"It's really one of the best images I've seen in a long, long time," said Helen Selsdon, an archivist at the American Foundation for the Blind, where Keller worked for more than 40 years. "This is just a huge visual addition to the history of Helen and Annie."
For more than a century, the photograph has belonged to the family of Thaxter Spencer, an 87-year-old man in Waltham.
Spencer's mother, Hope Thaxter Parks, often stayed at the Elijah Cobb House on Cape Cod during the summer as a child. In July 1888, she played with Keller, whose family had traveled from Tuscumbia, Ala., to vacation in Massachusetts.
Spencer, who doesn't know which of his relatives took the picture, told the society that his mother, four years younger than Helen, remembered Helen exploring her face with her hands.
In June, Spencer donated a large collection of photo albums, letters, diaries and other heirlooms to the genealogical society, which preserves artifacts from New England families for future research.
"I never thought much about it," Spencer said in a statement released by the society. "It just seemed like something no one would find very interesting." Spencer has recently been hospitalized and could not be reached for comment.
It wasn't until recently that staff at the society realized the photograph's significance. Advocates for the blind say they had never heard of it, though after they announced its discovery Wednesday they learned it had published in 1987 in a magazine on Cape Cod and a half-century earlier in The Boston Globe. It is unclear whether there was more than one copy of the photograph.
D. Brenton Simons, the society's president and CEO, said the photograph offers a glimpse of what was a very important time in Keller's life.
Sullivan was hired in 1887 to teach Keller, who had been left blind and deaf after an illness at the age of 1 1/2. With her new teacher, Keller learned language from words spelled manually into her hand. Not quite 7, the girl went from an angry, frustrated child without a way to communicate to an eager scholar.
While "doll" was the first word spelled into her hand, Helen finally comprehended the meaning of language a few weeks later with the word "water," as famously depicted in the film "The Miracle Worker." Sullivan stayed at her side until her death in 1936, and Keller became a world-famous author and humanitarian. She died in 1968.
Jan Seymour-Ford, a research librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, which both Sullivan and Keller attended, said she was moved to see how deeply connected the women were, even in 1888.
"The way Anne is gazing so intently at Helen, I think it's a beautiful portrait of the devotion that lasted between these two women all of Anne's life," Seymour-Ford said.
said the photograph is valuable because it shows many elements of Keller's childhood: that devotion, Sullivan's push to teach Helen outdoors and Helen's attachment to her baby dolls, one of which was given to her upon Sullivan's arrival as her teacher.
"It's a beautiful composition," she said. "It's not even the individual elements. It's the fact that it has all of the components."
On the Net:
New England Historic Genealogical Society: http://www.newenglandancestors.org
Helen Keller: http://www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID1