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The great Ansel Adams, America's iconic  photographer known for his "serenely beautiful" black & white pictures of American midwest landscapes

The great Ansel Adams, America’s iconic photographer known for his “serenely beautiful” black & white pictures of American mid-west landscapes (Ansel Adams Publishing Rights) 

Ten years ago, Rick Norsigian, a commercial painting contractor from Fresno California, who has a propensity for antique hunting on his days off, was rummaging through boxes at a yard sale when he came across odd looking photographic glass plates. He paid $45, after he bargained the owner down from $75. Today, they are reportedly worth an estimated $200 million.

So what was in those boxes? In 2 separate boxes were sixty-five glass negatives wrapped in old newspapers, purportedly the works of Ansel Adams, the iconic American nature photographer.  Ansel Adams is known for his striking black and white photographs, mainly landscape, of the American West. Experts thought the negatives were lost in a 1937 darkroom fire that destroyed 5,000 plates.

In a packed press conference, July of last year, at a Beverly gallery owned by David Street, Rick Norsigian and claimed that the photographs were made somewhere between 1919 and the early 1930s, before Adams became nationally recognized as one of America’s greatest photographers.

The Puzzle Begins.  No one knows how the 6.5-inch-by-8.5-inch glass plate negatives ended up at the Southern California garage sale. All that the seller could tell Norsigian was that he bought them way back in 1940s at a Los Angeles warehouse sale. Some of the images contained in the glass plate negatives are reportedly of Adams’ famous Yosemite landscapes, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf and California’s Carmel Mission. A few of the plates have been damaged by fire. “The fact that these locations were well-known to Adams and visited by him, further supports the proposition that all of the images in the collection were most probably created by Adams,” art expert Robert Moeller said.

Photo from the Collection of Rick Norsigian’s “lost negatives” Photo rights: Rick Norsigian.

The $200 Million Catch.  According to David W. Streets, the gallery owner who hosted the news conference appraised the eventual yield in selling prints from Norsigian’s find could have a value of more than $200 million.  “It is truly a missing link of Ansel Adams and history and his career,” said David Streets.

As dramatic as the story began, the case of the “lost” Ansel Adams negatives now became a public argument between Rick Norsigian and the heirs of Adams. Adam’s former associates and leading art-photography dealers vehemently deny that the Norsigian trove were the actual works of the great photographer.  But the flurry of publicity, particularly on the valuation of the find seemed absurd to dealers who sold Adams’ prints for millions of dollars, and to people, especially from Adams’ inner circle, including his grandson, Matthew Adams, and William Turnage.  Turnage, who was Adams’ business manager until his death in 1984, remained the managing trustee in charge of administering the rights to publish or reproduce Adams’ work.

They pointedly question, if not outright dismiss, the conclusions Norsigian and his team have drawn. The evidence included the handwriting on manila envelopes in which the negatives were found, and analyses of how the plates stack up physically, aesthetically and by subject with known Adams photographs from the period.

“I really resent people who have gone out and hired some so-called experts. I give them no credence in terms of their knowledge of Ansel’s work,” Turnage said. “They’re doing this for only one thing, to make money. I feel sad for people who might be gulled into buying these things we think are fakes.”

Even if the negatives did spring from Adams’ camera, art-photography dealers say, any prints made from them will be essentially worthless in the collectors’ market. It’s not the negative that makes an Adams an Adams for the museums and private collectors who cherish his work and establish its market value, said Santa Monica art dealer Peter Fetterman. It’s the magic he worked in his darkroom to create the prints that bear the fruit of his artistry — not to mention his signature.

Photo from the Collection of Rick Norsigian’s “lost negatives” Photo rights: Rick Norsigian.

The Jonathan Spaulding Advice. The brouhaha might have been avoided had Rick Norsigian, taken the advice years ago of Adams biographer Jonathan Spaulding. Norsigian had brought the negatives to Spaulding’s office at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; Spaulding suggested that he send them to a museum or public archive where professionals could make a thorough study.

