I’m in Dali, China right now — more on that anon — where, via CNN and emails from assorted colleagues, news of the wondrous brouhaha over the purported discovery of “lost” Ansel Adams glass-plate negatives has reached me.
In capsule form, Rick Norsigian, a middle-aged blue-collar guy who works as a wall painter for the Fresno, CA school system, purchased these 65 6.5″ x 8.5″ negatives at a local yard sale in 2000 for $45 and subsequently had them extensively researched and appraised by a team of experts — none of them familiar names in photography circles. He and his consultants have now begun to make a public case for their conclusion that these are early Adams works that survived the 1937 fire in Adams’s studio, only to end up somehow forgotten or misplaced in a Pasadena warehouse, possibly by Adams himself, and left to gather dust for decades. (Norsigian tells his version of the story in detail at his own website.)
My first response is that frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. I doubt these negatives, if validated as authentic Adams works, will teach us anything new about Adams, because I don’t think there’s anything left to learn. The recent Polaroid Collection auction at Sotheby’s in New York, in which some 400 Adams pieces went on the block, demonstrated that there’s an insatiable appetite for Adams prints, but a few dozen “new” Adams images from his early days won’t force any serious reconsideration of his already exhaustively overconsidered and vastly overestimated oeuvre. The thought of yet another Adams book and show makes me cringe reflexively.
Yet this minor event has evoked such hysteria and vituperation from the Adams marketing machine — which does not own the negatives in question or have any claim thereto — that this phenomenon in itself merits some examination. William Turnage, managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust and, prior to that, the man responsible, as his business manager, for turning Adams into a millionaire and an industry, actually compared the claims of Team Norsigian to the Nazi propaganda strategy of the “big lie.” “Hitler used that technique,” Turnage said. “You don’t tell a small one. You tell a big one.”
It takes one deeply sick puppy to analogize Team Norsigian’s assertions of authenticity for these negatives to the despised Nazi propaganda technique, even if those claims are deliberately and willfully false, which seems unlikely at best. I can only describe Turnage’s disgraceful decision to evoke fascism and the Holocaust in this situation as an act of fundamental intellectual corruption in combination with profound dumbness. (I use the word advisedly: ignorance is a condition, dumbness is a commitment.) Turnage should feel ashamed of himself for this loathsome conduct, which embarrasses him and the Ansel Adams Trust as well.
Turnage has also used the term “fraud” to describe Rick Norsigian’s project, adding that Norsigian and those working with him are “a bunch of crooks” who “are pulling a big con job.” Surely a rash and ill-advised (and possibly actionable) charge to level at a group that includes several lawyers, a former museum curator, handwriting analysts, a forensics expert, a meteorologist, and a professional photographer and printmaker — a group, moreover, that has now publicly invited scrutiny and independent testing of the materials in question, and solicited the Adams herd’s participation in that process. The Adams Trust needs to rein Turnage in, methinks, and take a close look at his fitness for the leadership role thereof; on the evidence of his public statements in this situation, he appears to have lost control of both his mind and his mouth.
Then, contending eagerly for the dumbness crown, there’s Ansel’s grandson Matthew Adams, with his astonishing statement that prints made from these negatives would somehow not be “original prints.” According to him, “You can’t print original photographs from them because Ansel’s not around to print them.” This is simply false, and Adams — who runs the highly profitable Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley, CA — surely understands enough about photographic printmaking to know it’s untrue.
He might want to explain why there’s no hypocrisy in his analysis despite the fact that the Ansel Adams Gallery has long sold prints made from Adams negatives by people other than AA; in the past, these were officially identified by the gallery as “original prints,” and they’re to be found in collections worldwide. Such prints were sold to dealers, collectors, and museums by AA himself during his lifetime, both directly and through the Yosemite Gallery, identified at the time by AA and those he selected to represent his works as “original prints.”
Nowadays the gallery reserves the term “original print” for prints Adams made himself, describing the prints they sell made from AA’s negatives by another printer as “Yosemite Special Edition Photographs,” elaborating thus: “Today, Alan Ross makes each [print] by hand from Adams’ original negative on gelatin silver fiber paper.” But it wasn’t always so, as every knowledgeable curator and dealer will confirm. (They’re flogging two dozen editions of these “Yosemite Special Edition Photographs” at the gallery website as I write this.)
