The American Lighthouse Foundation’s Keeper of the Light award is designed to honor those individuals and organizations in the national lighthouse community who have contributed in a significant manner to the preservation of America’s lighthouses and their rich heritage.
On May 1, 2022, ALF presented the performing artist Joseph Smith with a Keeper of the Light award during the organization’s annual Gala, which was held at the Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport, Maine.
The following award overview was written by ALF Executive Director Bob Trapani, Jr.:
Only a talented and meticulously prepared performer has the ability to captivate an audience and make them feel as if they are in the midst of the very historical figure being portrayed. Such artistry blends skill with complete character immersion—and the capacity to evoke a progression of emotional chords that far exceed mere storytelling.
This type of mastery transcends time on the stage of the moment. The audience is no longer in the here and now—nor in the presence of the performer, but rather in a time and place when the historical figure loomed large in life, forging the legacy we now celebrate. Joseph Smith has this something special as a performer. His well–honed talents never fail to envelop an audience with a sense of pure wonderment and admiration.
So who is Joseph Smith?
Well, long before he began delighting lighthouse aficionados with his uncanny portrayal of the luminary Augustin Fresnel, he has been a theatrical performer based out of the New York / New Jersey area since 1995. What makes Joseph Smith exceptional is the ability to interweave his two passions—acting and history. As Joseph has noted, “My work as a Performing Artist of Living History started with local history. I love spending hours in a library, immersing myself in the ‘pages of history.’ I am a firm believer that there is still history out there, waiting to be re–discovered.”
Joseph Smith’s living history programs include classic notables Augustin Fresnel, Philip Freneau, Young Abe Lincoln, and Frederick Law Olmsted. However, for those with a love of lighthouses, the name Augustin Fresnel is the one that shines brightest amidst this impressive list.
It was during the mid–2000s when Joseph set his sights on learning about the fascinating contributions that Augustin Fresnel (1788–1827) gifted humanity through his revolutionary scientific achievements to improve the world of lighthouse lighting. The results of Fresnel’s work were much more profound than anyone could have ever imagined during the early 1800s. He created the Fresnel lens—an invention that would ultimately do more to safeguard countless mariners than any other aid to navigation that was to be introduced. The advent of the radiobeacon in the 1920s is the only other aid to navigation (prior to today’s digital age) that could challenge this claim due to its exactness and incomparable range under all weather conditions, but its introduction upon the sea took another century to develop.
As H. O. Murfee noted in the 1895 The University of Virginia Magazine, “Those who cannot follow him (Fresnel) in his lofty flight through optics may still admire him as the founder of the most perfect lighthouse system the world has yet seen.”
After much time, effort and research, Joseph Smith was equipped with a superb compliment of facts, traits and challenges that embodied Mr. Fresnel and his life’s work. A portrayal was then written and performed that captured one man’s passion with “finding the solution to the many questions in the inexhaustible range of science.”
In looking back through history, few have expressed more eloquently the genius and accomplishments of Augustin Fresnel than renowned Scottish civil engineer Alan Stevenson.
Stevenson, who served as an engineer to the Board of Northern Lighthouses, stated, “There can be no doubt that the more fully the system of Fresnel is understood, the more certainly will it take the place of all other systems of illumination for light-houses, at least in those countries where this important branch of administration is conducted with the care and solicitude which it deserves.”
Stevenson went on to note, “Fresnel, who is already classed with the greatest of those inventive minds which extend the boundaries of human knowledge, with thus, at the same time, receive a place amongst the benefactors of the species who have consecrated their genius to the common good of mankind; and wherever maritime intercourse prevails, the solid advantages which his labors have procured will be felt and acknowledged.”
Anyone who has carried out even the most cursory study of our lighthouse history has come to learn—at least in a general sense, who Augustin Fresnel was and how important the invention of the Fresnel lens proved to be. But few people really know who Augustin Fresnel was as a person and scientist—and of his uncommon selflessness and humility.
Joseph Smith has changed all of this for lighthouse enthusiasts! One can sift through historical documents and peruse letters personal and professional in nature to gain a better understanding of Mr. Fresnel, but precious few are able to glean and place into perspective the human side of this scientific genius like Joseph Smith has been able to accurately portray. Joseph does not simply educate the audience on who Augustin Fresnel was—his acting prowess gifts the audience with the opportunity to experience Mr. Fresnel as a person. A full range of emotions—including strengths, vulnerabilities, desires and disappointments that help comprise the complex Fresnel are shared in a riveting but dignified fashion by Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith’s debut living history performance of Augustin Fresnel occurred at the National Lighthouse Museum in Staten Island, NY during 2016. From there, word went out like far-reaching beams of light to others of this must–see performance. Joseph would subsequently appear at grand lighthouse “stages” such as the New London Maritime Society, Horton Point Lighthouse, the Michigan Lighthouse Alliance 2018 International Lighthouse Conference, Montauk Lighthouse, Fire Island Lighthouse, the American Lighthouse Foundation’s 2019 Annual Gala / 25th anniversary, Michigan Lighthouse Festival and Florida Lighthouse Association 2019 fall meeting.
Then the world–wide pandemic struck in 2020. Suddenly in–person performances were no longer possible. Over the next two years, much uncertainty prevailed as what we knew as “normal” was now a thing of the past. The nationwide lighthouse community was also thrust into a holding pattern as it related to its many activities associated with preserving lighthouses and educating the public of their heritage and importance.
During this time, many lighthouse groups and their hardworking volunteers certainly could have benefited from an emotional “pick–me–up”—a message of encouragement that conveyed the fact that there was indeed a light at the end of the unprecedented health crisis. There to shine some rays of “light” was Joseph Smith. During the pandemic he spent many hours recording personal messages for a number of lighthouse organizations around the country, such as the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society, Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses and the American Lighthouse Foundation, just to name a few. These short video clips were wonderful fun—and a healthy dose of inspiration to all who were blessed to view them. “It was my way of staying in touch with and supporting the lighthouse community-doing what I could during the challenging times,” said Joseph Smith.
Joseph did not stop with just the personal messages. If circumstances were going to prevent him from performing at in-person events, then he was determined to do the next best thing—present his artistry via special videos and through a virtual platform like Zoom. Events and groups that enjoyed Joseph Smith’s talents virtually from the end of 2020 through 2021 included the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse 150th Anniversary festivities, “Theatre, History and the Lighthouses of Long Island,” Michigan Lighthouse Festival and Fire Island Lighthouse.
Through these performances, “My hope is that the audience has learned more about Augustin Fresnel, or whoever it is that I portray, in a way that deepens their experience the next time they visit a lighthouse, museum or a historic house that has a connection to the individual, and to learn even more about the person,” says Joseph Smith.
Joseph’s performances are a real boost to the collective lighthouse education efforts throughout the United States. There is simply nothing to compare his portrayal of Augustin Fresnel to. Whether one is a longtime lighthouse aficionado or new to the movement, “Mr. Fresnel” speaks to the heart of everyone who experiences the talents and passion of Joseph Smith.
“I was not part of the ‘choir’ when it came to lighthouse and maritime history before taking on the persona of Augustin Fresnel,” said Joseph Smith. “Since doing so, I have experienced such a deep respect and admiration for the commitment and passion that the lighthouse and maritime communities continue to show, day in and day out!”
Smith further notes, “It is my hope that I can introduce others who were like myself when it comes to lighthouses, particularly the younger generation. I started my journey doing local history, and I feel lighthouses are very much a part of that local history, especially the keepers and their families, who took on the important roles of maintaining and ‘keeping the light shining’ for all to see. If my performances can deepen a person’s connection to where they live, so much the better.”
For all of this and more, the American Lighthouse Foundation is proud to present Joseph Smith, aka Augustin Fresnel, with a well-deserved 2022 Keeper of the Light award!