Podcast 158: Zeke Schein

For guitar collectors, Zeke Schein is best-known as the long-time salesman you see at Matt Umanov Guitars. What you may not know is that Zeke is also the guy who discovered what may very well be the third photo of Robert Johnson ever unearthed (an eBay find erroneously listed as a BB King photo).

Since purchasing that small photo over a decade ago, Schein has had quite a roller coaster ride. He went through hurdles to get the photo authenticated, he gave the rights to the Robert Johnson Estate and he’s witnessed his unlikely eBay find get reprinted in national magazines. He’s also faced the wrath of blues historians, some of whom rabidly dispute that this is in fact a shot of Johnson at all.

Zeke has written a new book entitled Portrait of a Phantom: The Story of Robert Johnson’s Lost Photograph. Though ostensibly about the discovery of this image, Zeke’s book is about a lot more, too. He writes about his love for the blues, his time at Umanov’s, the New York music scene and why some of us are so compelled to learn more about our music heroes. On this week’s podcast, we talk to Zeke about the photo, his career selling guitars at one of the world’s most famous stores and much more.

This episode of our podcast is brought to you by Retrofret Vintage Guitars.

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  • Mark Bampton

    The discovery of a new photograph of Robert Johnson would have been great, if it had been true. I have conducted a detailed, impartial analysis of Zeke’s photograph, producing irrefutable evidence that the photograph doesn’t include Robert Johnson or Johnny Shines.

    My analysis of the photograph “Robert Johnson and the First Orphan Artefact MDB280617” can be found on the Academia website (https://independent.academia.edu/MarkBampton). I also raise serious concerns in my paper about how the photograph was originally produced, restored and authenticated.

    The Robert Johnson Blues Foundation and Robert Johnson Estate who commissioned the original authentication of Zeke’s photograph have stopped endorsing the photograph after considering my analysis.

    This milestone has been marked by the removal of a declaration on the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation website penned by their attorney John Kitchens which detailed the authentication and endorsement of the photograph.

    Unfortunately this does not lead to a good prognosis for the main purpose of Zeke’s recently published book “Portrait of a Phantom”.

    The main purpose of the book appears to be clearly captured on the front cover by Zeke’s photograph accompanied by “The Story of Robert Johnson’s Lost Photograph” in the title. Without knowing who the two men are, the photograph currently has no real historical value and the book loses its declared purpose.

    • Zeke Schein

      Mark Bampton, your statements are inaccurate and your report is specious. Michael Johnson recently assured me that the estate of Robert Johnson fully supports the authenticity of the photo and that Getty Images will continue to license it. My publisher’s legal department asked you to cease and desist, but I guess you can’t stop your slanderous behavior. I feel sorry for you. Zeke Schein

      • Mark Bampton

        My credentials and experience summarised in section 3 of my analysis make me comfortably qualified to conduct my analysis. I illustrate and describe the conspicuous visual differences between the men in your photograph and those in known photographs of Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that the photograph is not authentic.

        I notice that you felt obliged to defend challenges to the claimed authenticity of your photograph on the Down Home Radio Show website (https://www.downhomeradioshow.com/2008/10/interview-with-zeke-schein-a-new-photo-of-robert-johnson-comes-to-light/). In your comment of January 18, 2017 you say “Here’s a Formal Response from the Estate of Robert Johnson stating that they support the authenticity of the photo”. The accompanying link that you provide no longer works because this Formal Response describing the authentication and endorsement of the photograph has been removed, as I previously said. I was informed on the 16 September 2017 that it would be removed and by the 22 September it was gone, and having just checked it is still gone.

        It would be helpful if you could be more specific about what I have said that you think is inaccurate or specious because I don’t know to what you refer.

        From my position there are numerous concerns raised in my report that need to be answered. There are also eight questions (page 53 of my analysis) specifically for Lois Gibson. Credible answers to these issues would be essential before authentication of your photograph could even be considered.

