A researcher in England has uncovered a copy of the original photograph featured on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV —and revealed the identity of its subject.
Released in 1971, the iconic album features mega-hits like “Stairway to Heaven.” But it’s also famous for its curious cover, which doesn’t include text identifying the band name or the album title.
Instead, it shows a framed photograph of a man hanging against a backdrop of peeling floral wallpaper. The man uses a stick for a cane and carries a bundle of long twigs strapped to his back. Led Zeppelin fans have come to know him as the “stick man.” Some have even argued it was a painting rather than a photograph.
The photo’s origin and the man’s identity have long been a mystery. As the story goes, Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin’s lead singer, was rummaging through an antique shop near guitarist Jimmy Page’s house in Berkshire, England, when he came across the photograph, per BBC News’ Sophie Parker.
Recently, more than 50 years after the album’s release, Brian Edwards, a historian at the University of the West of England, discovered an original copy of the image while perusing auction house news releases on the internet, according to the Guardian’s Nadia Khomami.
Edwards is also a big Led Zeppelin fan, so when he came across a Victorian photo album that included the image of the stick man, he instantly recognized it.
“Led Zeppelin created the soundtrack that has accompanied me since my teenage years, so I really hope the discovery of this Victorian photograph pleases and entertains Robert, Jimmy and John Paul [Jones],” says Edwards in a statement.
Edwards tells the New York Times’ Claire Moses that after calling his wife to confirm his eyes weren’t deceiving him, he notified the Wiltshire Museum, where he had curated a 2021 exhibition. The museum purchased the photo album for £420 (about $515).
“It sounds like good detective work, but in truth there was a lot of luck involved,” Edwards tells the Times. “I caught a few good breaks.”
The photo album is titled “Reminiscences of a visit to Shaftesbury. Whitsuntide 1892. A present to Auntie from Ernest.” According to the museum, the handwriting inside matches the signature of Ernest Howard Farmer, a Victorian photographer.
While the newly discovered photograph is black and white, the version of the image on the album cover is colorized. Edwards wonders whether Farmer, who was also a photography instructor, used the image to teach his students how to colorize photos.
The museum has also identified the mysterious stick man in the image: His name was Lot Long, and he was a 69-year-old roof thatcher born in the town of Mere, Wiltshire, in 1823. At the time of the photograph, he was a widower who lived in a small cottage.
The album also features photographs of architecture in the area, street scenes and portraits of rural workers. Next year, the museum will host an exhibition featuring images from the album titled “The Wiltshire Thatcher: A Photographic Journey Through Victorian Wessex.”
“We will show how Farmer captured the spirit of people, villages and landscapes of Wiltshire and Dorset that were so much of a contrast to his life in London,” says the museum in a statement. “It is fascinating to see how this theme of rural and urban contrasts was developed by Led Zeppelin and became the focus for this iconic album cover 70 years later.”