Instead, Norsigian went on trying to authenticate the pictures on his own. Eventually he assembled his own team of paid experts — all virtual unknowns in the photography world. Despite their lack of cachet, the report and appraisal Norsigian issued made headlines all over the world, because it concluded not only that the 65 glass-plate negatives of Yosemite and coastal California had been taken by Adams in the 1920s and early 1930s but also that they were worth at least $200 million. Norsigian’s top authenticators, art consultant Robert C. Moeller III and photographer Patrick Alt, respectively disagreed with the appraised value and described it as “puzzling” and a “bunch of crap.”

Spaulding, now executive director of the Museum of the American West at L.A.’s Autry National Center, recalled how Norsigian had visited him about seven years ago, bringing the negatives in a box.  Spaulding says he told Norsigian that, although the pictures could have been taken by Adams, he wasn’t sure and that the best thing would be to get them into the hands of curators who would know how to do tests and comparisons with an eye toward establishing who took them.

“They looked like rather clichéd views of Yosemite, technically skillful but really not outstanding,” recalled Spaulding, who at the time was director of the Natural History Museum’s Seaver Center for Western History Research. “But that wasn’t totally inconsistent. Ansel was in his 20s then, and it wasn’t inconceivable that he was doing work of that sort. But it felt to me like it could have been any number of commercial photographers working at that time.”

Photo from Rick Norsigian’s Collection of the “lost negatives”

Norsigian failed to enlist people like Spaulding, whose book, “Ansel Adams and the American Landscape,” was published in 1995.  Or Mary Street Alinder, who was the Adam’s chief assistant from 1979 until his death in 1984. Alinder co-wrote the Adams autobiography published in 1986 and followed it with her own book, “Ansel Adams: A Biography.” Instead, Norsigian ended up with Alt, who says the law firm working with Norsigian found him on the Internet, and Moeller, who said he was contacted by a firm member who knew him.

Norsigian’s Offending Offer.  Alinder said she looked at the pictures with an open mind when Norsigian approached her in 2002, thinking “it would be wonderful” if he indeed had unearthed unknown Ansel Adams pictures. But “I thought almost all of them did not measure up,” she said, although the handwriting on the sleeves containing the negatives did look to her like that of Virginia Adams, the photographer’s wife. She said she continued to help Norsigian with contacts to pursue his quest, then stopped in 2004 after he offered her 25% of any earnings from future sales of the negatives in return for helping him prove their authenticity.

Alinder was offended by Norsigian’s motive, which now appeared to be money. “That was the end for me. I don’t think Mr. Norsigian is a bad person, but he wants so hard to believe this that he doesn’t see all the corners he’s bent.”

Norsigian responded through his attorney, Arnold Peter, whose Beverly Hills firm is helping him market prints priced at $7,500 and $1,500, with posters at $45. Norsigian offered Alinder a percentage of earnings from the negatives to serve as a consultant, Peter said, but she would not have been required to vouch for their authenticity. “He had basically hit a wall,” Peter said. “People would tell him these were Ansel Adams works but wouldn’t go on record, and she could help by opening doors, making introductions.”

Peter added that he and Norsigian would welcome a neutral evaluation of the negatives, with the cooperation of Adams’ inner circle. William Turnage, managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, which oversees copyrights for the photographer’s work, said he has refused Peter’s proposal to jointly appoint a panel of experts. “We don’t want to dignify their claims because we’re very confident they’re false.”

As for Norsigian’s reluctance to donate his find to a museum for study, Peter said, “We live in a capitalist system, and there’s nothing wrong with Mr. Norsigian profiting from the time and resources he’s put into this project.”

Norsigian’s claim rests for now on two handwriting experts’ opinion that it’s Virginia Adams’ writing on the manila sleeves, and on the opinions rendered by Alt and Moeller. Alt is a Culver City photographer who has a bachelor’s degree from California Institute of the Arts and a master’s in painting and photography from UC Irvine; he says he has studied Adams’ methods intensely over the years and applies them to his own work, often with vintage equipment including a Korona Viewcamera, the kind Adams used in the 1920s.

