Nearby Café Home > Art & Photography > Photocritic International

Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (2)

What exactly is the case being made for the verification of Ansel Adams’s authorship of the glass-plate negatives found by Rick Norsigian at a Fresno yard sale in 2000, and who is making it?

Collector Rick Norsigian. Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

A PDF file of the full report of Rick Norsigian’s team of art and forensic experts, purportedly authenticating beyond any doubt these negatives as made by Adams, appears here. I’ve read it carefully, several times, and remain unconvinced. For starters, it doesn’t truly qualify as a scientific or evidentiary report. It’s thin (to put it kindly) on detail of investigative method, specifics of testing procedures, and hard supporting evidence — as distinct from the circumstantial kind. Instead, it consists mostly of overconfident speculative assertions and adamant conclusions extrapolated from arguable hypotheses, buttressed mainly by the bio sketches and CVs of Team Norsigian — none of them, as I’ve said previously, familiar names in the field of photography appraisal, conservation, history, or other relevant disciplines.

That’s the first sign of trouble. On behalf of such a team of “outsiders,” one could argue that many professionals in the field of photography are variously beholden to or otherwise under the sway of the Adams herd, making it hard to find someone willing to give Norsigian’s claim a fair hearing. Certainly a number of the individuals chiming in on this — not just William “Wild Bill” Turnage, managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, and Matthew Adams, grandson of Ansel and director of the Ansel Adams Gallery, but also Alan Ross, print-maker for the Ansel Adams Gallery; Rod Dresser, former Business Manager for the Trust; and John Sexton, Photographic Special Projects Consultant to the Trust — cannot claim impartiality in this situation.

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

Without denying that the above-named figures and more than a few others might want to curry favor with the Adams enterprise (but without asserting that they do, or otherwise impugning their motives), I must add that the Adams Trust and Adams Gallery don’t so dominate the field of photography that all reputable scholars, historians, curators, conservators, et al would shy away, falsify evidence, or deny a legitimate find just to suck up to Turnage & Co. In my experience, it simply doesn’t work that way. And it seems only fair to point out that the members of Team Norsigian are either hired guns or else have some financial stake in the outcome of this debacle, so they’re neither neutral nor unmotivated by potential profit themselves. As I indicated in a previous post, there’s a good bit of money at stake here.

So who are they, and what do they have to contribute to the investigation? In my last post, I spent time taking apart the imaginary scenario proposed by “photography expert” Patrick Alt rationalizing the storage of these plates in a Pasadena warehouse in the 1940s. I also considered briefly the claim of his expertise, which apparently premises itself on his combining large-format photography and alternative-processes printmaking with soft-core erotica and utterly conventional landscape photography as image subject matter and content. I find myself hard-pressed to be impressed.

"Vernal Falls." Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

Another member of Team Norsigian, Robert C. Moeller III, former curator of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Director of the Duke University Art Museum, certainly has plausible art-world credentials but no indicated expertise in relation to photographs, and has made no curatorial or scholarly contribution to the field that I can discover. Unlike Alt, who has boldly declared that Adams “absolutely, unquestionably” made these negatives, Moeller cagily holds his cards much closer to his vest.

Consider this very qualified statement: “Reaching a conclusion in regard to the attribution of the negatives cannot, in my view, take us to the point of certainty. Only probability defines the limits of the conclusion and its usefulness. Certainty would require nothing less than the artist’s word. Short of that a signature, contemporary testimony, additional information and more meaningful evidence, could conceivably, bring further proof to the matter. After more than six months of close study, it is my opinion, within a high degree of probability, that the images under consideration were produced by Ansel Adams.” Talk about a hedged bet . . . not exactly something you can take to the bank.

Yet Team Norsigian’s forensics and criminalistics expert, Thomas Knowles, buys it outright: “When I look at everything, when I look at the totality of information that they’ve collected, then I believe the reasonable person, the reasonable individual would look at this and say absolutely. Just between Mr. Mueller (sic) and Mr. Alt, they’ve got 80 years in the photography art world.” Reluctantly, I must point out that Moeller doesn’t have 40 or so years “in the photography art world.” So far as I can tell, he has zero years in that world. And whatever Alt’s experience may be as a picture-maker, it doesn’t make him the “photography expert” that he and Team Norsigian call him. (I dealt with Alt’s claims to expertise, and his assertions and inventions regarding these negatives, in my previous post.)

"Looking Through the Trees." Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

The fact that a “forensics and criminalistics expert” can persuade himself that a curator with no demonstrated expertise in the connoisseurship of photography and a large-format photographer with no qualifications as a researcher are reputable and credible experts in the field, and his willingness to rubber-stamp their unsubstantiated and (in the case of Moeller) carefully guarded conclusions, does not bode well for Team Norsigian. Knowles appears clueless as to what would constitute forensic evidence in relation to photographic negatives, and uninterested in finding out. Was he that inept and gullible in his earlier role as an FBI Agent and FBI Section Chief?

