Robert Johnson Controversy Renewed As Artist Identifies Fourth Photo of Blues Legend

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A new photo purporting to show Delta bluesman Robert Johnson has been discovered.

The three-by-five-inch photo, shown cropped at right, shows four people seated at a table, with the man at furthest left believed to be Johnson.

The photo was analyzed by Lois Gibson, a forensic artist for the Houston Police Department and a professional analyst of historical photos. Gibson previously authenticated a 2008 photo that was believed to show Johnson. Though Johnson’s estate accepted her verdict, blues historians have widely disputed that photo’s authenticity.

The new photo was found in an antique desk purchased at auction in 2010 by Donald Roark, a 64-year-old retired lawyer. The drawer was filled with odds and ends, including the photo. Roark thought the man might be Johnson when he first glimpsed it.

“I guess it was because of the hat,” Roark told Chron.com. “I chuckled and thought that guy kind of looks like Robert Johnson.”

Gibson says she gets about five requests for Johnson IDs per month: “Ninety-nine percent of them I look at and, well, I don’t laugh in their face, but I shrug it off.” 

When looking at the Roark photo, she says, she was convinced not only by the man’s resemblance to accepted photos of Johnson but also by the three other people in the photo. She has identified them as the bluesman’s known acquaintances: Calletta Craft, Johnson’s wife from 1931; Estella Coleman, who housed Johnson since 1933; and her son Robert Lockwood Jr.

Robert Johnson died in 1938 at age 27. The two confirmed images of him were discovered in 1973 in the possession of his half-sister Carrie Thompson. A third photo purportedly showing Johnson and musician Johnny Shines was published in the November 2008 edition of Vanity Fair magazine and claimed as authentic by Johnson’s estate in 2013. Historians have since said the man holding the prop guitar in the photo, shown at right, is not Johnson.

Gibson, however, stands by her claim.

“These blues people are not specialists in facial structure. I am,” she says. “They would not know a superciliary arch from a philtrum."

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