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Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (5)

As questions mount — about the authenticity of the supposed Ansel Adams negatives discovered by Fresno school-system wall painter Rick Norsigian, about the credibility of the authentication process to date, and about the credentials of Team Norsigian’s authenticators ― Hollywood attorney Arnold Peter, point man for the team, issues responses thereto. The most recent of these appears online here. None of them so far answer any of the issues I’ve raised in this series of posts.

Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, AZ

Also, it appears that both Team Norsigian and the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust have agreed at least tentatively that “the authenticity of the negatives should be judged by the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.” (See the August 14 press release at Rick Norsigian’s website here.) If so — and if the CCP is willing to mediate this dispute — I can’t think of a more appropriate location at which to resolve it.

The CCP houses the AA archive, which served as its founding acquisition; this includes not only hundreds of Adams’s master prints but also his work prints, contact prints, negatives, and papers. There’s no one single venue anywhere in the world better equipped to examine Norsigian’s find, compare them with known Adams negatives and prints,  check them against his records, and verify or disprove Team Norsigian’s assertions.

The CCP also has a long track record of Adams scholarship, curated exhibitions, and publications — though this archive has undergone numerous personnel changes over the past 15 years, so many of those who did that spadework now work elsewhere. Be that as it may, I don’t know of a group more qualified to undertake this project. (Full disclosure: I was the Ansel and Virginia Adams Scholar-in-Residence at the CCP in the winter/spring of 1997.)

So far as I can tell, the CCP has not yet signed on to this deal, and might not, for a number of reasons — not least of which is the Center’s inevitable entanglement in perpetuity with the AA Trust, which creates a possible conflict of interest. While that’s problematic, I wouldn’t consider it automatically a contaminant of the outcome. Indeed, under those circumstances, I’d expect extreme scrupulosity from the Center (which, to the best of my knowledge, is SOP there anyhow). Objectivity could be ensured by the addition of one or more non-CCP experts to the adjudication process.

Arnold Peter, Esq.

More full disclosure: Arnold Peter, Norsigian’s counsel, has communicated with me on several occasions, and I’ve replied. His first emails — responding to my initial posts on the reprehensible commentary coming from the Adams Herd — were predictably complimentary, in regard to both the quality of my writing and the content of those posts. His subsequent emails, relating to my dissection of Team Norsigian’s “Final Report of Investigative Team” and other public utterances, have (to his credit, and theirs) proved equally positive and encouraging.

Peter subsequently invited me to become part of an independent team that would conduct a new inquiry into the identity of the maker of these negatives — that is, the effort implicit in the above-mentioned agreement between Team Norsigian and the Adams Trust. He offered to compensate me for my time, while insisting that Team Norsigian would make no attempt to influence my decisions or the outcome of the inquiry. I considered his invitation respectful, appropriate, sincere, and entirely on the up-and-up.

Be that as it may, I declined the offer. Not because I’ve concluded that Adams didn’t make these negatives; I haven’t seen enough contrary evidence to persuade me that they’re wrong in their attribution. I realize that statement may shock some of my readers, given that I’ve savaged Team Norsigian in my preceding four posts, castigating them for gross ineptitude, proclaiming their “Final Report of Investigative Team” a woefully unpersuasive hodgepodge, and dismissing their entire project to date as hopelessly botched.

Nonetheless, I also take into account what we might call the “Inspector Clouseau factor” — the possibility that a bumbling incompetent (or even a busload of shlemiels and shlemozzles) could blunder and stumble into the correct solution to a puzzle. So I’m keeping an open mind on that subject, trying to separate hard evidence from irrelevancy, fact from fiction, and significant clues from red herrings.

Indeed, if I really thought I had applicable skills they couldn’t find elsewhere I’d say yes. (Though, as I told Peter, I’d have to decline payment, as long as they covered expenses.) The forensic tests I’ve suggested, and various others, would surely occur to any experienced photo researcher or conservator; I’m out of my league there. I haven’t made a close study of Adams’s early work, nor familiarized myself in detail with his personal and professional life during the period in question. I don’t bring a performer’s awareness of the relevant tools, materials, and processes to the table.

So, as I wrote to Peter, “I appreciate the spirit in which you make that offer, including your suggestion that my involvement would be made public (the only way I’d have it). However, like Caesar’s wife I need to be not only above suspicion, but above the appearance of suspicion. I can’t function credibly here as both a journalist and an advisor. Hence my decision.

