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Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (4)

Click for larger view. Kalisher's name is on the lower right.

I’ll continue in a moment with my analysis of the claims of Team Norsigian, and the qualifications of its members as purported experts capable of deciding whether the disputed negatives were or weren’t made by Ansel Adams. But first, here’s something curious:

On August 17 I published a post about convicted felon turned art dealer David W. Streets, a member of Team Norsigian. In it I pointed out that the photographer now printing the gelatin-silver editions of the disputed negatives — prints sold exclusively by Streets’s gallery — is Jesse Kalisher, who’s one of the two photographers represented by Streets. I suggested nothing nefarious about that connection, just noted it for the record; and I put a link from Kalisher’s name in my post to his extensive artist’s page at Streets’s gallery.

Today, August 18, that link has ceased to function, Kalisher’s page has vanished from the Streets site, and Kalisher’s name is off the homepage list of artists represented by Streets. Why would that be so? Sheer coincidence, I’m quite sure, but it could give the impression that someone has something to hide. Fortunately, however, the page is permanently cached via Google — so I’ve linked to that version instead, in the Aug. 17 post. If you want to see it, click here. I’ve also downloaded and saved a PDF version thereof, as I do with most web pages to which I link from Photocritic International, precisely because things do vanish from cyberspace, for all sorts of reasons.

In that Aug. 17 post, I also linked to Streets’s self-pitying, variously deceitful rationale for his seven-year crime spree in in Louisiana and Kentucky. Streets had posted that on the main page of his website, but it too has now vanished. Fortunately, it’s also cached, in this case at Yahoo! So I’ve amended that link as well in the Aug. 17 post. To read this remarkable apologia, click here. I’ve downloaded and saved a PDF of this page as well, for the historical record.

Time for a summing up. The story so far:

I began this series of posts on the purported discovery by Fresno wall painter Rick Norsigian of lost Ansel Adams negatives with caustic commentary on the published statements of the thundering Adams Herd — primarily William “Wild Bill” Turnage, managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, and Ansel’s grandson Matthew Adams, who runs the highly profitable Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley, CA. I characterized their most egregious comments as “cowflop.” Then I moved on to the “Final Report of Investigative Team” issued by Team Norsigian, the various additional statements made by parties to that project, and the credentials of this cluster of self-styled authenticators of photographs. These have demonstrated, as I think I’ve made clear, that there’s no shortage of bullshit coming from that end either.

"Photography Expert" Patrick Alt's website.

Let me summarize my findings up to this point. Team Norsigian’s “photo expert,” one Patrick Alt, makes and sells expensive cheesecake images gussied up with large-format camera use and alternative-processes printmaking. His claim to expertise in this case is that he uses one camera of the same brand and model that Adams once used, has looked at a number of Adams’s books, and has seen several Adams exhibitions.

Alt continues to stand by his assertion about these negatives: “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.” He also continues to perpetuate the myth that Adams brought these negatives to southern California to use in his classes, as examples of fire damage. I dealt with Alt’s supposed expertise and tendency to fabulate in a previous post.

At the same time, Alt is perfectly ready to bail on this if the evidence proves otherwise. According to the Los Angeles Times, “he would not be upset if the negatives prove to have been taken by a previously unknown photographer, Earl Brooks, whose niece in Oakland recently came forward with old prints that two former Adams assistants say are matches for three pictures in Norsigian’s trove. ‘If it was Uncle Earl, fine,” Alt said. “Then we have a new photographer who was doing some quite excellent work, and we add him to the history of California photography.'” In other words, it’s all good. How very southern Californian. (See Mike Boehm’s Aug. 12 story, “Negatives ‘authenticated’ as Ansel Adams’ work — but by whom?”)

Robert C. Moeller III's website.

The team’s art expert, Robert C. Moeller III, described by the same LA Times story as “a Jackson Hole, Wyo., advisor to art collectors,” is, according to the same story, “a Harvard-trained former director of the Duke University Art Museum [who] led the Duke museum in 1968-69, when it was in its infancy and its first gallery space was still in the planning stage; from 1970 to 1980, he was a curator of European decorative art and sculpture at the [Museum of Fine Arts, Boston].”

