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Cowflop from the Adams Herd (1)

"Jeffrey Pine on Sentinel Rock." Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

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.

"View From The Yosemite Valley Floor." Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

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.

"Aerial View of The Yosemite Valley." Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

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.

"Carmel Coast." Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

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.

Jacob Riis, "Street Playground," ca. 1890

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.

Ansel Adams, "Winter Morning, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Nat'l Park, CA, 1969," Hills Bros. Coffee Can

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.

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19 comments to Cowflop from the Adams Herd (1)

  • ” . . . 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.”

    I have to agree. We already have the best of his work, and prints interpreted by Adams himself — a box of outtake and duplicate negatives is not going to change Ansel Adams’s place in the art world.

    I also think that whether they turn out to be Adams’s work or the work of Uncle Earl, who was standing beside him with a similar camera — the negatives have value — but $200 million? A box of prints, printed by Adams would have big value — but just the negatives? Somehow I just don’t see it . . .

  • Spot on, thanks for an insightful perspective.

  • I’ve been an AA fan since the early 70’s. such as you say about uh Nor…what his name, he is blowing smoke up the publics butt to put it kindly. As much as I would like to duplicate what he did, I do see the image exactly as he did, but I can recognize his work. From what I have seen of the images above. I doubt they’re the result of AA vision.

    As far as original prints, if it comes from the original negative, well it must be an original, you’d think.

    Personally, I think the whole affair is two ended. There probably had been a decline in business at the AA trust and it is a great time when there are cut backs in the school systems in California that merit the phase out of Nor…whats his name position.

    It is a collective way to bring attention back to Ansel’s work and some income to you know who. Beside this isn’t the first time the claim ha been made if my memory serves me right. It will die down in a week or so and in a few years there will be a renewed claim. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  • joel snyder

    The whole of the photo-labeling business stinks of an ad-man’s double-talk, but calling any and every print from an Atget negative an “original print” defeats the purpose served by invoking “original.” What would count as an unoriginal Atget print ― one made from a copy negative?

    In the case of Adams’ old AA prints (which were initialed by Adams), why not refer to them as “prints by X, made from Adams’ negative”? And why not refer to a print by Adams from one of his negatives as “print by Adams”?

    It’s probably best to deal with this matter on a case-by-case basis. What do we do with O’Sullivan prints which he made from copy negatives enlarged from his one of his stereo negatives? “Unoriginal print by O’Sullivan from enlarged copy negative of a single stereo negative made by O’Sullivan”?


    • if we’re getting rid of labels for photographic works that function almost entirely as marketing hype, Joel, my candidate for first to eliminate is the lamentable and laughable “giclée,” clearly taken from a cheap English-French dictionary by some non-Francophone huckster with no awareness that in vernacular French it connotes ejaculation, as in cat spray.

      I have no problem with your suggestion that we retire the term “original print.” I actually favor the precise, non-judgmental, purely informational descriptive terminology that’s fairly standard in museum accessioning of artifacts. In the case of photography this would include photographer’s name, printer’s name, negative date, negative type (if copy negative, for example), print date, medium, substrate if pertinent (e.g., platinum print on Arches paper), etc. Let’s not hold our breaths waiting for the merchants to conform their practice to our advice.

      My point here was that the Adams Trust and Adams Gallery don’t get to change horses in midstream, nor to pretend that AA himself didn’t make potloads of money selling “original” prints made by others that he initialled and even signed. When it suited him, and benefitted him, AA identified several types of prints from his negatives as “original.” His offspring can either live with that or renounce that practice on his part ― anything else is hypocrisy (and hype).

  • Tom Frost

    If they aren’t Adams’ work, yet there is a kerfuffle about deciding if they are, then it follows that nothing here is new. Anybody with the technique (patience, technical skill, etc) can do what he did. If they are Adams’ negatives, then all they do is help fill in his personal growth. They sure ain’t worth any 9 figures, much less 6.

    • Fact is, they’re worth what the market will pay for them, if authenticated as original Adams glass-plate negatives. In that case, museums (which nowadays often display negatives alongside prints) will compete to own them. I’d consider the suggestion that they’re worthless laughable at best ― and that’s just the market value of the negatives themselves as artifacts.

