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Evidence, Interpretation, and Speculation

Thoughts on Kaloma, the Purported Photograph of Josie Earp

by Jeremy Rowe

While looking through an antiques store in Tombstone, Arizona, I came across a copy of I Married Wyatt Earp and asked about the image on its cover. The dealer said the image was thought to be Josie Earp at one point but that it was definitely not her, it was just a tall tale.

A few months earlier, in the latest of a trail of high-dollar sales, this same image had sold for thousands of dollars at auction due to its purported tie to Josie Earp.

For years the accuracy of the attribution has been the subject of heated discussions. Researchers, dealers, and collectors vary in their opinions, and rival camps have formed.

Rather than weigh into the controversy from an emotional slant, I thought it would be helpful to step back and take a look at the facts and details of what we know and don't know about the background of this legendary image.

josi1102.jpg (34339 bytes)In 1914 a vignetted image of a boldly posed beautiful young woman in a sheer gauze peignoir became popular. Titled Kaloma, it was originally produced as an art print. The risqué image was popular and sold well. That same year, the image appeared on the cover of Kaloma, Valse Hesitante (Hesitation Waltz), composed by Gire Goulineaux and published by the Cosmopolitan Music Publishing Company, New York City. Kaloma's popularity continued as she became a pinup during World War I and appeared after the war on postcards. After discreet airbrushing darkened her peignoir, Kaloma appeared in other popular advertising as well.

Many of the published prints of Kaloma bear credits to the ABC Novelty Company or the Pastime Novelty Company, both in New York City. Labels on the back of commercially framed prints indicate that it was widely popular. Prints have surfaced with labels from framing shops in Hawaii and throughout the continental U.S. and into Canada.

During the 1960's, the image of Kaloma surfaced again as a nostalgic icon. One of the great rock poster designers of the time, Alton Kelley of Family Dog Productions in Haight-Ashbury, made Kaloma the centerpiece of his classic concert poster for Vanilla Fudge and The Charles Lloyd Quartet at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco September 29-October 1, 1967. Reprints of the original image were also marketed, and Kelley's poster became popular as hippie wall decor for years afterward.

The relatively benign history of Kaloma changed significantly in 1976 when Glenn Boyer used an airbrushed version of Kaloma as the cover illustration for I Married Wyatt Earp (University of Arizona Press). Gradually, interest in the image began to shift from risqué nostalgia, and Kaloma became an icon of the mania for Western collecting that grew through the 1980's and escalated dramatically in the late 1990's.

Almost entirely as a result of the book cover attribution, copies of the Kaloma image began to sell for hundreds, then thousands, of dollars as portraits of Josephine Marcus Earp.

Questions about the historical accuracy of I Married Wyatt Earp and the attribution of the cover photograph of Kaloma began to arise by the mid-1990's. The debate about the cover image escalated, reaching the popular press in the late 1990's.

Donald Ackerman wrote Maine Antique Digest in June 1997 requesting assistance in verifying the attribution of the Kaloma image as Josie Earp. He noted that the image had realized $2750 at Historical Collectible Auctions in Burlington, North Carolina, in a December 1996 sale. Ackerman noted the similarity to the early silent film publicity stills that he was familiar with and questioned the attribution to the 1880's and the strength of the purported link to Josie Earp. He further noted that the sale price would likely draw more copies into the marketplace and that additional copies of the Kaloma image were being offered by HCA in its April 27, 1997, sale and by an auction house in Kingston, New York, on May 28, 1997.

The following month, M.A.D. published a response to the Ackerman letter by Bob Raynor of HCA. Raynor acknowledged that HCA represented the Kaloma image as being Josie Earp after researching the image and noted that "both Sotheby's and Swann Galleries identified and sold the photo image in 1996, both auctions prior to the December HCA auction." Raynor wrote, "Please note that the image was used as a dust cover of the book I Married Wyatt Earp, published by University of Arizona Press, 1976. Additionally, the image was used in another book, Wyatt Earp's Tombstone Vendetta, published by Talei, and also in Pioneer Jews, Houghton Mifflin, 1984. In all instances the image was identified as Josephine Earp."

Though this level of research is credible, it is interesting to note that all hinge on and postdate the attribution of Boyer's book cover.

As prices rose, the number of auction sales of Kaloma soon began to rise significantly. Sotheby's April 7, 1998, sale included the image of a siren-like figure dressed in a sheer gown with a plunging neckline that was cataloged as an anonymous American photograph taken in 1914 titled Kaloma. Described in the catalog as a hand-colored photograph of Josephine Marcus Earp, the one-time wife of lawman Wyatt Earp, the photograph was estimated at $3000/4000 and sold for $2875. The Sotheby's catalog saw broad distribution and was frequently cited as the source used to identify Kaloma images as Josie Earp in many subsequent auction and dealer sales.

