March 24, 2005

Legendary blues pioneer Robert Johnson left behind very little physical evidence of his existence when he died in 1938. In addition to the 29 songs he recorded, two known photographs of him exist. One, a portrait of Johnson wearing a hat and holding his guitar, was taken at the Hooks Brothers Studio in Memphis in 1938. The other, discovered by Johnson biographer Steven LaVere in a cedar chest belonging to Johnson’s half-sister Carrie Thompson, is a photo booth portrait. 

robert_johnson.jpgToday, the photos are at the center of a legal quagmire that involves Thompson’s heirs, LaVere (to whom Thompson ceded rights of the photos), a man claiming to be Johnson’s son (who has been named sole heir of his estate) and the CBS label, which produced the blockbuster box set of Johnson’s recordings in 1990. Thompson’s heirs have filed suit against LaVere, Johnson’s sole heir Claud Johnson, and Sony Corporation, which bought CBS Records.

Is this the first time a photobooth photo has been at the center of a legal dispute? The case not only involves the photo itself, but gets at the mechanics of 1930s photobooth technology:

The case promises to bring questions about the images to a boil. Mr. LaVere says the miniature photo he found in the trunk is a photo-booth portrait. Ms. Anderson says her sister took it herself with a Kodak, which, if true, could make it easier for her to argue that it doesn’t belong to the Johnson estate.

Nonsense, responds Mr. LaVere, who is unwilling to surrender his copyrights. Photo booths render pictures as mirror images, he says, so that the original pictured the right-handed Mr. Johnson as a left-handed guitarist.

For the moment, that is impossible to verify. Mr. Nevas, Ms. Anderson’s lawyer, said he is “not at liberty to say” where the photographs are. When pressed, he says only: “They’re in the possession of my clients.”

robert_johnson_stamp.jpgAs one of two extant photos of Johnson, the image has been widely distributed and interpreted, and in 1994, became the first photobooth portrait to be turned into a US postage stamp (though not the last). The cigarette that dangles from Johnson’s lips was famously removed at the order of the USPS, an interesting change that is analyzed in great detail in Patricia Schroeder’s excellent 2004 work Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contempory American Culture. In order to accommodate the dimensions of the stamp, Johnson’s guitar and hand are also moved slightly, and the drapery background of the original portrait becomes a wall of shingles in stamp designer Julian Allen’s version.

The photo has been painted, re-enacted, adapted, and painted again. The photo is often cropped, usually nearly square, which causes it to lose the tell-tale look of the photobooth portrait. This colorized version of the portrait gives a good idea of its true dimensions and clipped edges. 

We’ll be waiting patiently to hear the court’s decision in the case, and see who ends up with what may be the most valuable photobooth photo of all time. 

One Comment

  1. 1

    Fantastic post, Brian. I was just speaking to someone a few days ago about the Robert Johnson photobooth picture. Glad to see confirmation of its authenticity.