      If the rights to production of prints and other subsidiary-rights options goes along with them (a legal question not yet resolved), they could indeed generate 9-figure revenues. Foolish, therefore, to dismiss the financial implications of these negatives before all the facts are in. My next post on this subject will deal with this at some length.

  • J. Jazet

    The unique thing about Ansel Adams is that he could add (a lot of) value in the darkroom. Cartier-Bresson did no printwork at all, his uniqueness was added on the street. So you are right, all print from negatives are originals, in Adams’ case there are originals and originals. Alan Ross’ performance can be bought for 225 dollar, Ansel’s performance costs up to $722.500.

    You are right that Ansel was signing his Special Edition prints in the beginning, but he stopped doing that later, and all SEP prints are the same size, you you can easily recognize them.

    Ansel made more than 50.000 negatives, so even if they where from him, everybody can see that they are not good. Maybe on his search he made this. So no one interested in Ansel will buy prints of this negatives.

  • Hi, Allan,
    As an appraiser and long time gallery owner who has bought and sold AA prints many times over the years I think what we have here is much like the film “Who the **** is Jackson Pollock?” What we learn from that film is that art experts trump science.

    Until and unless the Adams family endorses these found negatives, they are essentially not AA negatives. So far, no one with any real credibilty has made a convincing argument that supports the theory that the negatives are by Adams. Even if they are “proven” to be AA negs, the family and Bill Turnage have to be on board supporting the evidence that they are AA negatives. This, clearly, is not going to happen.

    Any prints made by the owner are worthless except for decorative purposes. I think it would be foolish to pay the $1,500 that is being asked for “limited edition digital prints”. A New York Graphic Ansel Adams poster is worth more than these prints.

    The $200 million figure is laughable and meaningless. Why not just value them at $500 million? The negatives, even if by Adams have little more than research value.

    As an appraiser if someone brings me one of the prints from these negatives I would value it at about the cost of the paper and ink. No more. I am enjoying the dialogue on your site and will continue to follow it. If nothing else, it is an entertaining story. Can’t wait to hear how it ends.

    Best regards,
    Terry Etherton

    • Per my next post, Terry, I respectfully disagree regarding the value of the negatives. If they get authenticated as made by AA — via fingerprints, for example — then, even without the imprimatur of the AA Trust, they’ll become collectible artifacts. I’ll bet numerous museums will want them, and prints therefrom, not just for study but as objects for display.

      As for those prints: From the standpoint of what I call “inherent value,” they have none unless the negatives get authenticated as made by AA. Meaning that no one’s going to acquire them as objects of aesthetic or historical significance.

      But you and I both know there’s a difference between inherent value and market value. The latter signifies what people are willing to pay for something. So if there are people willing to pay $1500 for a digital print made from a scan of one of these negs, or $7500 for one of Jesse Kalisher’s 16×20″ gelatin-silver prints from the negative, then that’s its value.

  • Bob Rosen

    A. D. Coleman ought to know better than to get involved in such questionable dealings.

    Just go to and check out the “art” this guy peddles — third-rate schlock that Mr. Streets bills as “35 of the finest living artists from around the world.”

    Questions aside about “rights to production of prints and other subsidiary-rights options” and 9-figure revenues vs. 6, this guy has FRAUD tattooed all over him: “David W. Streets is proven to be the most respected and trusted Advisor in Fine Art and Memorabilia for over 20 years.”

    • Not sure what “questionable dealings” you think I’m “involved in.”

      I’m not connected in any way to any side of this dispute — not to Team Norsigian, not to “Uncle Earl” Brooks, not to the Adams Trust/Adams Gallery. Nor have I taken any side, pro or con, on the question of whether Ansel Adams did or did not make those negatives. I function here as a cultural journalist, critic, and historian, reporting and commenting on a story with complex ramifications in the art/photo world.

      If you read my subsequent posts — to which you’ll find links at the bottom of this first post in a series, the one on which you commented — you’ll see that I come down no less harshly on Team Norsigian than I do on the Adams herd. I haven’t gotten to David Streets yet in my analysis of Team Norsigian’s experts and authentication process; I’m taking them one or two at a time. But that post on Streets is already in production.

      You ought to know better than to opine without doing your research. You’ve embarrassed yourself publicly here.