In short, Moeller has neither directed a museum that was collecting and exhibiting photography nor curated a photography show, much less done any research or published any writings on any aspect of photography. Moeller’s been more cautious overall about the Norsigian negatives, though he does state, in the report, “Reaching a conclusion in regard to the attribution of the negatives cannot, in my view, take us to the point of certainty. . . . 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.”

David W. Streets and Mary Tyler Moore, from Streets's Facebook album.

Then we have the apparently charismatic quick-change artist David W. Streets, fraudster and convicted felon turned Beverly Hills gallerist. Though not a contributor to Team Norsigian’s “Final Report,” he’s commented publicly on the find; has lent his apparently non-existent credentials as an art appraiser to the authentication process; has announced a September showing of prints from 17 of the negatives; is handling sales of editioned prints ― both digital and gelatin-silver — from the negatives; and has issued an internationally publicized USD $200 million estimate of the negatives’ value. My preceding post went into some detail concerning Streets’s contribution to Team Norsigian.

No other member of Team Norsigian (according to their resumés) knows anything at all about photography, or claims such knowledge. So this trio represents the total expertise on photography brought to bear on this find by Team Norsigian. I estimate the cumulative value of that expertise as less than zero. It’s worth pointing out, too, that even in those ranks there’s dissension. Moeller has said of Streets’s $200 million estimate, “I find it rather puzzling.” Alt, to his credit, is refreshingly straightforward: “It’s the biggest bunch of crap I’ve heard in my life.” (Both quoted in the LA Times story.)

In addition to these peculiar choices of players, Team Norsigian includes two men claiming extensive experience in criminal investigation: forensics and criminalistics expert Thomas Knowles, and evidence and burden-of-proof analyst Manny Medrano. Neither of them list membership in the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (the most important professional organization in the USA for forensic scientists) among their credentials. Nor do they appear to be credentialled by the International Association of Identification, the world’s oldest and largest forensic professional association, which has two sections that are relevant to this case ― one on art and one on photography. The Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board does not even list the National Association of Document Examiners, the only professional accreditation listed by these two experts.

Thus their credentials, while impressive (at least to the uninformed lay person like myself), are entirely irrelevant to the authentication of photographic works. They knew nothing about photography or art coming into this case, and have done nothing to either inform themselves about it since then or to apply forensic methodology to the evidence. I consider Knowles’s abject failure to use his much-ballyhooed decades of FBI training here particularly egregious.

This perhaps explains why neither of them offers any direct evidence or traces any investigation that they themselves conducted in this case — because they did none. Instead, they consider it sufficient to rubber-stamp the conclusions of Alt and Moeller. This is professionally irresponsible, in the most fundamental meaning of that word — unable to respond. Their approval of the poorly reasoned and mostly speculative claims of Alt, Moeller, and Streets, therefore, is meaningless from a legal standpoint; any court would instantly strike it from the record.

This leaves Team Norsigian with three more players: meteorologist George Wright, and handwriting analysts Michael Nattenberg and Marcel Matley. Wright has simply certified that clouds in one known Adams image could be earlier or later drifts of clouds in a similar Norsigian negative. Notably, the Adams Herd has not refuted that claim. And the handwriting experts have, independently of each other, confirmed that the handwriting on the manila envelopes closely resembles the handwriting of Adams’s wife Virginia. Notably, the Adams Herd has not refuted that claim either.

Arnold Peter, Esq.

We should add to this list Norsigian’s attorney, Arnold Peter, of the Beverly Hills law firm Peter, Rubin & Simon, LLP. Peter presumably is Team Norsigian’s manager — the one who brought the team’s members together, the one who coordinated the “Final Report of Investigative Team” issued by the group, and the one who authored the texts therein not specifically attributed to individual team members, texts which include assorted false and misleading claims and representations of the facts, as pointed out in several of my previous posts. (I’ll have more to say about Peter’s handling of this project, and the communication between us, in my next post.)

Collector Rick Norsigian. Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

Finally, of course, there’s Richard “Rick” Norsigian himself, whose dogged decade-long effort to verify Adams’s authorship of these negatives has given him, at the very least, his Warholian fifteen minutes of fame. As Christina Hoag wrote in her July 28 Associated Press story, “Norsigian is not fazed by naysayers. ‘Prove me wrong,’ he said.” (For the version that appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune“Lawyer: Negatives verified as Ansel Adams’ lost work, but photographer’s heirs skeptical,” click here.) “‘This has been such a long journey,’ Norsigian continued. ‘I thought I’d never get to the end. It kind of proves a construction worker-painter can be right.'” Or not, as the case may be.

Part 6 of 14: 12 I 34 I 5 I 6 I 7 I 8 I 91011121314

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5 comments to Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (4)

  • So well written and expressed! Can we finally put this issue to rest!!

    • This horse is far from dead, Susan.

      First, there’s a serious authentication/verification process looming (as distinct from the questionable investigation publicized by Team Norsigian).

      Then, depending on the outcome of that inquiry, there are matters of subsidiary-rights licensing, potential lawsuits, etc.

      Because this has so many ramifications, I feel obliged to finish what I started by tracking the story to its conclusion. But I’m also going to start posting shortly about my recent adventures in China, so you’ll have some other material to read starting next week.

  • Diane Bush

    Truth is better than fiction, and this stuff is as riveting as any crime novel (just guessing, as I don’t read them). Thanks again! Great reading!

  • David Malarkey

    Well Mr Coleman…
    I came to your page via Peter Marshall’s excellent Re-Photo, after reading his comments on the Ansel Alleged negatives.

    You do a very fine job in demonstrating that the parties concerned may not be your ideal choice to make this judgement. I even looked at the high-class girlie pictures although most of them seem to be for members only. Not a great regret for me.

    My point seems to be this: whatever the reputations and history of the promoters, this has no direct bearing on the actual identity of the producer of the negatives, unless you are suggesting outright forgery, which I think you are not. No doubt the promoters are inclined to be optimistic, but that’s hardly uncommon.

    I recall seeing an exhibition of Adam’s early work at the Hayward Gallery and was astonished at the mediocrity of both vision and technique. “Stick to the Ivories” trembled on the lips. It greatly encouraged me in my own efforts.

    In addition, the actual quality of the pictures, which I’ve only seen on the web, is hardly relevant. Confirmation must be found elsewhere. Analysis of the emulsion might perhaps date them accurately. The kind of painstaking work that fixed the instant of ‘Moonrise’ might help. If a negative could be shown to be taken in California on a day when Mr Adams was in, say, New York, then the claim of authorship would clearly fail. And the converse might be true although this cannot rule out the possibility of an assistant shooting beside to the Great Man. Presumably these objects were handled by the photographer (whoever that might be) and DNA might be extracted. And so on…

    You will see that I am making a case for less of a hatchet-job, however elegantly written, and more science.

    My qualifications are, alas, merely that I have used a 10×8 camera, seen some exhibitions and read some books, too. What more should I do?

    Finally, you use technical terms such as ‘cowflop’ which neither I, nor the Apple spelling-check, understand.

    If you have got this far, my thanks.

    Regards, best wishes,

    David Malarkey

    • Thanks for your thoughtful note.

      As I wrote in an earlier post, “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.” So we don’t disagree on that.

      At the same time, the personalities involved in this drama, and their character, histories, statements, credentials, etc., do form a significant part of the story. On both sides of this dispute, the people I’m writing about have elected to put themselves in the spotlight on an international stage. They’ve made themselves inextricable from the tale. As both a cultural journalist and a storyteller, I’d feel remiss in not attending to this background (and foreground) material.

      With that said, I do agree entirely that the resolution of this inquiry will come (if it does come) from close examination of the physical evidence — those 65 negatives, their manila envelopes with handwriting, the newspapers in which they’re wrapped — and related primary materials and data, such as Adams’s journals, published and unpublished recollections about the fire, and so forth. In a previous post, I sketched a number of possible forensic tests and lines of inquiry to pursue. I’m sure a trained photo researcher and/or conservator would think of additional methods. So I’m all in favor of “more science,” which I see as the logical next step here.

      Finally, my use of the technical term “cowflop” betrays my family origins. My mother was a West Virginia farmgirl who escaped what Marx termed “the idiocy of rural life” by fleeing to the big city as soon as she could. I spent summers on my maternal grandparents’ farm. In that community, “cowflop” referred to the still-moist bovine deposits whose methane does such damage to the ozone layer — those pasture hazards that, once sun-baked, got called “cowpies.” A Google search would have brought this up.

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