Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Houdini photo you've never seen

Recently I purchased on eBay this photo struck from an original glass negative, because it's a shot of Houdini that I've never seen. No, I'm not crazy. I know what you are thinking -- this is just an uncropped version of a famous photo we've all seen a million times!

Is it?

Click here and look closely at the "classic" photo. While it was certainly taken during the same photo session in either Germany or The Netherlands in 1902/03 (best guess), it is not the same photo at all. I actually think this unknown shot is much better.

Look closely at the new photo and you'll see Houdini is standing a little more upright, his eye contact and expression is much better, and in this photo we can clearly see the collar that encircles his neck. The collar is not visible at all in the classic image. And while Houdini's hands and feet are in exactly in the same position, leading one to assume this pic was taken only moments before or after the other, there is a MAJOR difference that refutes this. Can you spot what this is? I didn't even see it until after I bought the photo.*

By my count this is now the fourth version of this famous pose (and at least the ninth photo from this session in general). Photo #1 is the near identical shot without the visible collar (and the big mystery difference). Photo #2 is the other famous shot of Houdini looking slightly away and taking a step with his right foot (check out Gresham for the best reproduction of this photo). Photo #3 is in Christopher's Houdini A Pictorial Life and shows him in a similar step pose, but sans the upper shackles. And this is Photo #4, the John Cox image. (Ha! I wish. I'm sure this seller made several copies, so watch eBay and you might be able to nab one for yourself.)

The other versions of this same pose.

Now for fun click here and check out how various actors who have played Houdini have attempted to recreate this famous pose. Somehow Houdini had the ability to rock chains and a loincloth in a way others just can't quite pull off.

* UPDATE: Reader David Bryon spotted the big mystery difference. There is no padlock joining his leg chains.

UDADTE 2: I've now established that Houdini took these photos in September 1903 at the studio of J.F. Blöte in Groningen, Holland. See: Houdini in 1903.


  1. Penelope TechnophobeJanuary 4, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    Lovely photo! Does anyone else worry about classic photos being doctored by photoshop geeks? I've often looked at the cover of a recent Houdini book and wondered if that photo was "adjusted." Call me pointlessly paranoid if you must.

  2. What cover are you talking about, Penelope? I know there is a lot of enhancing of HH images nowadays, and sometimes cover images are doctored just for design reasons. Nothing nefarious.

    What I love about this image is it's struck from the original glass negative. It's as pure as it can get. In fact, you'll only ever see shots from this session cropped. I left it uncropped. I love that you can see the torn backdrop and the burn of light, etc.

  3. The lock!

    That's hilarious, and you've acquired a wonderful photo.

    Based on the lock and poses, I'd say #3 of the trio is earliest, then yours, then #1 of the trio, and finally #2 in a different location.

    It appears that the stance he strikes in photos #2 and #3 is a stock pose for him ("Say 'cheese'"), while yours and #1 look as if they're taken in the process of being dressed in locks.

  4. And #2 is the same location. That's just a poor reproduction. Check out the pic in Gresham's Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls. You can clearly see the carpet, etc.

  5. Beautiful John. Thanks for sharing. :) And you are sooooooooo right! NOBODY could/can rock chains and a loin cloth like Houdini ;))

  6. Interesting find, John. Congrats on scoring the photo!

  7. So there are 9 shots from this photo shoot? Have ALL the others been published. Nice Ebay purchase!

  8. Nine published that I count. You've probably seen them all. Like the pic of him in the Russian manacle and the butt cheek shot from behind. Different manacles, but same session. His hair and the carpet are the tells.

  9. Wow, has this story proven to be popular. It's now my second most viewed. The power of a photo!

  10. I have not only seen this photo.....I have a decent sized poster with this photo on it hanging up in my shop where it has been for a number of years. It was an advertisement for the Escaporium in Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada from back around 2004 or 2005 (it closed shortly after opening). This was a museum ran by Steve Santini (The Dark Master of Escape) that was dedicated to Houdini and the art of Escape through the years. By all accounts, it was quite a sight to behold for Houdini buffs......I own several items that were there on display right now.

    Cheers, Mike D~C/