utah Pioneers, wrote the captions. Because Walker is a Latter-day Saint, the photographs, taken by photographers who are not LDS, are placed in the context of a believer’s understanding of what the images mean. This is not the first time a non-LDS photographic effort has been supplemented by the writing of practicing Latter-day Saints for an audience larger than the Church.5

This book is a perfect example of a publisher’s efforts to use layers of information to lead the viewer to specific conclusions—in this case, respect for the personal lives of the members of the Church and for the institutional Church itself. Text and photographs are often tied together, although some are tied only by association with their placement in a section.

Some of the images included in The Mission are absolutely moving to me. The two photographs of Emmitt Young, a Black convert from Los Angeles, are among the most dramatic of the book (66–67). For long-time members of the Church in the United States, the book vividly reminds them that the Church has truly become international and multicultural. Particularly touching are the images of Black Saints in the Dominican Republic (34), a Filipino branch president in the streets of Manila (26), a Native American convert in her scrub-oak lean-to (24), a Samoan schoolteacher in his lavalava (49), a Chinese missionary serving in the United States (102), a young Kenyan convert being confirmed (117), and two young Peruvian children climbing a hill (125).

The organization of the book presents a rather insightful look at modern Latter-day Saint culture. The Mission reveals the contours of Latter-day Saint life in a visual way that few other books have done. Three basic divisions—“Families Are Forever,” “A New Church for a New Land,” and “Spreading the Word”—are each divided into smaller sections that also feature several essays providing depth to the subject. Unlike the single photographic images provided in many books, the theme of each section is enhanced by related images of the same people.

Certainly, the life story of nine million Latter-day Saints living in thousands of communities cannot be adequately portrayed in a book of 226 pages, yet there is something pleasing with this work that reveals the heart of Latter-day Saint life by detailing such events as death, marriage, baptism, teaching, recreation, public and private worship, and, most importantly, service to family, community, country, and world. Again, as in most publications, little errors find their way into this lavishly illustrated publication. For example, Wilford Woodruff’s name is once misspelled (5).

An added bonus in this oversized book is two essays written by two observers of the Latter-day Saint community, one an insider and the other an outsider. President Gordon B. Hinckley’s introduction is personable and provides a non-Latter-day Saint audience a view of the Church’s beliefs. Roger Rosenblatt’s tribute to his Mormon high-school English teacher in New York is a fitting addition to a book that leaves empty spaces between the photographs, allowing personal reflections of those who open the book to communicate something that no text can tell.

III

Finally, Images of Faith is a team effort by the staff at the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City. Richard G. Oman and Robert O. Davis, senior curators at the museum, are primarily responsible for selecting the artworks and preparing the essays that highlight the Latter-day Saint art tradition. Museum Director Glen M. Leonard served as general editor of the project and wrote a brief introduction.

Deseret Book deserves recognition again for the quality of this publication. The oversized book allows the visual images to assume a more natural appearance. The paper quality enhances the items selected for inclusion in this publication.

The book is divided into five chapters covering different periods of artistic expression among the Latter-day Saints. Ending the book with a chapter on twentieth-century international folk art was a strong, natural move—visually and textually demonstrating that the Saints throughout the world enrich the cultural and spiritual aspects of the Church. With the publication of this work, many people can become familiar with these rich museum treasures and with the people whose talents make life a little more interesting in Zion.

Of course, the book highlights only a portion of Latter-day Saint art and of those individuals who have contributed to our artistic heritage. Talented individuals like nineteenth-century daguerreotypist Marsena Cannon and twentieth-century artist Walter Rane are not represented. Hopefully, many more volumes detailing other deserving artists will appear in the future.

The visual story of the Church and its people is too large, too important, and too pervasive to be treated adequately from any single point of view. Yet, through these artists’ creative vision and interpretation of their experience, the reader can catch the spirit of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Latter-day Saint life, history, and culture. Those willing to steal a few minutes or a few hours from their busy schedules will be richly rewarded as they ponder over these treasures of the past and present so beautifully presented in Images of Faith.

 

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About the author(s)

Richard Neitzel Holzapfel is Assistant Professor of Church History at Brigham Young University.

Notes

1. Roland Barthes, “The Photographic Message,” Image, Music, Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 25.

2. For another example of this style, see also Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and T. Jeffery Cottle, Old Mormon Nauvoo, 1839–1846: Historic Photographs and Guide (Provo: Grandin Book, 1990).

3. In fact, the book has already been used as a resource for at least one publication. I identified a number of images and written sources from Slaughter’s work for my recent book, Their Faces toward Zion: Voices and Images of the Trek West (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996).

4. Dust jacket flyleaf.

5. B. H. Roberts wrote a booklet of explanations for the 1904 set of stereo views produced by the non-LDS photographic firm of Underwood and Underwood. See Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, “Stereographs and Stereotypes: A 1904 View of Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 18 (fall 1992): 155–76.

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