“I don’t have an academic credential for this, but I feel as if my knowledge is as in-depth or more so” than many museum-based scholars, Alt said. “The problem I have with so many curators is they’ve never looked through a camera.”

In the report, he speculated from scorch marks on some of the negatives that they had survived a 1937 fire at Adams’ studio in Yosemite, and Virginia Adams was hurriedly enlisted to catalog them. In the early 1940s, Alt theorizes, Adams showed them to his students at what’s now Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, “to regale them with what was surely a great story.”

It was important for Norsigian to trace a path for the negatives to L.A., where Art Center was then based, because the man he bought them from in Fresno in 2000 had said he acquired them in the 1940s at a warehouse salvage sale in Los Angeles.

“It will never be possible to know why [Adams] left them in storage,” Alt said in the report. Adams’ associates say the photographer, known for safeguarding his work in a bank vault or in a concrete bunker behind his house, would not have let 65 of his pictures vanish.

From the Rick Norsigian Collection of Lost Negatives. Photo rights: Rick Norisigian

The “Uncle Earl” Angle.  Alt stands by his theory, although he says he would not be upset if the negatives prove to have been taken by a previously unknown photographer, Earl Brooks, whose niece in Oakland recently came forward with old prints that two former Adams assistants say are matches for three pictures in Norsigian’s trove. “If it was Uncle Earl, fine,” Alt said. “Then we have a new photographer who was doing some quite excellent work, and we add him to the history of California photography.”

Comparison of photos of the Jeffrey pine in Yosemite. On left is a print owned by Marian Walton that she says was taken in 1923 by her uncle, Earl Brooks. Credit: Photographer(s) in dispute/Marian Walton. At right is an image made from a negative that Rick Norsigian found 10 years ago and attributes to Ansel Adams. Credit: Rick Norsigian Collection

When the news conference at the Beverly Hills gallery made it to the evening news in the Bay Area, Marian Walton, a grandmother of four whose family hailed from the Fresno and Visalia area was watching TV from her home in Oakland. She saw Norsigian’s picture of the Jeffrey pine on Yosemite’s Sentinel Dome flash on her screen. “Oh my gosh,” Walton thought to herself. “That’s Uncle Earl’s picture!” She didn’t even have to get out of her chair to make the comparison — it was hanging on the bathroom wall, in clear view from where she sat, she said in a recent interview.

Walton called the TV station, KTVU, and the next day, she got a visit from a reporter and Scott Nichols, owner of a San Francisco photo gallery that did a considerable business in Ansel Adams prints. Nichols took the Jeffrey pine picture and three other Yosemite shots from Uncle Earl that Walton had kept in a drawer.

KTVU did a story on Walton’s picture, with Nichols saying there was only a minute difference between it and the one on Norisigian’s website, which the Fresno school district employee had posted as one of 17 images he’d begun selling for $7,500 for a hand-made print, $1,500 for a digital one and $45 for a poster.

Nichols reported that the slight differences in the tree’s shadow and the clouds behind it were probably caused by a short time lapse between the taking of each picture. Everything else — the focus, brightness and angle, were the same. It was the best evidence yet, he said, of what he and other dealers, as well as Adams’ family and professional circle of former assistants already had concluded: that Norsigian’s negatives had been shot by somebody other than America’s greatest nature photographer.

Nichols furnished digital images of Marian Walton’s four pictures to William Turnage, Ansel Adams’ former business manager and now managing trustee in charge of granting the rights to publish or copy Adams’ work, and to Alan Ross, John Sexton and Rod Dresser, photographers who worked closely with Adams as his assistants during the 10 years before his death in 1984.

Norsigian’s team sent Ross 61 of the images, hoping he would confirm that they had been taken by Adams. He didn’t. So, Ross was able to make comparisons not just between Walton’s prints and the 17 pictures Norsigian had published, but also to most of the Norsigian find.

