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Kieth Merrill
Monday, April 27 2009

Kieth Merrill Reviews Scot Proctor's Witness of the Light. A Powerful Personal Tribute to the Prophet Joseph Smith

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Editor's Note:  In Kieth's review of  Witness of the Light - A Photographic Journey in the Footsteps of the Prophet Joseph Smith,  anytime you want to go to the page where you can pre- order your own personal copy of the movie, just click on any of the Witness of the Light titles below and you'll be taken there.  The movie is at the replication facility now, and copies should be available for Christmas.  You may also click on the DVD cover icon to your right or at the end of the article, where there will be one more link.

This year has been a grand birthday party for the prophet Joseph Smith. December 23 is the culminating celebration. It will be 200 years since this remarkable man was born. His life has changed the world.

It has been a year of renewed attention to his life and times. It has been a year of gifts. Members of the Church throughout the world have honored him with words, music, dance, and song. He has been celebrated in myriad wards and stakes. He has been the subject of scholarly explorations, musical theater, new books, literature, videos and motion pictures. 

The gifts have come from those who love the prophet of the restoration and no one loves the prophet Joseph Smith any more than Scot Proctor. Like so many others in this year of reflective adoration Scot gave the grandest gift of all - the gift of self.  He brought the passions of his life, the photographic journey of a lifetime and his remarkable knowledge of Joseph together in a powerful new DVD called Witness of the Light.

My First Impressions

I wrote this note to Scot and Maurine right after I screened the new film: 

I just finished watching Witness of the Light.  As well as I know this story I was enthralled from beginning to end. As much as I thought I knew about this story I was fascinated by facts, reflections and anecdotes I've never known. Being hopelessly right brained and in love and spellbound by images I found myself awash in your marvelous photographs. Having created Legacy - and made an attempt to re-create portions of the history with moving pictures - I was yet astounded by your juxtaposition of history with actual locations - and stories with artifacts and remnants. I found it in fact remarkable that so much of it remains to be seen; undeveloped, rural and much like it must have been.

Thank you SOOO much for making this such a personal exploration. Thank you taking me and staying with me every step of the way. Your soothing voice and utter confidence in telling the story are irresistible. Your images of the Sacred Grove, the "Sacred Susquehanna" (as you call it) and extraordinary landscapes were all marvelous context for the detailed close ups in which your candid narrative enable me to see the imprint and impression of the prophet. You have created yet one more legacy of your own faith. Witness of the Light is a unique exploration of the prophet Joseph that draws much of its power from your own reverent testimony. That you have walked in Joseph's world and come to know him and come to love him cannot help but strengthen all who are fortunate enough to go on this journey with you."

In writing, producing and directing Legacy for the Church, I thought I came to know and understand Joseph Smith, the man, the prophet, his life and times. When I watched Witness of the Light I was dazzled by how much I have never known.  What a thrill it was.

Review and Getting to Know Scot

I asked Scot for permission to "review" the DVD here in the cyber pages of Meridian. He agreed and Maurine granted me an interview and a unique glimpse of "the light behind the Witness of the Light."

Maurine recalled,

When Scot asked me to marry him, he planned it so that we would be standing between the statues of Joseph and Hyrum Smith on the temple grounds in Salt Lake City.  I knew, from the beginning, what I was getting.  Call it truth in advertising.  Scot says that his love of Joseph Smith is in his DNA.  If he had one wish for his life, it would be to find the way to most effectively express his testimony of Joseph Smith and the restoration.

I think his wish has come true in this film.

Unlike other documentary examinations of Joseph Smith, Scot makes this one very personal. The enthralling DVD is a compilation from the thousands of photographs Scot has taken over more than three decades. You have seen Scot's photo essays on Meridian so you know already that he has a marvelous eye. The images selected for Witness of the Light capture the places and textures both intimate and broad. But more than that, the flow of pictures capture feelings and a "sense of the events" difficult to describe and wholly remarkable considering they are still photographs.

Click to Enlarge
Light and texture in the Newel K. Whitney Store in Kirtland, Ohio.

Let me assure you:  Witness of the Light is not static. It moves and it is moving. It begins with an up close and personal conversation with Scot and Maurine.  Scot appears on select locations throughout the DVD. It is like being there with him. Much of the music is familiar (from Merrill Jenson) and I found myself augmenting the experience from my own treasure trove of testimony.

But it is not the images or music alone that make Witness of the Light a must-see for everyone wishing to understand more and know the prophet better. It is Scot himself who narrates the DVD with a casual intimacy that puts him on the couch beside you. I can almost promise you that you will hear things and feel things about Joseph Smith that you've not known or felt before.  He told me that his goal is for everyone, no exceptions, to come away from this film and experience having learned at least five new things about Joseph.  I have no doubt his goal will be achieved.

What Brought All This About?

Maurine told me,

At one point in his life, Scot was discouraged with the direction of his career.  He fasted and prayed intently. He was perplexed when the only inspiration he received after spending nine hours in the temple seemed to be a recurring question, "What do you want?"  Finally, I took him by the shoulders, faced him squarely and said, "Well, Scot, what DO you want?"  It was a moment of truth.  Something emerged from the inner regions of his soul and he said, "What I want is to bear testimony of Joseph Smith and the restoration.  But how do you make a living at that?"

A month later, through their dear friend, Sheri Dew, Scot and Maurine Proctor were commissioned to create a book entitled Witness of the Light - A Photographic Journey in the Footsteps of the American Prophet, Joseph Smith.  It was for them a boost to Scot's quest to photograph those places on the earth that are significant and sacred to Latter-day Saints.  That quest has found them chasing the sunrise in the Galilee, winding over the Mormon Pioneer Trail in every season, and trekking deep into the jungles of Guatemala to photograph candidates for the city of Zarahemla.

