Led Zeppelin IV, released by the legendary rock band in 1971, featured some of the group's most famous tracks such as Stairway to Heaven and Black Dog. The cover of the album is iconic, too, featuring what was presumed to be a painting of an older gentleman hauling a pile of sticks on his back, while also using a stick as a walking aid.
It was believed by fans to be a photograph of an old painting that lead singer Robert Plant found in an antique shop near his home in Berkshire, England. That was until Brian Edwards, from the University of the West of England (UWE), found the original photograph while researching archive imagery for another project.
"I instantly recognized the man with the sticks – he's often called 'The stick man'," said Edwards, adding, "It was quite a revelation!"
The discovery of the image led Edwards on an explorative journey to try to find out who the photographer was, and to discover the identity of the stick man. And there couldn't have been a more ideally suited person, as Edwards is part of the regional history center at UWE in Bristol.
Only having the photograph, handwriting samples, and the first name 'Ernest' to go on, Edwards was able to find out that the photographer was a local chemist and photographer named Ernest Farmer, who died in 1944.
Like many of the 'professional' photographers of the time, Ernest Farmer was a chemist – and Edwards was able to match the writing on the photograph to handwriting samples from a local chemist in the area where the image was taken.
That handwriting matched that of Ernest Howard Farmer, the first head of the School of Photography at the then-Polytechnic Regent Street (now known as the University of Westminster, where Farmer had worked from 1882 when it went by the name Polytechnic Young Men’s Christian Institute.)
The man in the photograph was found to be a thatcher from Mere in Wilshire named Lot Long, who died in 1893.
The Led Zeppelin album Led Zeppelin IV has sold more than 37 million copies, making Ernest Farmer's image famous worldwide. The original photograph was acquired by the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, UK, and there are plans to exhibit it next year.