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Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (1)

My first two posts on the subject of the ostensibly long-lost & newly found Ansel Adams negatives controversy focused on bizarre, inflammatory, fallacious, and potentially libelous language emanating from spokespersons for the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust and the Ansel Adams Gallery.

Sensibly, someone seems to have put a muzzle on the rabid William “Wild Bill” Turnage, managing trustee of the Adams Trust, who has since ceased and desisted comparing Rick Norsigian and his collaborators to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. And Matthew Adams, Ansel’s grandson and director of the for-profit Yosemite gallery that bears his grandfather’s name, has not added to his own earlier loony rhetoric. So perhaps now we can turn to the actual evidence itself — the 65 negatives that Norsigian bought at a Fresno yard sale in 2000, and the claims that he and his designated experts make to the effect that, incontrovertibly, these represent a long-mislaid and now-recovered portion of Ansel Adams’s early output.

I see only one meaningful issue at stake here: Did Ansel Adams make these negatives, or didn’t he? Do they number among the 5000 negatives long thought lost in the 1937 fire in his Yosemite darkroom, or don’t they? If not (and this is surely a matter of lesser significance), then who made them?

"Bridal Veil Falls." Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

That goes well beyond my expertise; I’ll leave the judgment of this to others, and abide by their decisions. But the seriousness with which this inquiry gets undertaken, the scrupulousness of the research and scholarship involved, and the field’s ability to determine authorship in this case, constitutes a test ― perhaps the most highly visible public test to date ― of the field’s level of maturation as a discipline in which authentication of primary materials can be achieved responsibly and convincingly.

So what happens here matters, substantially. Because, thanks to the uproar (fed, in large part, by those incendiary comments from the Adams camp), the whole world’s watching. Which is why the misleading and offensive commentary initially issued by “Wild Bill” Turnage and Matthew Adams cries out for retraction. Reckless trash talk like that negatively affects the public perception of our field, undermining the credibility of the thoughtful professionals who vastly outnumber these loose cannons. Their insults and misinformation require repudiation and condemnation in the strongest possible terms.

With that said — let’s move on to the evidence.

To recap the story quickly, in 2000 Rick Norsigian, a wall painter with the Fresno school system, bought a box of 65 6.5 x 8.5″ glass-plate negatives at a yard sale, paying $45 for the lot. The seller claimed to have purchased them as warehouse salvage in Pasadena in the 1940s. His curiosity piqued by comparisons from others to Ansel Adams’s work, Norsigian eventually got involved with a cluster of figures including Los Angeles entertainment attorney Arnold Peter; large-format photographer Patrick Alt; art curator, historian and appraiser Robert C. Moeller III; appraiser and art dealer David W. Streets; forensics and criminalistics expert Thomas Knowles; evidence and burden-of-proof analyst Manny Medrano; meteorologist George Wright; and handwriting analysts Michael Nattenberg and Marcel Matley.

I’ve used the terms “measured, judicious, and open-handed” to describe Team Norsigian’s public statements to date, referring not the language of their claims but to their responses to their detractors and attackers, primarily representatives of the Ansel Adams industry. Now I turn my own attention to what they assert about their own qualifications as experts, and about the negatives in question. Regrettably, I can’t endorse those utterances in the same way.

Patrick Alt’s self-description at the girlie website Model Mayhem lacks, shall we say, a certain gravitas: “I am a fine art photographer of 39 years specializing in working with the human female. My work focuses primarily on portraiture, from studio work exploring the complexity of women that I find so compelling to nudes in the natural world, where the figure adds a mythological or art historical reference to the environment. It is my intention to add layers of complexity to the work that demands protracted viewing to discern the many layers of meaning and pictorial realtionships. (sic) . . . I am dedicated to making each photographic experience unique and enjoyable. I am a blast to work with and believe giggles and smiles are essential components to making serious art of the highest aspirations. Especially in working with the vast quantity of materials and props laying around my studio. Playing dress up has never been more fun.” This, along with the material at his own website, somehow fails to bolster my confidence in Alt’s ability to render a nuanced, sophisticated assessment of the major creative sensibility supposedly behind these negatives.

"Photography Expert" Patrick Alt's website.

Yet, at the press conference that set off this conflagration, Alt unequivocally and blithely declared, “Absolutely, unquestionably, they are original Ansel Adams negatives. It’s one of the most significant finds in photography in the last 100 years. It’s a huge, huge discovery.” (See the video interview posted at the Norsigian website.) Coming from someone with no formal background in photography historianship and research, who has heretofore made no contribution to Adams scholarship, and who has never previously seen an authenticated Adams negative in the flesh, so to speak, this strikes me as exceedingly hyperbolic and ultimately unpersuasive.

More “huge” than Helmut Gernsheim’s finding the first photograph by Nièpce, or Pierre-Yves Mahé’s recovery and restoration of Nièpce’s laboratory? More significant than Lee Friedlander’s discovery of E. J. Bellocq’s negatives, or Berenice Abbott’s salvaging of Atget’s negatives? Huge and significant compared to what? In for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose, but Alt might want to manifest a touch of modesty instead of posturing as an authority on Ansel Adams. Bad juju, methinks; hubris wakes nemesis.