"Each has been a remarkable journey," Maurine said reflecting on their marvelous adventures. "For us, they have been journeys into our souls and into the legacy of our people."

Scot's passion for translating images into meaning began early.  He spent two of his growing-up years in Turkey. His parents made a concerted effort to follow the journeys of Paul. The ancient apostle became a flesh and blood reality for Scot as he walked where he walked and beheld the things he surely saw.  One poignant afternoon as Scot and his dad gazed upon a view Paul must have seen in western Turkey (Asia Minor), he said,  "Someday I would like to do a beautiful, National Geographic-style book on Joseph Smith and call it, In the Footsteps of the Prophet Joseph."  Scot recalls that at that moment he could actually see the cover of the book in his mind's eye.  He was sixteen years old.

Scot's Perspectives of the Restoration

Scot has always had an insatiable appetite for learning all that there is to know about the restoration. Like documenting significant sites on film, ferreting out new sources of history has been a passion. He is blessed with a photographic memory that keeps it all in place.  In even casual conversation Scot can dredge up minute details of the life and time of Joseph Smith. Listening to Scot's easy and confident explanation of these events on the DVD gave me the uncanny feeling he had actually lived it.

Scot's fascinating perspective is this - that not only Joseph, but also those around him, his family members and friends, were also called to this work and that the restoration was carried out on the shoulders of giants who were disguised as farmers and craftsmen.  He speaks with confidence about the restoration because he has seen it so vividly in his mind and heart.  When he documents the sacred sites, he looks where others do not think to look and finds great treasures there. All of this he shares with us in this new DVD Witness of the Light.

Adventures in the Field

Maurine recalls,

I'll never forget the day we were trying to find the cemetery that was described as being one mile west of the city of Far West.  We knew that perhaps as many as 300 Latter-day Saints were buried there.  We went to a high place, one mile west of the city, but could find nothing.  We began knocking on doors.  Could anyone tell us where the old Mormon cemetery was?  Finally, one man knew.  It was across the road and up about a quarter mile from his home - but it had been ploughed under so a farmer could plant alfalfa!  We went to the field and walked across it in a sober frame of mind.  Old pieces of broken tombstones were there among the dirt and weeds.  What a poignant moment.  We've had many such.

Scot is an artist with a camera.  Done well photography is fine art. Photography is about seeing. It is about light. Scot sees what escapes the eyes of others. He sees detail lost to the untrained observer. He sees the light as it slips across a landscape casting undulating shadows. He anticipates that magic moment then captures a nuance that makes his pictures come to life. He has a gift for seeing light and for feeling it.  Images depicting the events of the restoration create the feeling of "being there."  Scot told me, "there is truth in art and when you see the truth, it speaks to you and you can feel it."  Witness of the Light affirms that vision.

Maurine recalls,

Last winter Scot went to Norwich, Vermont. He was shooting a beautiful winter landscape of a home where the Smiths once lived - the only home of theirs that remains in the New England area. The temperature was minus 7 degrees. His hands were freezing to the camera but that didn't matter.  Capturing an image to convey the reality of the lives he wanted to remember is everything to him.

Click to Enlarge
Dr. Nathan Smith's Medical Bag that was very likely at the operation of young Joseph Smith.

On once occasion Scot went to Dartmouth Medical School to take pictures of Dr. Nathan Smith's medical bag. He had photographed the old bag once before but remained fascinated by the probability that this was likely THE BAG that Dr. Smith brought to the Smith home when he performed the operation on young Joseph's leg. His curious fascination with an old medical bag gave Scot the opportunity to tell the story of Joseph's leg operation to the secretary of the medical school. When he finished both of them were in tears. The secretary had never known of the operation or of Joseph Smith's connection to Dr. Nathan Smith.

Early Outdoor Studio Training

Scot's gift for photography began in childhood.  He lived on 200 acres of woods in Missouri, and his Dad let him use his camera to shoot photographs.  That love blossomed in him.  When he would go to Nauvoo (which he jokes was only four days' walk from his home), he would sometimes take 1,800 pictures or more in a weekend.

Click to Enlarge
Morning light washes over the giant moonstones of the Nauvoo Temple.

Of his insatiable passion Scot commented, "Of course, when you are taking a picture, you are really trying to capture not just an object, but the way the light strikes an object. And the mood of the light and selection of the lens can give it meaning beyond the two dimensions of the photographic image. The Lord does all the work and all I have to do is press the shutter."

Credit Where Credit is Due

Scot credits the Lord in all things but most in particular in filming the remarkable images he has been able to capture. More than once he has set up under cloudy skies with gray and dismal light, only to have the sun come bursting through in the crucial moment. When Scot told me this story I remembered well the same experience in making Legacy and Testaments.  Scot added, "We always say that taking pictures is like the scripture where Nephi tells us, 'We are saved by grace after all we can do.'  We can bring the camera, the film or now the computer card.  We can get ourselves to the place.  But only God can paint the picture."

Scot's adoration of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his passion for taking priceless pictures make Witness of the Light unique. It is impossible to watch and not feel his love for both.  This movie ought to be in every Latter-day Saint home.

Stay tuned for a brief follow-up article in the next couple of days as I asked Scot to share with Meridian readers some photographic tips and recommendations.

To pre-order a copy of Witness of the Light click here.

© 2005 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.

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