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Formal Response of the Robert Johnson Estate to the ‘Report’ Regarding the Legitimacy of the Third Photograph

Last year, Bruce Conforth published a report which he claimed provided evidence that debunked the authenticity of the third photograph of blues legend Robert Johnson, which was discovered by Mr. Zeke Schein in 2005. There are dozens of co-producers of this report, none of whom have the credentials to make the assertions outlined in the report. They include musicians, authors, historians, a sociology professor and one forensic psychologist. The forensic psychologist, Ian McKenzie, Ph.D., may arguably have some credibility; I do not know him. I do know that all I have been able to find online about him is that he is a long-time blues enthusiast, a Big Bill Broonzy fanatic and an occasional blues musician.

Another of the “blues experts” who co-produced the report is John Tefteller, a record collector. I do not know Mr. Tefteller personally, but do question his motivation for coproducing the report. Before joining with Conforth to dispute the authenticity of the photograph, Mr. Tefteller attempted to license the photograph from Mr. Schein to use on the cover of his 2009 Blues Calendar. Mr. Schein wisely decided to work with Vanity Fair instead.

Additionally, Conforth references “two of the world’s foremost forensic anthropological labs” as having examined the photograph and cited them as saying “there was not enough data to conclude that the photos were or were not Johnson.” Conforth Report, p. 3. Conforth does not name the labs to which he referred and does not identify the forensic experts who came to this conclusion.

The Johnson Estate did not consult with historians or musicians – it wasn’t writing a book or composing a song. Instead, the Estate sought out and retained Mrs. Lois Gibson, who is identified in the Conforth report as a sketch artist. Conforth fails to mention, however, that Mrs. Gibson literally wrote the book on forensic art (Forensic Art Essentials), that she is also “The World’s Most Successful Forensic Artist” (The Guinness Book of World Records) and that she is a professor of forensic art at Northwestern University and the Institute of Forensic Art (Houston, TX). Mrs. Gibson is what the law refers to as a forensic expert, which is why she was hired by the Johnson Estate.

With the foregoing in mind, Conforth expects his readers to disregard one of the world’s leading forensic experts and to simply accept his report because he, an American Culture professor, says so. The Johnson Estate stands by the only legally admissible expert evidence produced on this issue.

I do not know Bruce Conforth, nor do I personally know any of the other co-producers of the report. I wish, however, that Conforth had contacted me as he was preparing his report so that he and I could have had a meaningful discussion regarding the claims he was making. That did not happen. In April 2015, before the release of the final report, I was alerted to an online article dated March 12, 2013. The comment section was still open and had been recently active. I read the article and commented on behalf of the Estate. Conforth correctly quotes me in his report, but then takes herculean leaps in his analysis of my response. For example, in his attempt to establish the Johnson family’s “less-than-pure” intentions in authenticating the photograph he states: “[t]his reliance on a process that [Estate attorney John] Kitchens even admitted the estate wanted to succeed (‘I will not pretend that the Estate did not want this photo authenticated’ April 21, 2015) seems questionable.” Conforth Report, p. 3. What would Conforth have expected? Perhaps he would have imagined that my conversation with Mr. Schein would have been more like the following:

Schein: My name is Zeke Schein and I have identified what I believe to be a photograph of Robert Johnson.

Kitchens: I appreciate you calling me about this. I’ll send the photograph to an expert to be examined. I must tell you, though, we sure hope that it’s not Robert Johnson. It would be a nightmare to find out that another photograph of one of the most influential blues and rock musicians of the 20th Century has been discovered. After all, there are already two photographs out there. A third would simply be too many.

Such an approach would have been ludicrous. Yes, the Johnson Estate wanted the photograph to be authenticated. It did not, however, simply rely on Mr. Schein’s belief that the man in the photograph was Johnson. Doing so would have certainly been the easier route. The Estate wanted to know whether the man was Johnson and all of its actions were geared towards acquiring that knowledge.

It was the Estate’s desire that the allegations leveled in Conforth’s report would fade into the background. Unfortunately, that has not happened and, most recently, Conforth was published in the February 2016 edition of Living Blues magazine, a publication to which he is a regular contributor. Because he has not and apparently will not go away, this formal response was required.

In addition to the lack of expert support for his position, there are plenty of holes in Conforth’s report. For example, Conforth cites as “evidence” his argument that Johnson wouldn’t wear or even have available to him the zoot suit he is wearing in the photo discovered by Mr. Schein, especially considering the “very conventional suit [he wore] in the genuine Hooks Brothers’ photo.” Conforth Report, p. 6. Had Conforth called me before publishing his report, I would have told him that Johnson did not buy the “very conventional suit” worn in the Hooks Brothers photo. That suit had belonged to his nephew, Lewis. Lewis gave Johnson the suit just before he (Lewis) was shipped off by the Navy. This information was given to Mr. Stephen LaVere by Johnson’s half-sister Carrie Thompson and testified to under oath by Mr. LaVere during a deposition in 2009. I would have also told Conforth that Johnson’s second-hand suit was tailored by a Jewish man on Beale Street in Memphis; this tailor also made zoot suits. This information was given to me by Annye Anderson, Carrie Thompson’s half-sister, during her deposition in 2009.

Finally, Conforth, when providing his “credentials” at the conclusion of his report, states that he is an Executive Board Member of the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation. A similar claim is made at the end of his article in this month’s Living Blues article, except he says he sits on the executive board of the Robert Johnson Foundation (he excludes “blues”). Although the Estate of Robert Johnson and the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation are separate entities, I represent both of them. Bruce Conforth is not, nor has he ever been, a member of the executive board of the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation.