February 17, 2011Brian Lebel arrived this morning at about 10:30 with a black, canvas carrying bag. We went into the conference room and he opened it slowly and pulled out several encased packages. Slowly, and carefully unwrapping them, he placed on the table a matted, off white frame without the glass. In the center was a small piece of rectangle metal, about the size of a baseball trading card.
According to Brian, I am the third person to look at the raw image (without the glass), but this seems flatteringly a stretch. I would think the unknown photographer who took this priceless image would be the first, Billy the second (not to mention his Fort Sumner pals who were standing around and witnessed the shooting) and Dan Dedrick the recipient of the image, followed by all the members of the Upham family, The Lincoln County Trust personnel (who received the picture from the Upham family in 1986), then Brian, his closest friends and then, perhaps me. But hey, who's counting?
The rest of my staff came in and while Abby recorded everything on a video camera, Robert Ray took some still photos of Carole, Sheri, Meghan and Allison oohing and ahhing while taking a gander. Carole said it was much smaller than she expected but that it was quite exciting to see in person. Sheri Riley said it made the hairs on her arms stand up with excitement. We were all quite giddy about it.
Ever since its first exposure to the public in 1986, everyone has commented on the notorious "noise" in the photo, the smudges and spots, and even the pattern of the sweater Billy is wearing (experts surmise that Billy took the four photos and jammed them in his sweater, and since the metal ferrotypes were not dry, the pattern of the ribs on the sweater rubbed off and shows up on the print). All of this, of course, hides our view of the young outlaw and it is tempting to want to wipe away the grime and see the real thing.
There are rumors that a certain cad at the Lincoln County Heritage Trust ruined the photo when he attempted, without permission, to clean off the surface of the photo with a potent solvent in order to see the real Billy. I had heard that the photo faded. Others heard that it went black and his visage was lost completely.
This is not the case. Brian allowed Robert Ray to shoot a photo of the ferrotype as it exists now. Here is Robert's photo taken this morning at 10:45 A.M.:
Notice the sweater marks around the Kid's waist. I have looked at reproductions of this photo all my life, but when I looked at the original, I have to say, his face gave off a different perception, almost a glow. He seems more Irish, more alive. His nose finally makes sense. This seems almost ridiculous, I told myself. The photo reproductions I have are from the ferrotype BEFORE the bout with the Windex, but I'm telling you, it is eerie to see the real deal. I mean the Kid held this puppy in his hands and that is an amazing thing.
How did Brian end up with it? The Lincoln Heritage Trust was so embarrassed by the emulsion scandal they returned the photo to the Upham family. A decade went by and the family decided to sell it. They contacted a dealer in LA who called Brian Label (the LA dealer thought it was just another fake Billy being foisted about, but when he told Brian their name, Brian leaped at the offer).
It will be auctioned in June and is expected to sell for about a half million. Bob McCubbin is trying to raise enough money to keep the photo in New Mexico. The National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian is supposedly also interested and has deep pockets. If I had to bet, I would put my money on McCubbin.
"Each of us makes his own weather, determines the color of the skies in the emotional universe which he inhabits."