The most well-known image of John Marsh, left, is a daguerreotype made in 1852. Because the process results in a mirror image, the picture must be reversed to reflect what Marsh really looked like. Photographer/historian Clinton Smith’s corrected image is on the right.
Recorded history, it turns out, has had things backwards since 1852.
Because of the daguerreotype process used to make the only known pictures of John Marsh and his family, the widely circulated photos, paintings and other reproductions of the pioneer doctor and his family are actually mirror images of the people in them.
Recently, photographer/historian Clinton Smith researched the images, now held at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, and wrote about his findings. It may seem like a minor point that the familiar images are reversed from reality, but taking a longer look at them somehow seems to portray them in a different light, both literally and figuratively.
Smith said he had the corrected image on his computer screen the entire time he researched and wrote his article, and somehow Marsh’s visage seems a little kinder. “It’s like looking at a different person,” he said.
Below is Smith’s article, reprinted with his permission. Gaze a while at the images of Marsh above, and his family below, and see if you don’t agree.
THE DAGUERREOTYPE MYSTERY, by Clinton Smith
A daguerreotype is a polished silver plate that has been coated with a light sensitive substance, exposed in a camera, and processed with chemicals. It is a unique one-of-a-kind object. In its day copies could not be made since there was neither negative nor proof left behind. The end results of the daguerreotype process is a mirror image which is by nature laterally reversed, as in the examples of original daguerreotypes, above left and below left.
The daguerreotype, above left, is the image that only Dr. John Marsh would have seen when he looked in the mirror on that day in 1852 when he visited the daguerreotypist studio. The image on the right is what his wife, the cameraman and everyone else would have seen when Dr. Marsh was sitting in front of them. The key to the daguerreotype mystery is in the location of his buttons. A man’s button are always on the right but in a daguerreotype the buttons are on the left.
With close inspection we can now see, in the right corrected daguerreotype, above right, the doctor’s buttons are on his right, his facial mole is actually on the left side of his face, his hair is parted on the right, his right eye is dominant, and the ambient light is falling on the left side of his face.
There are two known biographies of John Marsh: “John Marsh, Pioneer”, by George D. Lyman, published in 1930 and “Dr. John Marsh, Wilderness Scout” by Dr. John W. Winkley, published in 1962. Both biographies contain cropped versions of the original daguerreotype and consequently are the reverse of his actual features.
Dr. Winkley’s biography of Dr. Marsh contains a reproduction of a daguerreotype showing the Marsh family, John, Abigail and Alice, in 1852, although it is not identified as such. Both daguerreotypes, the head-and-shoulders portrait of Dr. Marsh and the family portrait, were in all likelihood made at the same sitting. Neither of the authors mentioned the fact that these portraits are merely reproductions of daguerreotypes – leaving the reader to conclude that they are correct renditions of the subjects when in fact they are reversed.
A second reverse-image daguerreotype, thought to be taken the same day as Marsh’s portrait, is believed to show John with his wife Abby and their daughter, Alice. On the right is the laterally-corrected image showing what they actually looked like.
In all of the research that I have conducted I have not found one single painting or photograph of Dr. Marsh or Dr. Marsh and his family that has been corrected for the inherent reversal of the daguerreotype process. As such, all of the numerous redrawn paintings and photographs in his biographies and on the Internet are incorrect as they have not been corrected or identified as a reproduction of the original daguerreotype.
It is my belief that both of the portraits, above right, are the only correct, academically acceptable renditions of Dr. Marsh and his family in any visual medium other than the original daguerreotype at the Bancroft Library, Berkeley, California. In the case of all previously created works a statement should be attached stating the image was taken from an un-retouched and therefore reversed daguerreotype. All future visual interpretative displays should be corrected to reflect the actual appearance of Dr. John Marsh and his family as they appeared in 1852.
Clinton Smith is an internationally acclaimed American landscape photographer who is also passionately involved in historical interpretation at the California State Parks Sonoma Barracks & Mission, Sonoma, California and may be contacted at (707) 776-7355, or by E-Mail: email@example.com. His photographs can be viewed at ClintonSmith.com. Article reprinted by permission.