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Cowflop from the Adams Herd (2)

I continue with my scrutiny of the peculiar commentary emanating from spokespersons from the Ansel Adams side of the argument over the authenticity of recently discovered glass-plate negatives attributed by some to Adams, with that attribution rejected by others. So far, the Adams herd has issued an odious comparison to Nazi propaganda, along with a specious definition of what constitutes an “original print” in photography, both of which I made the subject of my previous post. (For Team Norsigian’s measured response to the hysteria from the Adams herd, click here.)

"National Park Naturalist Ansel Hall." Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

Next up: In reaction to an estimate from Beverly Hills art dealer David W. Streets that placed the value of these purported Ansel Adams negatives at $200 million, CNN also reports Matthew Adams ― grandson of Ansel, and director of the Ansel Adams Gallery ― as saying that “even if they are authenticated, they [the Norsigian negatives] are not worth much beyond their historical value.” More bald-faced duplicity from the director of the highly lucrative family business that is the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite National Park. Streets’s projection may prove extremely optimistic even if the negatives do get fully authenticated. But Matthew Adams’s utterance goes beyond the ridiculous, entering the territory of the grotesque. (You’ll find the gallery’s position paper on this situation here.)

First of all, Matthew Adams implies that the “historical value” of these negatives is financially negligible. Stuff and nonsense. Given that Ansel Adams constitutes, from a collectible standpoint, blue-chip stock; that almost all his other negatives reside permanently at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ; that (so far as I know) no glass-plate negative of his, nor in fact any film negative of his, has ever reached the market; that glass-plate negatives by other photographers have gone for very high prices and entered both private and museum collections; and that these negatives are considered by museums not just artifacts for study but objects for prominent display, I would see no reason to assume that, if authenticated, these plates — one-of-a-kind pieces by definition, with a remarkable story behind them — would not command high prices at auction. I guarantee that, if they were convincingly proven to be Adams’s work, Sotheby’s and Christie’s would scratch, claw, kick, and bite each other for the opportunity to sell them off, should Rick Norsigian so decide.

"El Capitan." Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

Second, in addition to the prospective high market value of these artifacts themselves, there’s the potential revenue stream from licensing of picture rights. The Ansel Adams Gallery, and the Ansel Adams Trust, pull in 7-figure profits annually from the licensing of such rights to AA’s work. Certainly they know, at least as well as anyone, the profits that could flow from the inevitable book and traveling exhibit, the limited-edition prints, the posters and postcards and notecards, the tote bags and T-shirts and placemats and coffee mugs and such. We’re talking the very big bucks here.

Rick Norsigian, who found these negatives at a yard sale and bought them dirt-cheap from a man who claimed to have acquired them from a 1940s Pasadena warehouse clearance, has, in fact, already begun marketing editioned gelatin-silver and digital prints of these images, identifying them as works by Ansel Adams. (You’ll find details of this enterprise at Norsigian’s website.) So he’s become a direct competitor to the Adams Trust and the Adams Gallery — the Occam’s-razor explanation of their venomous, overkill responses.

Let’s do the math. Norsigian doesn’t indicate the size of his editions, just his prices, so we’ll assume 50 prints each in two formats — digital (USD $1500 each) and gelatin-silver (USD $7500 each). Presently he’s offering prints of 18 of his 65 negatives. So:

• Digital editions — 18 x 50 x 1500 = USD $1,350,000

• Gelatin silver editions — 18 x 50 x 7500 = USD $6,750,000

• Total for all 36 editions — USD $8,100,000

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

Now that’s nowhere near $200 million. But it sure ain’t chump change, as implied by Matthew Adams. Some of the negatives show fire damage and may not prove printable (or the resulting prints may not prove acceptable to the market). But if Norsigian has several more batches like this, he could triple those sales figures. And if his editions exceed my guess, the numbers go up. Better than a slap in the face with a wet fish. And that’s just print sales, not licensing rights.

This rush to market may have proved ill-advised on the part of Team Norsigian, premature at best with the controversy just started and the dispute far from resolved (including the thorny issue of IP rights to the use of Adams’s name and images). The sound of “boutique” California lawyers salivating and licking their chops carries across the Pacific, as far away as Shenzhen, China, where I find myself right now.