        I can appreciate that it may take a few days to get some specific answers that you can share publicly. In the meantime perhaps you can share Lois Gibson’s authentication report. This is the one that was discussed in “A Disputed Robert Johnson Photo Gets the C.S.I. Treatment” by Frank Digiacomo, published by Vanity Fair, 27 October 2008. As far as I know this is the only document that tries to prove your photograph is authentic, but seems remarkably elusive. I raise serious concerns in my analysis about this report, but it would leave the interested public with both Lois Gibson’s and my report to make more informed decisions.

        To clarify the point that you make about “cease and desist” I have not received any communications from Pelican other than to confirm that they stand by their decision to publish “Portrait of a Phantom”. They not only say that they are proud to provide information and entertainment on controversial and disputed subjects, but recognise that I may well be right in my positions and opinions related to the subject matter of your book. They also confirm that they respect my right to express my my positions and opinions, which is what I am now doing.

        Sorry Zeke, but unless I have misunderstood, it sounds like you are the only one unhappy with engaging in these types of communication.

        • Zeke Schein

          Mark, For answers to your questions, I suggest that you read my book. Although you obviously haven’t read it, you’ve gone on multiple websites trashing it. You behavior has been deplorable. As for your report, it begins by stating that the photo is a composite of two separate images. You’re wrong, it isn’t. I spent years selling vintage cameras and printing photos so I can speak definitively on that matter. The Formal Response was removed at Bruce Conforth’s request, as it portrayed him in a negative light. Steven Johnson and Bruce are friends and there was no need to leave it online because the Estate of Robert Johnson continues to support the authenticity of the photo. Please find someone else to stalk. Best wishes, Zeke

          • Mark Bampton

            Zeke, Your book certainly takes advantage of Robert Johnson’s fame to promote what would otherwise be a more obscure book. The front cover declares that the book is about a lost photograph of Robert Johnson.

            The more content devoted to a story about Robert Johnson’s lost photograph, the more pointless the book becomes because the photograph is not authentic. The less content devoted to a story about Robert Johnson’s lost photograph, the more misleading the title becomes. Either way, potential purchasers deserve to be made aware that in contrast to the title the book has nothing to do with a photograph of Robert Johnson and have access to the evidence for why the photograph on the cover is not authentic.

            My report does not state that the photograph is a composite of two separate images. Section 6 of my report explores two different scenarios.

            1 The photograph is a single image of the two men standing together at the same time and place.
            2 The photograph is an amalgamation of separate photographs of the two men.

            Both scenarios raise problems which would need to be investigated and resolved to find out if they are feasible, on the basis that they include Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines. By suggesting that this is a single image you would need to address the associated problems I raise in my report. One of these is that only Robert Johnson or Johnny Shines could be in the photograph, but not both. Johnny Shines was taller than Robert Johnson by a few inches but your photograph shows who you say is Robert Johnson to be the noticeably taller of the two men.

            There was no need for me to embark on the time consuming complexities of resolving whether it is a single image or an amalgamation of two photographs. More significant visual differences were easily found proving that neither Robert Johnson nor Johnny Shines was in your photograph.

            I understand that the Formal Response was removed after a number of discussions that Bruce Conforth conducted with both Michael and Stephen Johnson (heads of the Robert Johnson Estate and Robert Johnson Blues Foundation respectively). Discussions involved my recently produced report proving that the photograph is not authentic. Removing a statement which showed Bruce in a negative light would be additionally attractive to him, but surprising for him to wait for the couple of years or more that the statement has been on the website before taking any action if this was the only reason.

            My questions in my previous comment to you concern technical analysis of the photograph. Lois Gibson, the forensic artist responsible for attempting to authenticate your photograph must have convinced the Robert Johnson Estate that she was capable of doing the work when it engaged her. However, it is not ideal to ask a forensic artist to take on the additional technical challenges of a forensic scientist.

