That “third Robert Johnson photo”.

 

This photograph is supposed to show blues singers Robert Johnson (with guitar) and Johnny Shines.

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However, if you look at the man on the right (“Johnny Shines”), you’ll notice something odd about several details of his clothing.

Here’s an enlarged and enhanced section of the photo.

Details circled

The areas marked in red – the ticket pocket, the fly opening and the buttons on his jacket, trousers (pants) and shirt – are all on the wrong side for men’s clothing.   (Check your own clothes – for at least a century, US and European men’s clothes have had the buttons on the right hand side while women’s buttons have been on the left.)

So – did Johnny Shines wear a suit and shirt tailored for a woman, or (far more likely) has the photograph been reversed?

Perhaps the photo is supposed to be this way around?

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Now he’s wearing men’s clothes and all the details are correct.

Details circled reversed

The evidence of the clothing clearly points to a reversed photo.

But suddenly, “Robert Johnson” has become a left-handed guitarist, and – according to the two confirmed photos of him and the recollections of those who knew him – he was definitely right-handed.

Maybe it’s not Robert Johnson (or Johnny Shines), after all.

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The Robert Johnson Estate commissioned Lois Gibson (a police forensic artist) to authenticate the photo, which she duly did (see Vanity Fair, October 2008). Her research compared the features of the face in the new photo with those on the two other authenticated photos of Robert Johnson. She was able to superimpose one on top of another and declared the result “an almost perfect fit”. Ms Gibson obviously didn’t notice that the photo had been reversed and since none of the faces in the three photos under analysis is symmetrical, surely her conclusions and her “authentication” of the photo must now be in serious doubt, to put it mildly.

There has been a lot of discussion and argument about this photo and the disputed identification of the subjects.   While stories about a “third Robert Johnson photo” have appeared in many mainstream magazines and newspapers, these have been based on a press release by Getty Images, who control the licensing rights.  However, it seems impossible to find anyone with knowledge/experience in the blues world (like fellow musicians Robert Jr Lockwood and David “Honeyboy” Edwards who actually knew Johnson and Shines1 or authors, researchers and journalists) to agree with Ms Gibson’s conclusions.

If another supposed photo of Robert Johnson should ever surface, we can only hope that the Robert Johnson Estate will do proper and thorough research before deciding to authenticate it.

Photos by Robert Johnson Estate/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1. When Lockwood and Edwards were asked if they recognised either man in the picture “neither identified the men in the photo. Still, [photo owner] Schein wasn’t ready to give up. The bluesmen hadn’t said it wasn’t Johnson…”    Claud Johnson (Robert’s estranged son) might believe that the photo depicts his father, but he never actually met Robert Johnson and glimpsed him only once, almost 70 years ago when he was around 5 years old. (Portrait Of A Phantom: Searching For Robert Johnson (Vanity Fair, November 2008, pp 5-6)