Thursday, October 23, 2008

Is This Man Robert Johnson?

There are two verified photographs of blues legend Robert Johnson. Vanity Fair might have just published a third. In a fascinating article in the November issue of Vanity Fair (available online here) Contributing Editor Frank DiGiacomo writes about how a New York guitar salesman bought the photograph on eBay for several thousand dollars, (where it was erroneously suggested the guitarist pictured might be B.B. King) then set about trying to authenticate it.

Steven “Zeke” Schein believes that's Robert Johnson on the left and another delta bluesman, Johnny Shines on the right. And Schein makes a great case for it, but you'll have to read the 5 page Vanity Fair article for details about why. The story also includes the detailed copyright history which began when Steve LaVere bought the only other two known photographs of Robert Johnson from his half-sister Carrie Thompson in 1974 and the Mississippi Supreme Court decision that gave Crystal Springs native and Johnson' heir Claud Johnson ownership of Robert Johnson's image.

Here's a brief passage:

In late summer 2007, Schein’s attorney, John Pelosi, submitted the photograph to John Kitchens, the lawyer for the Johnson estate, to see if there was any way of authenticating it. Kitchens’s father, Jim Kitchens, had been the lead attorney in Claud Johnson’s fight to be named heir of the Johnson estate, but he had since turned the day-to-day handling of the estate over to his son, who turned 30 this year and was all of 12 when the Johnson boxed set was released. Not surprisingly, when John Kitchens saw a copy of the photo, he wasn’t exactly floored. “I didn’t know who it was,” he says. But Kitchens remembered reading about a forensic artist who, that August, had reportedly determined the identity of the sailor kissing the nurse in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous Life-magazine photo of Times Square on the day World War II ended. The artist’s name is Lois Gibson and she works for the Houston Police Department. She is also a graduate of the F.B.I. Academy Forensic Artist Course and was deemed “The World’s Most Successful Forensic Artist” in The 2005 Guinness Book of World Records because, at the time, her sketches and facial reconstructions had helped net more than 1,062 criminals.

Kitchens sent Gibson a copy of Schein’s photo, along with reproductions of the Hooks Bros. portrait and the photo-booth shot. Gibson compared the facial features in each of the three photos and reported back with a pretty startling conclusion: “My only problem with this determination is the lack of certainty about the date of the questioned photo,” she wrote in her report to Kitchens. But, she continued, if Schein’s photo “was taken about the same time as, or a little earlier than,” the photo-booth self-portrait, “it appears the individual in [Schein’s photo] is Robert Johnson. All the features are consistent if not identical.”

(Click to hear Robert Johnson's Terraplane Blues)

1 comment:

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