The whole situation gets more fascinating and complex with the more recent claim by Oakland resident Miriam I. Walton that her uncle, Earl Brooks, an avid amateur photographer, made at least one of these images, back in 1923. She has purported original prints of four of Brooks’s photographs, which San Francisco gallerist and Adams connoisseur Scott Nichols has undertaken to study. His preliminary opinion, as reported on August 1 by KTVU, indicates a high likelihood that the Norsigian “Ansel Adams” image of the famous Jeffrey Pine on Sentinel Dome at Yosemite represents a variant negative of another Brooks study from that same day and identical vantage point. If so, that would make it highly improbable that anyone except Brooks had made the negative in Norsigian’s batch.

So far, no details on Brooks’s photographic activity have emerged, save that he photographed often in Yosemite and was a lifelong resident of Fresno (where Norsigian purchased these plates). How that correlates with the story told to Norsigian by the dealer from whom he bought them at a yard sale — that he’d purchased them in Pasadena as warehouse salvage in 1940 — beats me. How would they have gotten from Fresno to Pasadena? What would account for the apparent fire damage on some of them? Does the plot thicken, or merely murkify? Was the dealer simply making up a backstory?

"Three Brothers with Morning Clouds." Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

Add to this the even more recent claim that these negatives are the work of Claude C. “Pop” Laval, a commercial photographer in the Fresno area from 1910 until 1965. According to CNN, Laval — whose son, Jerry Laval, once interned with Ansel Adams — “created more than 100,000 negatives, including many mountain images at Yosemite in a style similar to Adams. He also photographed the same San Francisco landmarks seen in the Norsigian photos.” (For more about Laval, click here for the website of the foundation devoted to his work, run by his great-granddaughter Elizabeth Laval.) So we now have two plausible alternative contenders for authorship of these negatives, the most prominent of which, Laval, somehow escaped the attention of Team Norsigian, whose report doesn’t even mention him.

As a rule I root for the underdog in any fight, but never at the expense of truth and justice. Besides, who’s the underdog here — Rick Norsigian or “Uncle Earl” Brooks or “Pop” Laval? If the denouement relegates Norsigian to an abashed obscurity while bringing belated recognition to the amateur Brooks or the pro Laval, well, that’s how the irony bounces, and I’ll relish it as much as the next person.

I have none of the specialist skills necessary to contribute usefully to this investigation, nor any preferred outcome here. So, meanwhile, I concern myself with the quality of the discourse from the two camps — and, for my money, Team Norsigian has so far proved itself measured, judicious, and open-handed, as opposed to the frothing apoplectic rage and deceitful doubletalk coming from the Adams herd. (To date, neither Bill Turnage nor Matthew Adams have claimed misquotation or demanded corrections of any of the above-quoted statements of theirs as published by CNN and other news sources, so I assume they’re accurate and have based my comments on their utterances accordingly.)

"Fisherman's Wharf." Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

Scott Nichols, whom I’ve met on numerous occasions over the decades, strikes me as exactly the level-headed type to bring some calm objectivity and impartial inquiry to this charged situation. Should Norsigian and his experts end up verifiably in the wrong on this, they’ll all be publicly chastened — and his team of experts professionally discredited, perhaps permanently. In that case, I’ll consider it just desserts.

But that won’t change my disapproval of the dissemination of self-serving, arrant nonsense and deliberate misinformation by Turnage and Adams, professionals who should know better. If Norsigian et al get their claims impeached, we can expect a flood of I-told-you-so from the Adams herd. I’d hate to see that triumphalism overshadow the fact that their public utterances in this situation have done them great discredit. So I will continue to hold these people accountable for their words as this debacle unfolds.

And I’ll continue to track this here at Photocritic International. As for the images themselves, I won’t go out of my way to see either the negatives or any prints made from them. As I said at the outset, who cares? I have no vested interest in the outcome of this investigation. However, I do concern myself with the amount of bullshit we all have to step over or plow through in this field. It’s never in short supply, so we don’t need any more. Hence these posts.

Part 2 of 14: 1 I 2 I 3 I 4 I 5678 I 91011121314

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