Man Searches For The Original Stephen Talkhouse Photographer - 27 East

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Man Searches For The Original Stephen Talkhouse Photographer

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author on Sep 23, 2014

It is 1867. The legendary Montaukett Native American curls his fingers around a staff, looking solemnly past the camera lens. He wears a gentleman’s suit. The camera flashes.The photograph is captivating. The man is iconic. His name was Stephen Taukus “Talkhouse” Pharaoh, and it never takes long for East Enders to meet him—or his likeness, that is—via historian, a lifelong local or by hitting up Amagansett’s Stephen Talkhouse music venue and bar, which boldly displays Pharaoh’s photo on its stage.

History tells us that Pharaoh—who was just one of a handful of Montaukett Native Americans alive in 1867—loved long-distance walking at a brisk pace, delivering packages and letters while carrying a pack of hand-carved scrub brushes that he sold to housewives.

Legend tells us that he walked to Brooklyn from Montauk in one day, and that showman P.T. Barnum once featured him as the “World’s Greatest Walker,” according to historian Dr. John Strong’s book “The Montaukett Indians of Eastern Long Island.”

While Pharaoh’s life has been well documented, the talent behind his historic photo—later inducted into the circa-1869 Shindler Catalogue at the Smithsonian Institution—is unknown. But one photographer claims he is close to finding out.

California-based construction manager Kevin McCann, who owns the William Wallace Tooker Photo Collection, which contains historic photos of East Hampton, for nearly a year has been searching for the photographer who snapped Pharaoh’s picture. Mr. McCann recently released an article about his quest, narrowing the possibilities down to two: J. Warner or Isaac S. Van Scoy.

According to Mr. McCann, the photos of Pharaoh and his father, Sylvester, were taken in August 1867 in Sag Harbor at the request of Eleazar Latham, a local real estate broker, as reported in the Sag Harbor Express archives and by the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Another article in the Express indicates the photographer was J. Warner, who worked in Sag Harbor at the time, though Isaac S. Van Scoy is also said to have taken the photo to sell as a memento. Both candidates sent original copies of the photo to the Long Island Historical Society. Even William Wallace Tooker—who likely knew Mr. Latham—donated one in 1881.

Of course, both photographers couldn’t have taken this iconic photo. Through Mr. McCann’s careful research at numerous libraries and historical societies in New York, as well as online, he has nearly arrived at his answer.

Most of the evidence points to Isaac S. Van Scoy.

Not only did Mr. Van Scoy have a photography studio in Sag Harbor with nature backdrops—such as the one present, albeit faintly, in the Talkhouse photo—but he also sent an original print to the Long Island Historical Society the year it was taken.

That makes two images of the Talkhouse photo with Mr. Van Scoy’s name on them—one print and one copy. Though Mr. McCann has yet to verify them, he believes they are authentic. And this near-discovery comes at just the right time.

“I wanted to celebrate the 175th year of photography, but also commemorate the 135th year since Talkhouse’s death,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “It was almost like the perfect storm. All the elements of the story, the anniversary of photography, combined with Talkhouse and the mystery of that compelling question,” he said, which is, “Who took the photo?”

Why Pharaoh’s photograph was taken is just as important as knowing who took it, considering how much led up to the shutter finally snapping.

The picture was likely shot as part of a photographic campaign led by British philanthropist William Henry Blackmore, Mr. McCann reported, to amass the largest photograph collection of Native Americans for his own museum in England, which eventually became the founding photographic collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

Mr. Blackmore was presumably inspired by President Thomas Jefferson’s “persistent directive” to Meriwether Lewis—one half of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition—to photographically record the indigenous people of the United States while Native American delegations were taking place in Washington, D.C., according to Mr. McCann.

In an effort to copy the photographs for his Blackmore Museum and leave the originals at the Smithsonian for scholars to study, Mr. Blackmore hired a “dubious but well-known” photographer named Antonio Zeno Shindler to copy the photographs, allowing the originals to remain at the Smithsonian, according to Mr. McCann. Mr. Shindler copyrighted all the photos, including that of Pharaoh, in his name.

Growing up, Pharaoh—a descendant of Chief Wyandanch, who sold much of the East End of Long Island to Lion Gardiner—worked as an indentured servant to an East Hampton family and later became a hunter, fisherman and whaler. It is said that he even traveled to California in 1849 for the Gold Rush and served as a soldier in the Civil War. He lived in a small house in a place in Montauk called Indian Field, which was home to a very small number of Montaukett families, and became the Montauketts’ leader when his half-brother, David, died in 1878. One year later, Pharaoh died in the summer at age 58.

Mr. McCann said he grew up with the famous photo of Pharaoh when living in Montauk during the 1960s and ’70s.

“On the eastern end of Long Island, that photo is always around and it’s one of those images that always stuck in your mind,” he said. “Then as I got involved in photography, I was sort of put in the beginning of the search. The more you look at it, the more you become involved.”

When Albert Pontick Jr. and Terry Butler opened their bar, Stephen Talkhouse, in 1970, they decided to name the music venue after the legendary Montaukett and prominently displayed his photo as the stage’s backdrop. The current owner and manager, Peter Honerkamp, has kept the tradition alive.

“There are some people who don’t know who the guy is behind the stage,” Mr. Honerkamp said. “Stephen Talkhouse was the last king of the Montauk Indians. He is an iconic figure out here ... It’s also a great name for a bar.”

When Mr. McCann started practicing photography in the early 1970s—which was about the same time the Stephen Talkhouse gained popularity—he decided he wanted to record the world, and people, around him. In 1976, already entrenched in the history of the East End, he purchased the Tooker Collection and preserved the many photos that tell Montauk’s historical past.

His Stephen Talkhouse project is just an offshoot of his continued work with the Tooker Collection, he said.

“No one knows the real story (yet) but this investigation presents probable pathways to understand the provenance of the images,” Mr. McCann states in his research paper. “I enjoy researching not only because of the excitement and anticipation that there is gold under every rock, but also because of the people you meet along the way.”

For more information on Kevin McCann’s project, or the William Wallace Tooker Photo Collection, visit

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