The findings: One of Walton’s prints, showing Old Inspiration Point road in Yosemite, is a seemingly identical match to an unpublished Norsigian image, Ross and Sexton said in an email to William Turnage.

Two others were close matches, the two former Adams assistants said, differing slightly in such details as the shape of water spray at Bridal Veil Falls — suggesting they were different takes from the same photo session.

As telling as the identical photos showing the park entrance road, said Nichols, were flaws in one of the slightly different waterfall pictures. The Norsigian negative of the falls and the almost-identical print belonging to Walton had identical scratches and white spots, Nichols said Saturday, meaning they were taken by the same camera, whose internal imperfections — possibly, specks of dirt —  registered the same on each image.

Nichols said that with three pictures either identical or apparently from the same photo shoots, it’s enough to prove that the entire Norsigian find must be the lost work of Uncle Earl, not Ansel Adams. Sexton noted in an e-mail that, “now, of course, the Norsigian crew will claim that Uncle Earl didn’t make the four photographs” but must have bought them from Adams or at Best’s Studio, the Yosemite photography store that sold Adams’ work. Adams married Virginia Best, daughter of the studio’s owner, in 1928. The studio remains in business as the Ansel Adams Gallery, with their grandson in charge.

In an interview last week, Sexton said that conclusive proof could well lie in the negatives themselves. Because all 44,000 Ansel Adams negatives are archived at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, a physical comparison should be made between Norsigian’s negatives and identically sized glass negatives from the archive — with particular attention to clear spots along the negatives’ borders that invariably were caused by the wooden holders and metal clips used to slot the glass plates into old-time cameras.

Mark Osterman, an expert on photographic processes at the George Eastman International Museum of Photography in Rochester, N.Y., and Paul Messier, a Boston-based photographic conservator with high-profile expertise in photographic authentication, reported that such proof could be telling if there were distinctive irregularities in the known Adams negatives that had been caused by the plate holders. Because photographers used their holders over and over, Norsigian’s negatives should then have the same unexposed clear spots as the known Adams negatives. Messier said other useful comparisons could be made by testing the chemical composition of the two sets of glass plates, and their emulsion residues.

“Burst His Bubble.”  Marian Walton claimed she had owned the four photographs since her father’s death in 1981; he told her they were taken by his older brother in 1923.  Walton said she last saw her uncle in the late 1930s, when she and her parents paid a visit to the ailing man in Visalia, not long before his death.

She said she didn’t know much about Earl Brooks, other than that he married twice and liked to take pictures. “He had an adventuresome spirit. He did travel around a lot,” including a stay on a commune in an eastern state. “I don’t think he had much schooling but he was a good photographer.”

As for Norsigian, “I may burst his bubble,” Walton said. “I’m not trying to do anything but get to the truth. I hate to see anybody taken advantage of on the premise that he has what he thinks he has.”

Moeller, an advisor to art collectors, said that he had no particular expertise in Adams’ work or in photography but “applied myself in exactly the way I have done over the years” when evaluating and authenticating paintings for his clients. The Norsigian team’s 20-page authentication report identifies him only as a Harvard-trained former director of the Duke University Art Museum and curator of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Moeller led the Duke museum in 1968-69, when it was in its infancy and its first gallery space was still in the planning stage; from 1970 to 1980, he was a curator of European decorative art and sculpture at the Boston museum. Moeller said he was surprised when appraiser and gallery owner David W. Streets set the negatives’ value at $200 million.

Spaulding, the Adams biographer, considers the figure “wildly inflated.” He said that when he examined the negatives years ago, he told Norsigian that “the real value of a photographic fine art work is in the print,” and that consequently, even if they were Adams’ negatives, prints that somebody else made from them would not be very valuable. The prints Norsigian is selling are done by Jesse Kalisher, a North Carolina photographer represented by Streets’ Beverly Hills gallery.