Prints made from these negatives discovered by Norsigian may or may not be original prints of Ansel Adams images; that remains to be proven decisively, and accepted by the field. In any case, they won’t be original prints made by Adams himself, or approved by him, even if he did make the negatives. But prints made directly from those negatives on photographic paper will most certainly be original prints.
A photographic print made by the Imogen Cunningham Trust from one of Cunningham’s negatives is an original photographic print, and would be such a print even if the trust hadn’t authorized it. Berenice Abbott’s prints from the Eugène Atget negatives she salvaged after his death are original photographic prints even though not made by Atget or authorized by him. Prints made from Dorothea Lange’s FSA negatives in the Library of Congress are original photographic prints even though not made by Lange or authorized by her. Lee Friedlander’s prints from E. J. Bellocq’s negatives are original photographic prints even though not made by Bellocq or authorized by him. Prints made by anonymous technicians from Edward Steichen’s WWI aerial photographs are original photographic prints even though not made by Steichen or authorized by him. Even Walter Rosenblum’s notorious Lewis Hine forgeries, made from Hine’s negatives, are original photographic prints; the forgery lay in adding facsimiles of Hine’s studio stamps to their backs and claiming that Hine himself had printed them, instead of acknowledging them as Rosenblum’s later interpretations.
And the posthumous prints made by Alexander Alland from Jacob Riis’s negatives in the 1940s, and lauded extravagantly by Adams himself, are original photographic prints even though not made by Riis or authorized by him. Adams wrote of them, in fact, “To my list of intense experiences in photography, including a preview of some Strand negatives in Taos, the Portraits and Shells of Weston, the Equivalents of Stieglitz and the magnificent human affirmation of Dorothea Lange, I must add the Riis-Alland prints displayed at the Museum of the City of New York. . . . Obviously, Alland’s beautiful prints, by exalting the physical qualities of Riis’s work, intensify their expressive content.” High praise indeed from someone even then considered one of the greatest printmakers in the medium’s history.
Prints made in these ways may not be “vintage” prints (or, in the case of the Abbott Atgets, not “as vintage” as Atget’s own prints). They may not have come from the photographer’s own hand or darkroom, or not be editioned or signed and dated prints. But they are, in every sense of the term, “original photographic prints.” For close to a century they have been recognized as such by curators, historians, critics, and collectors, vended as such through respected dealers and galleries and auction houses, marketed and purchased as such by private collectors, acquired and accessioned as such by institutional collections. Photographers, including — as the above quote makes clear — Ansel Adams himself, have acknowledged such works as original prints, have participated openly in their production without considering themselves dishonorable or fraudulent for so doing, have collected them, and have in a variety of other ways indicated the respectability of this practice when precisely annotated in the presentation of the end product.
Does Matthew Adams challenge the “original print” status of the above-listed prints, and thousands upon thousands of others produced in similar ways — including those of AA images authorized by his grandfather? If so, that’s a dramatic and definitely newsworthy stand to take. I don’t agree with it, but I admire his boldness in committing himself to that position. He should now have the courage to place that charge in front of the membership of the Association of International Photographic Art Dealers (AIPAD), who regularly exhibit and sell such prints as “original,” as well as in front of all the non-AIPAD dealers worldwide who do the same.
I suggest that, putting his money where his mouth is, he should start by specifically denouncing those dealers who follow this practice while also vending his grandfather’s own prints. Of course, he must also simultaneously repudiate his grandfather’s endorsement of the Riis-Alland prints. And, needless to say, he must formally renounce the “original print” status of all prints sold to date by AA and his representatives that were not made by AA himself. I see quite a firestorm coming.
I offer Matthew Adams space here at Photocritic International as a platform from which to make these announcements, in the form of a Guest Post, and look forward to publishing his polemic. And, out of fairness, I’ll make space available here for response by AIPAD’s members, famous for their readiness to enter into public debate over ethical issues.