Team Norsigian’s “Final Report of Investigative Team” begins thus: “There is no uniform or standardized method of authenticating photographs. Unlike a painting, there is no signature or unique brush strokes method attaching the artist to a photograph. Therefore, each investigation into the provenance of a photograph must be unique and individualized.” Yet photographs get authenticated — and disauthenticated, if that’s the word — every day, via methods not nearly so arcane or customized as this report suggests.

Screenshot of Rick Norsigian's website.

To start with, contrary to the above assertion, there often is a signature on a photograph: on the front or back of the print itself, on its mat or overmat, even (with some 19th- and early 20th-century works) in the negative. Not to mention blindstamps, inked stamps, printed labels, and other forms of identifying mark. Hard to take seriously a report that opens with a display of ignorance of that fact.

Beyond that, photographers have distinctive ways of working, and their relationship to tools, materials, and processes often functions as a signature or hallmark. Let me offer Mr. Knowles a brief tutorial on what would constitute additional forensic evidence in this case:

• In the 1920s and 1930s, much less was known about archival processing of negatives and prints that we understand today. (Alt himself has noted the oxidation on many of these negatives.) As a result, negatives and prints from that period often contain detectable residual traces of the chemical solutions used in their processing. Then and now, photographers have a variety of developers, stop baths, and fixers from which to choose; back then, more than a few mixed their own. Chemical testing of these negatives might tell us whether they were processed in ways characteristic of Adams’s darkroom practice during the period in question.

Glass-plate negative, courtesy Roy Boshi/Wikimedia.

• Adams didn’t sensitize his own glass plates by coating them with emulsion himself; he used commercially produced, pre-sensitized plates. Only a limited number of companies produced such plates for sale in the U.S. at that time. Each company’s emulsions were mixed in-house; they did not come from Emulsion Central. Thus they varied from company to company. Testing of the emulsion on these negatives might help identify the company that manufactured them. Since Adams always kept extensive notes on his tools, materials, and processing methods, we could possibly learn whether these plates were consistent with his preferences in that period.

• Glass-plate negatives are not inserted into large-format cameras with their sharp edges bare. They’re first placed in plate-holders, which slide smoothly in and out of the camera back. No two plate-holders are exactly identical even right out of the box, and over time the wear and tear of usage makes their interior edges — where the plate-holder meets the emulsion on the negative ― idiosyncratic. That distinctive edge registers on the negative during exposure, and becomes visible in the image after development. Comparison of the Norsigian negatives with authenticated Adams negatives from that period might (or might not) reveal identical plate-holder markings around the borders of the images.

• Finally, there’s fingerprinting. Photographic emulsions are wet during development, thus susceptible to imprinting, smooth and dry before and thereafter, perfect for latent prints. Both the emulsion side and the uncoated glass side of such a negative could pick up fingerprints. If Adams not only exposed and developed these negatives initially but then re-washed and re-dried them after the 1937 studio fire, it’s certainly possible that his fingerprints appear on or embedded in one or more of them. (Likelihood of this this would increase if, per Patrick Alt’s ungrounded speculation, Adams used these plates as storytelling props in his classes.) By now the glass sides of these negatives have almost certainly been cleaned for the production of Norsigian’s new editions of prints, but the emulsion side will have been left intact.

• The report and news stories indicate that these negatives were encased in manila envelopes and then wrapped in sheets of newspaper dated 1942 and 1943. Did Adams commonly use manila envelopes (and not glassine sleeves) for negative storage? Which newspaper(s)? From which cities? Were they newspapers Adams normally had access to and read?

If we then move to the question of the four purported prints by the talented amateur “Uncle Earl” Brooks, tentatively identifed as the possible maker of at least one of the Norsigian negatives (or a very close variant thereof), forensics options manifest themselves here as well:

"Jeffrey Pine on Sentinel Rock." Norsigian image, left; Brooks image, right.

• Photographers who are interpretive printmakers choose with care the papers on which they print. Manufacturer’s marks on and chemical analysis of the Brooks prints would reveal whether they’re made on paper(s) that Adams used during that phase of his work.

• The surface of a photographic print is susceptible to fingerprints, both during production and when dried and finished. Scrutiny of the Brooks prints might reveal such identifying details.