            Other than me, Lois Gibson is the only other person involved in this issue that comes close to being sufficiently qualified to answer these questions. This is the reason that I directed the concerns and questions raised in my report towards her. Others involved in this situation cannot be seen as anything more than having a personal opinion or sponsoring a factual, evidence based outcome.

            The only reason for depending on opinion, preferably expert opinion, is due to insufficient facts. The only material providing any technical argument attempting to authenticate your photograph is Lois Gibson’s authentication report, although from the inaccurate and unreliable parts that I have seen it is unlikely to provide you with anything useful.

            Until you can provide the responses to my questions that I have now repeated, you only have opinion where it does not conflict with my facts to support the claim that your photograph is authentic.

            Evidence shows the current status of the photograph to be not authentic, and that you will not be able to prove otherwise.

            I look forward to hearing what Lois Gibson has to say Zeke.

          • Mark Bampton

            Zeke, Your book certainly takes advantage of Robert Johnson’s fame to promote what would otherwise be a more obscure book. The front cover declares that the book is about a lost photograph of Robert Johnson.

            The more content devoted to a story about Robert Johnson’s lost photograph, the more pointless the book becomes because the photograph is not authentic. The less content devoted to a story about Robert Johnson’s lost photograph, the more misleading the title becomes. Either way, potential purchasers deserve to be made aware that in contrast to the title the book has nothing to do with a photograph of Robert Johnson and have access to the evidence for why the photograph on the cover is not authentic.

            My report does not state that the photograph is a composite of two separate images. Section 6 of my report explores two different scenarios.

            1. The photograph is a single image of the two men standing together at the same time and place.
            2. The photograph is an amalgamation of separate photographs of the two men.

            Both scenarios raise problems which would need to be investigated and resolved to find out if they are feasible, on the basis that they include Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines. By suggesting that this is a single image you would need to address the associated problems I raise in my report. One of these is that only Robert Johnson or Johnny Shines could be in the photograph, but not both. Johnny Shines was taller than Robert Johnson by a few inches but your photograph shows who you say is Robert Johnson to be the noticeably taller of the two men.

            There was no need for me to embark on the time consuming complexities of resolving whether it is a single image or an amalgamation of two photographs. More significant visual differences were easily found proving that neither Robert Johnson nor Johnny Shines was in your photograph.

            I understand that the Formal Response was removed after a number of discussions that Bruce Conforth conducted with both Michael and Stephen Johnson (heads of the Robert Johnson Estate and Robert Johnson Blues Foundation respectively). Discussions involved my recently produced report proving that the photograph is not authentic. Removing a statement which showed Bruce in a negative light would be additionally attractive to him, but surprising for him to wait for the couple of years or more that the statement has been on the website before taking any action if this was the only reason.

            My questions in my previous comment to you concern technical analysis of the photograph. Lois Gibson, the forensic artist responsible for attempting to authenticate your photograph must have convinced the Robert Johnson Estate that she was capable of doing the work when it engaged her. However, it is not ideal to ask a forensic artist to take on the additional technical challenges of a forensic scientist.

            Other than me, Lois Gibson is the only other person involved in this issue that comes close to being sufficiently qualified to answer these questions. This is the reason that I directed the concerns and questions raised in my report towards her. Others involved in this situation cannot be seen as anything more than having a personal opinion or sponsoring a factual, evidence based outcome.

            The only reason for depending on opinion, preferably expert opinion, is due to insufficient facts. The only material providing any technical argument attempting to authenticate your photograph is Lois Gibson’s authentication report, although from the inaccurate and unreliable parts that I have seen it is unlikely to provide you with anything useful.

            Until you can provide the responses to my questions that I have now repeated, you only have opinion where it does not conflict with my facts to support the claim that your photograph is authentic.

            Evidence shows the current status of the photograph to be not authentic, and that you will not be able to prove otherwise.

            I look forward to hearing what Lois Gibson has to say Zeke.