As Norsigian, who hasn’t given up his day job painting school buildings and classroom walls for the Fresno school district, began selling prints of 17 of the images on his website — at $7,500 a pop for darkroom prints, $1,500 for digital reproductions and $45 for posters — it was understandable that Norsigian had violated its commercial trademark on the Ansel Adams name via the claim of the “lost negatives” of the great photographer.

Dispute Took A Legal Turn – The Ansel Adams Publishing Trust finally took Norsigian to court in an attempt to stop him and the consulting firm PRS Media Partners from using Adams’ name, likeness and trademark to sell prints not authorized by the Trust. The suit, which was filed in federal court in San Francisco, alleges trademark infringement and other claims. A lawyer for Norsigian told the AP that the suit is without merit and designed to harass his client.

The photographer’s heirs, the independent Adams Trust and some of Adams’ former photographic assistants immediately disputed the claim and set about debunking it.

Norsigian and PRS had argued in a response to the initial lawsuit that their enterprise, and its use of Adams’ name and image, was part of an inquiry into “a matter of significant public concern,” and therefore protected by the First Amendment. The Adams Trust argued that Norsigian’s motive was profit, not free inquiry, and that he had no right to use the trademarked name commercially.

A Brief Lesson In Copyright Law. According L.A. attorney Lawrence Iser, a promninent figure in the music business, if Norsigian makes a mint — and an appraisal he reported put the potential value at more than $200 million — he could face the risk of having to turn over all or part of the loot to Ansel Adams’ heirs. All they’d have to do is agree with Norsigian that the negatives were shot by Adams — something they’ve so far disputed, saying the proof he proffered falls far short.

Iser said, simply owning a reproducible artifact, such as a photographic negative, a recording artist’s master tape or the original manuscript of a novel, doesn’t give that object’s owner any rights to make copies and sell them. The copyright — and the earnings that flow from it — belongs to the artist and his or her estate.

For how long? In the case of a previously unpublished work such as the disputed negatives, which Norsigian published a few days ago when he began selling them, Iser says the artist’s heirs retain the copyright for 70 years after the artist’s death. In the case of Adams, who died in 1984, that would be until 2054.

Norsigian’s attorney, Arnold Peter, saw things differently when asked Tuesday about possible copyright issues: “We have looked into that and we don’t believe there are any copyright issues. We believe that copyright has either expired or been abandoned. We believe it would have expired at the latest in the year 2000,” based on 70 years having passed since the pictures were shot.

“I’m sure Ansel Adams’ family is getting some legal advice about how they should best deal with it,” Iser said. If the photos are proven to be by Adams, Iser said, Norsigian “would need a license or permission from the estate of Ansel Adams to reproduce the photographs. Ownership of the master does not mean you own copyright.”

But in order to make a claim on Norsigian’s earnings from the prints, or to stop their sale, Iser said, Adams’ estate would have to first agree with Norsigian that the 17 pictures he has published so far, out of a cache of 65, are authentic works by Ansel Adams.

We posed the question to William Turnage, Adams’ former business manager who is managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust that administers the copyright for the photographer’s work. “It is an interesting conundrum,” Turnage wrote in an e-mail. “And I seriously doubt we would ever claim these negatives as Ansel’s … since we do not believe they are Ansel’s. But we have copyrighted Ansel’s name and believe that this precludes others from using it for commercial purposes without permission.”

“We are exploring…legal options” on how to stop the sale of the prints, said Matthew Adams, the photographer’s grandson and president of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite, in an email Thursday. However, Adams said he is reluctant to claim that the sales are a copyright violation, because that would require a legal acknowledgement that they are Ansel Adams images.

“We believe they are not Adams negatives, and don’t relish the thought of handing a moral victory to the people who are perpetuating this fantasy,” Adams said. “We also think that by doing so we would be making an inaccurate attribution to Ansel Adams’ legacy, and that we would also suddenly have hundreds if not thousands of negatives thrust at us claiming Ansel Adams legitimacy.”