  • Bob Rosen

    Before you lend credence to David Streets’ notion of valuing these negatives at $200 million, assuming the dubious notion they can be authenticated as “genuine” (“via fingerprints, for example”), maybe you should have first determined whether Mr. Streets has any credence at all to lend.

    Even the most cursory look at his website shows otherwise. The guy is a total joke. “David W. Streets is proven to be the most respected and trusted Advisor in Fine Art and Memorabilia for over 20 years.” The website goes on to boast that “David is frequently called upon to advise major museums.”

    So I clicked on the “email David” button at the top and asked Mr. Streets if he’d oblige me with the name of just ONE of these MAJOR museums.

    He Blackberry’d me almost immediately: “Dear Bob. The Adams Foundation has announced today they want to work with us. Thanks for your email. The story has been released and is sweeping the net. Have a great weekend.”

    To which I replied: “The Adams Foundation appears to be a charity, NOT a museum. If you can’t name at least ONE major museum that you have been “frequently called upon to advise,” then the statement is obviously FALSE and you should remove it from your website.”

    Two minutes later, I got this back: “Let’s work together! What museum are you affiliated with?” And it was signed: David W. Streets ~ Named “Power Person of Los Angeles” by CELEBLIFE Magazine.

    Anyone who takes this fool seriously enough to weigh in on the merits of his claims regarding the worth of glass negatives, whether they are by Ansel Adams, Uncle Earl, or anyone else, is being taken for a ride.

    As you point out, “You ought to know better than to opine without doing your research.”

  • What I’ve “weighed in on” is Team Norsigian’s claim that these negatives are worth $200 million vs. the Adams herd’s claim that they’re worthless.

    What I’ve proposed is that neither side is correct. I estimated that Norsigian’s marketing of prints from the negatives could net him as much as $20 million, if he does editions of a certain size of all or most of his 65 negatives. That is, I’ve suggested that, if authenticated by reputable parties, these negatives could generate roughly 10 percent of Streets’s estimate. I came to my conclusion based simply on the print prices announced by Streets and Norsigian, and the fact that they’re already producing and selling editions of such prints. How you manage to construe this as “lend[ing] credence to David Streets’ notion of valuing these negatives at $200 million” is beyond me.

    The fact that Streets may be a charlatan (see the recent story in the New York Times) does not make these negatives valueless — assuming, of course, that they get authenticated as produced by Adams. My opinion that these negatives have some substantial market value, in and of themselves and via potential prints and rights-licensing options, does not constitute approval of either David Streets himself or of his inflated estimate. Certainly it does not constitute any “involvement” on my part in “questionable dealings,” as you’ve charged. You can either substantiate that accusation or retract it.

  • Bruno Chalifour

    Hi AD,

    Two things:
    1-That you may not know or have heard of Terry O’Neill can only be accounted by the fact you are American and as such may not be as knowledgeable about European photography as you are about American photography, that’s all ;o) :
    – Terry O’Neill (born in 1938) is a famous British portrait photographer who also happened to be Faye Dunaway’s husband for a while (1983-86).
    Even checking Wikipedia might help sometimes…
    As for me I must have seen some of his work in various photo magazine in the 1980s and may even have a book of his portrait in some box in France.

    2-I would like to recount a sad episode I witnessed a few years ago (5 or 6) in Rochester concerning “the iconic [too! ;o) ] celebrity photographer Douglas Kirkland (in fact I heard of O’Neill before Kirkland… whoever might be the most “iconic”).
    Kirkland was invited by both the GEH and Artisanworks (a private collection on constant display for the (paying) public). At the latter location he was showing around a score or BW prints, around 16×20 printed from 35 mm negatives. His signature appeared at the bottom right corner of each print and, interesting detail, he was on the photographs himself, photographing Marilyn Monroe. I was puzzled: was he using a delayed-action release mechanism, a remote (I doubted wireless were common at the time he “shot” those). There was no wire coming from him and the angle of the shots changed with every shot. I could not imagine his going back and forth, changing the position of the camera while photographing MM. I soon came to the conclusion that these had been taken by someone else and that Kirkland was simply an illegal usurpator (intellectual property right / Berne convention) and that his appropriation was outright outrageous. I was sharing my conclusion with a friend loudly enough for Kirkland’s wife to come over and tell me that his assistant had shot the images with Kirkland’s camera and film and as such the prints could be signed by our “iconic celebrity photographer.” I must have had a rather ironic expression on my face when I retorted that next time that I wrote a play I would borrow Shakespeare’s quill and sign his name.

