By Christopher Scapelliti
Dozens of music historians are disputing the authenticity of a photo said to show blues guitarist Robert Johnson.
The photo (shown cropped, above) was discovered in 2005 and authenticated in 2013 following an eight-year process. It purports to depict Johnson with fellow guitarist Johnny Shines. It is only the third photo of Johnson to be authenticated. Previously, just two photos of Johnson had been confirmed: a formal shot taken at the Hooks Brothers photo studio in Memphis and another thought to have been taken in a photo booth in the Thirties.
But The Guardian reports that a group of 49 music historians, musicians, producers and writers are disputing the third photo’s authenticity, putting them at odds with Johnson’s estate, which claims the image is of Johnson. The critics have analyzed the photo with the help of forensic anthropologists and say there is no evidence to support claims that the man in the photo is Johnson.
The photo first appeared on eBay in 2005, where the seller described it as “Old Snapshot Blues Guitar BB King???” The man who would eventually buy it, Steven Schein, didn’t think either man in the picture looked like King, but his eye was caught by the man on the left. His fingers were unusually long, and his left eye was narrower than the right, features that are discernible on the two confirmed photos of Robert Johnson.
The likelihood that the photo shows Johnson and Shines was supported by the fact that the two men traveled and toured together between 1935 and 1937.
The photo was authenticated in 2013 by police forensic artist Lois Gibson, noted in The Guinness Book of World Records as “The World’s Most Successful Forensic Artist.” According to Gibson’s web site, “Her sketches have helped law enforcement bring in over 1,300 criminals.” Gibson said that “it appears the individual is Robert Johnson. All the features are consistent, if not identical.”
But the group of 49 point to several issues in their argument against the claim. First, Johnson’s ear lobes are visible in the other two photos but not in the third. Ears are useful for forensic identification due to their uniqueness.
The forensic anthropologists noted in their report, “The authentic Johnson has a differently shaped ear, complete with a visible earlobe that appears to be missing in the [alleged] Johnson [image]. As stated elsewhere in this report, ear shape is a tremendously reliable method of forensic identification, perhaps as accurate, or even more so, than fingerprints.”
The critics also question the photo’s orientation. It appears to be backward. The buttons on the clothing are on the garments’ left-hand side rather than the right, as is customary with men’s attire. If the photo is actually flopped, then the man holding the guitar becomes a lefty. And Robert Johnson was right handed.
For that matter, the guitar in the third photo appears to be nothing more than a prop. It has what looks like a damaged headstock, and no tuners. Why wouldn’t Johnson and Shines pose with their own instruments?
In addition, the detractors note that both Robert Lockwood Jr. and David “Honeyboy” Edwards knew Johnson and Shines and failed to identify the men in the photo. Lockwood died in 2006, and Edwards in 2011.
To take a closer look, visit RobertJohnsonPhoto, where you can see the photograph in detail and decide for yourself.