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The New-ish Photo of Robert Johnson

Photograph: Robert Johnson Estate/Getty Images

From Photograph: Robert Johnson Estate/Getty Images

Last Saturday, The Guardian posted a story about a new photograph of blues legend Robert Johnson discovered on eBay by Steven Schein eight years ago, but only recently authenticated. The now restored photograph shows Johnson holding his guitar next to Blues Hall of Fame inductee Johnny Shines, who died in 1992. This is only the third verified image of Robert Johnson ever discovered, though others have claimed to be such.

As it turns out, forensic artist Lois Gibson actually confirmed Johnson’s identity in the photo years ago, after being commissioned by the Robert Johnson Estate in 2007. You can read a little about that process by checking out this Vanity Fair article, posted in 2008. It’s a supplement to Frank DiGiacomo’s story, Searching for Robert Johnson, which is online here:

Because the image had just recently been listed, by a New York–based antiques dealer, bidding was still at a reasonable $25, but Schein guessed that the ending bid was going to be many times that initial figure. He had just sold a beautiful 1920s Stella acoustic guitar—a favorite among the old country-blues musicians—and when he added together the money he’d gotten for that and some extra cash on hand, he came up with a budget of $3,100. If someone spends more than that, he figured, the bidder will also know it’s a photo of Robert Johnson, so it will be protected.

A co-worker of Schein’s set up a computer “snipe” program that automatically bid on the picture up to the specified limit, and Schein held his breath. Approximately $2,200 later, he held the photo in his hands. What had he gotten for his money? An extremely fragile, three-inch-by-four-inch photo that bore no identifying marks that could be traced to a photographer’s studio, no date stamp that could establish when the picture had been taken, no provenance whatsoever save for a note from the seller saying he’d purchased the photo in Atlanta. Schein was still convinced that he had found and purchased a photo of Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines. The question was, could he convince anyone else?

It’s a great read, and as much about Johnson as it is about the photo. Anyone wanting to see or hear more should check out the UK documentary The Search for Robert Johnson, which you can watch on Youtube below. Eric Clapton and Keith Richards make an appearance, as does Johnny Shines.