Finally A Settlement.  In March 11, 2011, Norsigian and his marketing partner, L.A. –based PRS Media Partners and the Marin County – based Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust announced in a joint statement that a settlement of the federal lawsuits have been signed, ending a legal dispute that began last summer.

Rick Norsigian has agreed he will stop using Ansel Adams’ name, likeness, or the “Ansel Adams” trademark as he continues to sell prints and posters of Yosemite National Park and coastal California that he has long contended document “lost negatives” shot by the great nature photographer.

Norsigian has spent the past decade trying to prove that the 65 old-fashioned glass-plate negatives he bought more than 10 years ago at a Fresno garage sale were taken by Adams in the 1920s and ’30s and represent a previously missing chapter in the photographer’s oeuvre.

The joint statement about the settlement said that both sides continue to deny the other’s claims, but “have now agreed to resolve these disputes” in a confidential agreement, with each side paying its own legal and court costs. Norsigian may continue to sell his prints, but under the settlement he must use a disclaimer that has been approved by the Adams Trust.

Visitors to ricknorsigian.com who clicked on a “shop online” option were greeted by the statement, “merchandise sold through this website…is sold as is with no representation or warranty of authenticity as a work of Ansel Adams.” Norsigian is currently offering a “free poster” of one of his Yosemite shots through the website — with a $12.50 charge for shipping and handling.

Norsigian Makes A Major Donation. To thank the fans and supporters of the Lost Negatives Collection, Rick Norsigian announced barely a week after the settlement, a major donation of prints would be made to public educational institutions, based in the United States. Under the donation program, any publicly funded educational organization (schools, colleges, and other organizations with an educational mission) may request a fine art digital print from the Lost Negatives Collection.

In announcing this sizeable donation program, Mr. Norsigian stated in the last 72 hours the traffic to our website has increased by over 600 percent. Showing their support and belief in the authenticity of the images, many people have sent congratulatory letters and purchased multiple prints, and I thought what better way to give back than to use this momentum to promote the arts and education. Mr. Norsigian also said “I hope that every eligible organization will take advantage of this opportunity to display these stunning images and use the discovery and authentication process to teach a new generation about the beautiful art of photography and the magic of Ansel Adams.



With all the recent press concerning those controversial Ansel Adams Prints we thought we would take a chance to look at the king of landscapes himself, Ansel Adams.

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) was a groundbreaking photographer credited with devising the ‘zone system’ technique (a method of concentrating light on negatives to control the look of finished pictures) and the ‘theory of visualization’ (the act of measuring a scene’s light to imagine a finished photo). He is most famously known for his black and white photo series of the Yosemite Valley in California. He also authored many instructional books defining and developing his theories.

At twelve years old, Adams dropped out of school to educate himself. Although his original dream was to be a concert pianist, Ansel Adams took up photography after seeing photographer Paul Strand’s work. Throughout his lifetime, Adams oscillated between photography and piano playing.

As a member of the Sierra Club, Ansel Adams was a passionate environmentalist, committed to capturing images of unfettered terrain. When the U.S. government was interning Japanese-Americans during WWII, he travelled to Manzanar. His photos of those interned became a famous photo-documentary that was eventually mounted in the Museum of Modern Art.

Over his lifetime, Ansel Adams received many prestigious awards. Not only did the President of UC Berkeley, Clark Kerr, commission a photo commemoration of the University on its 100th year anniversary, but he also became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1966. Of all the accolades Adams received, the most distinguished was the Presidential Medal of Freedom that Jimmy Carter awarded him in 1980. This Medal is the most renowned distinction a civilian can receive.

Although Ansel Adams died in 1984 of cancer induced heart failure, he left behind a lasting legacy that will forever influence the world of photography. His fame has made his name internationally recognized and, therefore, widely used. In the year that Adams died, the Minarets Wilderness was renamed Ansel Adams Wilderness. The next year, in 1985, a peak in the Sierra Nevada was deemed Mount Ansel Adams.