The absence of anyone on Team Norsigian with any formal grounding in photo history (and I certainly include Alt in that assessment) gives the consortium a serious credibility gap. Moreover, there’s a carelessness with language, and a lack of factual precision, permeating this document. To offer just one example of the consequent problematic nature of their report, Team Norsigian proposes that these negatives were salvaged by Adams after the 1937 fire in his Yosemite studio, then made their way to Pasadena because he decided to use them as a teaching tool to illustrate what could happen to one’s work after a fire. But they bring forward no single shred of evidence to substantiate this — forinstance, no commentary from former Art Center School faculty colleagues or students of Adams’s attesting to his usage of such negatives in his classes for that purpose, no mention of this by Adams in his autobiography or any of hundreds of interviews he gave during his lifetime.

"Carmel Mission." Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

This makes the proposal sheer speculative fiction — and a questionable, easily impeachable fiction at best. The narrative appears to have originated with photographer Patrick Alt. CNN reports, “Alt . . . suspects Adams carried them to use in a photography class he was teaching in Pasadena, California, in the early 1940s. ‘It is my belief that he brought these negatives with him for teaching purposes and to show students how to not let their negatives be engulfed in a fire,’ Alt said.” (How one can “show students how to not let their negatives be engulfed in a fire” is a pedagogical conundrum, of course, but let’s set that silliness aside.) Elsewhere, in a July 27 story by Brenda Gazzar in the Pasadena Star-News, Alt is quoted as elaborating this fantasy: “Ansel was a great storyteller. I’m sure he would have loved to take these burned negatives out of his sleeves, show them to his students and tell them about his fire. That would have been consistent with his personality.” (Makes it sound like they were buddies, though I find no indication that Alt spent time with or ever met Adams.)

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

This fabulation doesn’t even qualify as hearsay, much less expert testimony. It’s pure wishful thinking. However, Alt’s proposal instantly raises red flags — because Adams did not teach in Pasadena in the early 1940s. He taught photography at the Art Center School in Los Angeles from 1940 to 1943, and again in the late 1940s and early 1950s. That was long before before the school renamed itself the Art Center College of Design and moved to Pasadena, ten miles away, in 1976.

So while Alt’s fiction might explain (at least hypothetically) the presence in Los Angeles of these negatives circa 1940, it doesn’t indicate how they got to Pasadena and the warehouse in that city from which Norsigian’s seller supposedly salvaged them. More importantly, while it might explain why Adams could have brought to his classes those negatives damaged by fire, it does not explain the inclusion in the same batch of dozens of perfectly good, undamaged, but extremely fragile glass-plate negatives, which Adams would presumably have returned to his inventory for safekeeping, subsequent consideration, and potential use instead of traipsing them around with ones he’d written off as useless.

One can easily ascertain these facts by visiting the ACCD’s website and perusing the chronology of Adams’s life in any thorough book on his life and work. In short, under close examination this concoction by Alt — based on nothing more than his “belief” — neither makes sense nor helps Team Norsigian make its case. It should not even appear in a document titled “Final Report of Investigative Team,” much less get prominently featured therein. We need to distinguish between hard evidence and imaginative blather — and, from what I’ve read, on every subject save technical matters Alt has mostly blather to offer.

Ansel Adams Notecards

Here’s more blather from Team Norsigian: This discovery “has the potential of exposing a new generation to the art of photography and the magic of Ansel Adams.” The clear implication is that somehow “the art of photography and the magic of Ansel Adams” had fallen into disregard and/or obscurity, especially with the “new generation,” until Team Norsigian rode to the rescue. Only people profoundly ignorant of the prominent status of photography in contemporary art practice, the full acceptance and enthusiastic embrace of the medium by the younger generation, and the omnipresence of Adams’s imagery in our cultural environment could babble such nonsense.

Art photography is everywhere today: museums, galleries, books, magazines, the internet. There are dozens of books of Adams’s work in print; each season brings another. Exhibitions of his work abound. And thousands of his images are in wide circulation — in those books and shows, on posters and postcards and calendars and tote bags, online at assorted websites. Team Norsigian’s intimation that they’re somehow spearheading an Adams revival and a renaissance of art photography is purely delusional.

The failure to include on Team Norsigian anyone savvy enough to prevent this posse from shooting themselves in the foot repeatedly in this fashion definitely ups the odds against their prevailing in the court of public opinion, if not the court of law. Yet I hasten to add that, foolish and exaggerated though these and other claims by Team Norsigian may be on their very face, and dubious though the credentials of their experts may appear, that doesn’t make them automatically wrong, in my considered opinion. Fools and braggarts and the uncredentialled sometimes get proven right, unjust as that may seem.

Part 3 of 14: 12 I 3 I 4 I 5678 I 91011121314

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