As the perceived value and notoriety of Kaloma rose, so did the stories that surrounded her:

<195> Josephine Earp was born in 1861 and would have been 53 in 1914. Conveniently after this fact became an issue, Kaloma began to be described as a later print of an image of Josie taken in Tombstone in 1881 when she would have been 19 or 20—roughly the same age as the subject of Kaloma.

<195> At some point purported ties to C.S. Fly began to surface as the original photographer of a drunken Josie coerced into posing for the portrait.

<195> Legends of attribution prospered. Quotes from many sources have been touted as the definitive word on the history of the image. Unsupported tales of bar owners or those in attendance when the image was supposedly made have been used to rationalize the Kaloma image as a portrait of Josie Earp.

<195> Similarities with other better-attributed images of Josie Earp have been cited, but little provenance has been given to tie any of the Kaloma images to Josie Earp.

<195> Citations in auction catalogs and from dealer sales, all after the 1976 publication of I Married Wyatt Earp, are regularly used to verify that Kaloma is Josie Earp.

Unfortunately, little concrete evidence has been found to help settle the controversy. Where is evidence of the tie from before publication of Boyer's book in 1976? Also, where are the primary source citations from the period between Josie's time in Tombstone and the emergence of Kaloma in 1914 that link the image to the personality?

Recently, a heated debate has again emerged about who is the real subject of the Kaloma image and how much stock to put into the attribution that it may be Josie Earp. Let's start with the evidence that we have about the image known as Kaloma and try to logically determine the story that it tells.

Photographic research is based on obtaining as much information as possible about an image, then building a logical context for a possible identification of the image. As new information is located, it is compared and the interpretations checked for "fit" given the new data. This context can be formed by:

<195> Evidence - Objective, factual, documentary information provided by the photograph or its context (e.g., format, content within the photograph, attribution to photographic studio based on imprint or printed identification from the period, etc.).

<195> Interpretation - Building on circumstantial evidence and context that can be clearly verified to and by others (e.g., dating from format or image content, verification from the period or more recent written identification, comparison with other known images, etc.).

<195> Speculation - Leaps of faith based on attribution by later generations, hearsay, creative interpretation, or desire.

Each can provide valuable information that must be evaluated and verified before it can be relied upon. For example, evidence such as photographer's imprints can often be incorrect for copied images. The well-known images of Geronimo by Irwin, Randall, Wittick, and C.S. Fly were frequently copied, and today examples regularly appear with imprints of many other photographers. This was a common photographic practice since the birth of photography through the era of Kaloma in 1914.

Interpretation based on the format of the photograph or information within the image, such as building signs, can help verify or refute written identification that may have been added to the mount. All written information associated with an image should be confirmed, particularly if it was added after the image was originally produced. Well-intentioned family members, collectors, and museum staff often add attributions to the photographs that pass through their hands. Their impressions or knowledge and the accuracy of the written information they add should be verified before it is assumed to be correct.

Speculation may be based on interpretation of available evidence, on emotional reaction to a photograph, or on a desire to trim a piece of the puzzle to make it fit. Speculation can be benign or unintentional when it is based on little knowledge or incorrect information. Personal desire or a potentially escalating image market can also drive speculative interpretations. For example, if one finds a tintype photo showing an unidentified young man in a bowler hat in an old family album and does some research on it, one might locate photos of a young Butch Cassidy in a bowler hat from this era. If there is some similarity in build and facial features between the two images, an uninformed or unscrupulous person could conclude that the tintype is of Butch Cassidy and promote the photograph as a new unknown Butch Cassidy image.

Each identification is only as accurate as the weakest link in the information about the image that is available at a given time. Anecdotes and speculation make great stories but are merely weak links in accurately identifying a photograph.

Unfortunately, once incorrect information becomes widely available through print or the Internet, it can be extremely difficult to rein in the error and replace it with correct information. For many years the Smithsonian recommended cleaning daguerreotypes with thiourea, a chemical found in silver cleaner. In the 1980's research showed that thiourea damaged the plate and should not be used. Many collectors and antiques dealers still follow old references by sources that were highly credible when originally published and use thiourea to clean—and damage—their valuable images. The image of Kaloma has taken on a life of its own through Boyer's book cover and the trail of auction catalog descriptions that built upon his attribution.

Images of towns or events often include building signage or other information that simplifies identification. Questions about the date and location of unattributed images of family members or unknown individuals are common in photographic research and genealogy. Unfortunately, portraits rarely include such helpful clues, making identifying anonymous portraits extremely difficult.

Many individuals share common facial features. Even radically different faces can look similar when viewed from certain angles. For this reason, most museum staff, knowledgeable researchers, and collectors require provenance or history about the image to support physical similarities that might exist. Rarely will they weigh in with tentative identifications of new or unique images of famous people based only on visual similarities with other known images. Tentative identification of images thought to be Emily Dickinson, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesse James based on perceived similarities are among many that are currently being disputed by museums and collectors.