    Best and good luck in your unrelenting search for facts (and thank you for sharing them),


    • I meant no disrespect to O’Neill (or Kalisher, for that matter) when I wrote that they were both new names to me. Lots of reputable people out there whose names and work haven’t crossed my radar screen, or haven’t registered on it — just as there are plenty of bands out there with “Greatest Hits” compilations, none of which I can recall ever hearing.

      I did look both of them up online (and read what was there about them at the Streets Gallery website as well).

      As for your second point: Technically and legally speaking, seems to me that if your salaried assistant makes photos under your direction at a photo shoot of yours, that’s “work made for hire.” Copyright and all subsidiary rights to WMFH belong to the one who does the hiring, which means that authorship effectively passes to that person also. I’m not as saddened by Kirkland’s behavior here as you seem to be; from what I know, it falls well within the norm of standard studio-photography practice.

  • What I found the most remarkable in the first week of coverage of the Norsignan claim was how the media just amplified it, without any critical assessment. Therefore, I appreciate your in-depth, hard-hitting analysis, which is the best I’ve read so far. However, I must disagree with the harsh language that you’ve used to characterize Bill Turnage and Matthew Adams for what is a superficial issue, an unfortunate choice of words, when their positions are quite defensible, and in fact you’ve somehow agreed with at least some of them in your subsequent posts.

    Surely, an old internet law states that one cannot have a civilized discourse after the name of “Hitler” is dropped, but I guess Turnage intention was not to evoke the Holocaust, but just to give an example of the “big lie” that would be familiar to everybody, rather than resorting to the example of a more obscure propagandist. Regarding the substance of his allegation of fraud (which, by the way, is not shared by Matthew Adams), I think you’ve agreed yourself that “Team Norsigian” did not set out to find who exposed the plates but rather to prove that they were exposed by Ansel Adams. This after being told over the years by anybody associated with Ansel Adams that they were probably not (for example, this matter was widely discussed on the Large Format Photography Forum as early as 2007 You’ve also used yourself the term “con artist” in reference to David Streets.

    You dispute Matthew Adams use of the term “original print”, however, the concept that he is referring to, namely that in the case of Ansel Adams, there is a special value for prints made by himself, is widely understood (and acknowledged by the market). Moreover, after reporting the Trust claim, in their legal action, that the Norsigian prints would “derivative works”, you write “I’d have to agree” instead of distancing yourself. Yet, this claim, that a third-party made print from a photographer’s negative constitutes a derivative work rather than an original work immediately struck me as bold, and I think one of the most interesting lessons from the upcoming trial will be whether it succeeds.

    • The legal term “derivative work” has a much different meaning than the distinction made in the photo-art market between a print from an original negative made by the negative’s maker and a print from that same negative made by someone else. For example, all recorded performances of a musical score would qualify as “derivative works” thereof, whether conducted by the composer or by someone else.

      Since I quoted the language of the Adams Trust’s lawsuit, which employs a set of very specific legal terms, I’m assuming that the federal court will understand the term “derivative works” in its legal sense, not as some photo-world distinction between prints the artist makes and prints someone else makes, using original negatives or copy negatives, etc. Those issues of connoisseurship do not interest the court, and I feel confident that the court’s eventual decision will not take any position on what constitutes an original print vs. some other kind of print made from a particular negative.

      Nothing, therefore, in this from which I felt any need to “distance” myself. What the court will look at, I guarantee, is the fact that Team Norsigian is using Ansel Adams’s trademarked name to market new prints from negatives they claim he made.

      The fact that I support the Adams Trust, in this specific case, in its defense of trademark, copyright, and licensing rights doesn’t require me to accept false and misleading statements from William Turnage and Matthew Adams, or appalling analogies from Turnage. As for the issue of intention, I always use the definition proposed by the late, great Sen. Sam Ervin during the Watergate hearings: “A man is presumed to intend the natural consequences of his actions.” I don’t consider it possible to “drop the name Hitler” without evoking the Holocaust; that’s a natural consequence of that action. If you’re arguing that Turnage doesn’t know this, your judgment of him is far harsher than anything I’ve written.

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