• Exposing and developing large-format glass plates requires a skill level unusual for even a serious amateur photographer. Few people engaged with this practice, even on a hobbyist level, would do so while keeping the results strictly to themselves. This makes it likely that Earl Brooks knew and was known to other such photographers in the Fresno area. In the 1920s and 1930s, such photographers would have congregated in local camera clubs, and participated in local and regional (perhaps even national and international) salons and competitions sponsored by those clubs. Searching the rolls of such clubs within a 50-mile radius of Fresno; looking through the Pictorialist annuals of the period; and perusing Camera Craft, the California photo magazine, might reveal more information about Brooks and his relationship to the medium.

I find it perturbing, and notable, that none of these investigative methods occurred to Team Norsigian’s “Photography Expert,” Patrick Alt; nor to the team’s designated “Art Curator, Historian and Appraiser,” Robert Moeller, who twice visited the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson, where Adams’s prints and negatives are archived, but never pursued there any of the matters just listed; nor to the team’s “Forensics and Criminalistics” maven, Thomas Knowles, who manifests no awareness of any forensic issues specific to photography.

Courtesy George Eastman House.

To close this post, here’s another example of the report’s distortion of fact: “Photography expert” Patrick Alt notes, correctly, that Adams is known to have used this size of glass-plate negative “throughout the 1920s and into the 30s,” and cites sources to that effect. The report headlines this passage “Size of the negatives are unique to Ansel Adams.” That is simply false, an illogical and inaccurate summation of Alt’s statement. Numerous people, including Adams, used those negatives at that time. (The report also says, at the outset, “The negatives were of a unique size.”) These plates were commercially manufactured, and available in camera stores nationwide. They were not in any way, manner, shape, or form “unique to Ansel Adams.” Stating that they were is either slovenly thinking and writing or willful distortion of Alt’s testimony.

If I can poke these holes in their published report in a few hours, just imagine what’ll happen when attorneys for the Adams Herd get Team Norsigian on the witness stand.

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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

4 comments to Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (2)

  • After your first post about this, where you simply tore apart the “Adams family” for their comments, I figured you had a bug up your rear about them. But I was worried you wouldn’t comment about the Norsigian folks who are behind this. I’m pleased you have now started to take them apart.

    I got wind of this the day before they released their press release claiming the lost negs and $200M valuation. As a long-time collector, of course it caught my attention. But all it took was one look at David Streets website, to make me very suspicious. When they finally released the “expert report” a few days later, the deal was sealed for me. Expert reports are not published in 24 point type. It was a more like a press release then any kind of real report. And these guys are not experts, but, I predict, co-conspirators who will profit from the sale of these prints.

    We are already starting to see this unfold. Seems David Streets is a convicted forger. And Mary Alinder, who was shown the work and said it wasn’t Adams, was then offered 25% of the profits if she’d change her mind.

    I hope these guys go to jail!

  • Sue Mathewson

    Well done, Mr. Coleman. … I also find it strange that the photo of the Jeffrey Pine on North Dome is the reverse of the one sold at the Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley. Adams’s photo is facing north closely framing Mt. Hoffmann and the one in question is facing in a southerly direction framing McClure and Lyell. The one in the paper just doesn’t have the same drama. … But your more scientific questions trump ‘sensitivities’. …

  • Very thorough analysis as usual, but I keep thinking Uncle Earl is getting lost in all of this. If his work is getting confused or purposely conflated with A.A., let’s not lose sight of the fact that he had a terrific eye and also used large format glass plates like many other serious photographers of the period.

    Just because AA was becoming so dominant in the field of landscape photography in the 30s, obscures the fact that there were many other perceptually talented, technically competant photographers who could go to the same places and produce beautiful images independantly, without necessarily being aware of AA’s similar work. Uncle Earl deserves some long delayed accolades for his own eye and technical competance.

    Also, glass plates are not that rare…I ordered some 4×5 T-Max 100 glass plates from EKC in the 90s (to make some replica lantern slides). They were not a big deal to obtain.

    • It’s far from verified that “Uncle Earl” Brooks made these negatives. For one thing, that version of the story would have to include an explanation of how some of these negatives got fire-damaged, how the plates ended up in a Pasadena warehouse, etc. So, at the moment, I take that ascription with as much doubt as the attribution to AA.

      As for the availability of glass plates: I’m not a technological historian of the medium, and defer automatically to anyone who is on this subject. Indeed, I wish that some of those folks would jump in here, to help define and refine the forensic questions that should get asked and answered in a thorough investigation.

      However, from what I’ve read that particular format of plate — 6.5″ x 8.5″ — was unusual enough that even the plate holders for them were never standardized, but instead unique to each of the few brands of cameras that had models that took such plates. So I’m guessing that, with the advent of sheet film circa 1915, the number of users of those plates in those cameras dwindled considerably during the period to which these negatives are ascribed (1919-30, roughly).

      Happy to stand corrected on this by anyone with deeper knowledge of these matters.

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>