Looking at context and dating clues in the photograph is a good start at going beyond perceived physical similarities. Most of the early Kaloma images are photogravures. These high-quality reproductions from photographs were produced from engraving plates on a printing press and were much less costly for publication runs than actual photographs. Photogravures were often printed with title and publication data below the image and were commonly used to create many copies of high-quality illustrations for books, postcards, and art magazines. Though photogravures had been used since the 1850's, a surge in popularity occurred between 1890 and 1920.

Copyright notifications have been printed on photograph mounts and occasionally in the image area since the 1850's. Notices were occasionally printed or etched in the negative or later added to the surface of the print with a rubber stamp. C.S. Fly used stamped copyright notifications on many of his images of General George Crook and Geronimo. Though copying and piracy were common, pirates rarely included previous notices in their illegal reproductions. The Kaloma images have all been associated with copyright notices dating from or after 1914. The photograph on the sheet music mentioned above is unattributed although the music is copyrighted to Cosmopolitan Publishing Company.

Risqué photographs like the Kaloma image have been made and sold since the 1840's. These images rarely included photographer's credits or copyright notices. Also, the subjects of such art photographs were not usually identified. Even if the subject of Kaloma had been identified at some point, it is highly unlikely that such documentation by the photographer or publisher would still exist. Given the heated levels of discussion about the current attributions, however, and the possible liability given Kaloma's recent high sales prices, it is not likely that publishers or distributors will actively take sides in this matter. Obviously, locating documentation of the sitter of the Kaloma image will be key to unraveling the controversy about this image.

During much of their lives, the Earps were popular, widely known public personalities. Although few commercial portraits of the Earps exist, if images were available during their lifetimes, it is likely that they would have had a large and ready market. Prints were relatively affordable at the time, with individual cabinet card portraits costing about $1.25 per dozen and group portraits slightly more expensive, at about $1.50 per dozen.

The C.S. Fly studio in Tombstone was known for its marketing. Thousands of copies of images of Geronimo were printed and sold. Similarly, portraits of personalities visiting Tombstone and photographs of local events, like the hanging of John Heath, were broadly distributed. If as speculated, Fly took a salable image of Josie Earp, it is highly unlikely that he would not have capitalized on the opportunity to sell copies. To date, no copies of the Kaloma image have been located on Fly studio mounts.

Photographic styles changed regularly every few years as photographers sought to justify new portrait business and as lenses, formats, and emulsions evolved. By looking at a large number of images, it is possible to get a feel for the photographic style from a given era. Images that don't fit the norm exist and are often highly valued by collectors as precursors of future styles and trends. It is safe to say, however, that most images tend to fit the stylistic trends of their era.

The Kaloma image has three strong stylistic elements that can be used to try to assign a range of dates to the original photographic image.

The sultry interaction between the subject in Kaloma and the photographer is very direct. This style is more representative of risqué images and nude studies from the postcard era (1905-20) than earlier 19th-century images.

The full-figure vignetting of the image is stylistically more common during the postcard era than earlier. Earlier images, however, were reprinted in current formats years after they were originally taken. It is possible that Kaloma was printed from an older negative and vignetted to be stylish.

The conscious use of narrow depth of field (the range of sharp focus in the photograph) as an aesthetic tool was popularized by art photographers in England and Europe in the late 1880's and in America around the turn of the century. Only a small fraction of commercial photographers, however, used this technique. Aesthetically, the Kaloma image shares much more with post-1900 images than with earlier images.

In short, at this point there is little evidence, some interpretation from that evidence, and much speculation about the subject of the image known as Kaloma. Looking at the image and trying to read the story it tells leads logically to an early 20th-century photograph of a beautiful young woman, likely photographed after or about 1910, which first burst on the scene in 1914. No clues clearly indicate this image was copied from an earlier image of Josie Earp or any other woman.

Though a few large-dollar sales of the image continue, including one of $2750 at a Cowan's Historic Americana Auctions sale on November 15 and 16, 2001, Kaloma seems to be settling down a bit as logic and reason begin to impact the market. As this is written, several on-line sales citing the Josie tie to Kaloma have dropped to under $1000. Several have sold on eBay, including a copy that realized $900 on February 24, 2002. On-line offerings above that figure seem to languish at both auction and dealer sites. One eBay posting of Kaloma that closed on June 16 only reached $152.50 and did not reach the reserve. Another closed on June 25 selling for $950 against an estimate of $800/1200.

Given the broad exposure that the image of Kaloma has had over the past 26 years, and the strong interest in the legends of Tombstone, researchers will continue to search for compelling evidence to link this image with Josie Earp. In the meantime, without any strong objective evidence to support the claim that Kaloma is an image of Josie Earp, this identification will unfortunately be based only on speculation.

© 2002 by Maine Antique Digest

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