“Bluntly put, so far as I can see I’m the only person knowledgeable about photography who is covering this story in detail. I think I can best serve the public, the field of photography, and both sides in this situation by continuing in my present role as impartial, unaligned cultural journalist and commentator. This leaves me in a position to issue corrective reports and opinions, and to pull together material from diverse sources, in ways that could be seen as compromised if I accepted your offer.”

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

Peter accepted that decision graciously, then asked if I’d consider appearing in the documentary now in preparation about Norsigian’s find and Team Norsigian’s efforts to establish Adams’s authorship of these negatives. I gave that some thought, then replied to him (in part) as follows:

“[I]t seems to me that this film project’s timeline has been set precipitously, and that its announced completion date [October] and planned debut [at a film festival that month] are exceedingly premature given the complexity of the unresolved issues involved. I’m not interested in appearing in a film that tells only the first half of this story, even if it does so in an even-handed way. I say this taking into account, and giving full credence to, your assurance that I’d be free to speak my mind on any and all aspects of this situation. So, assuming that you and your colleagues remain committed to that schedule, I must decline.

“If your group revises that schedule, in order to make a film that pursues the story through to its end — which means incorporating the conclusions reached by independent testing and research conducted by qualified and recognized professionals, the resolution of the issue of authorship (to whatever extent that can be determined), the rights-licensing concerns, etc. — than I’ll gladly reconsider that decision. Please keep me informed on that score.”

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

Meanwhile, Team Norsigian has located the man from whose yard sale Rick Norsigian bought these negatives in 2000. He’s Irving Schwartz of Fresno, who claims that he swapped the Huntington Beach possessors of the negatives a sculpture for them. Schwartz also states that he has additional information about the negatives and his source for same, which he’s willing to provide ― for a price. Team Norsigian has declined (wisely, in my opinion) to pay for that data, so the identification of Schwartz serves only to confirm that Norsigian did indeed buy the negatives legitimately, when and where he said he did.

Unfortunately, Team Norsigian has chosen to exaggerate this discovery by asserting that it “Debunks [the] Uncle Earl Theory.” (See Team Norsigian’s August 15 press release about Schwartz.) “Uncle” Earl Brooks, I remind you, a now-deceased lifelong Fresno resident and serious amateur photographer, has been proposed by his niece Miriam Walton as the possible maker of at least three or four of these negatives. If true, this would make Brooks the poor man’s Ansel Adams, since Team Norsigian has insisted that these negatives represent Adams at his finest from that era. (Note: According to the New York Times, “This November a San Francisco gallery owner, Scott Nichols, will be hosting a show of work by Adams and his assistants and he has decided to include photos by Mr. Brooks too. ‘Uncle Earl is a damned good photographer,’ Mr. Nichols said. ‘There’s no doubt about it.'”)

Team Norsigian concludes its press release about Schwartz thus: “The significance of this information is two-fold. First, it confirms that the negatives were in fact purchased in Southern California. More importantly, in light of the geographic distance, it makes it unlikely that the negatives were part of any works created by Earl Brooks, as there is no indication that he ever lived in Southern California.” However, it’s not significantly less likely that negatives by Brooks somehow traveled the 235 miles from Fresno to Huntington Beach than that negatives by Adams made their way 300 miles from Yosemite National Park to Huntington Beach. (Indeed, Yosemite is north of Fresno, further from L.A. and Huntington Beach.)

There’s also “no indication” that Adams “ever lived in Southern California.” To the contrary, we know that, in terms of residence, the furthest south he ever lived in California was Yosemite. The 65-mile difference between Yosemite and Fresno is negligible, and thus meaningless. Team Norsigian’s masterminds don’t seem to understand that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

This press release also drastically misrepresent the Adams Herd’s relationship to the “Uncle Earl” Brooks theory, asserting that it’s been “vehemently advanced by the Adams Family.” Neither the Adams Trust nor the Adams Family originated this theory, which was first proposed by Brooks’s niece, Miriam Walton, who based her proposition on resemblance between images printed from Norsigian negatives and prints she owns inherited from her uncle. Spokespersons for the Adams side of the dispute have indicated that they consider the “Uncle Earl” theory plausible. Which it is, though of course it raises a bunch of other questions about Brooks, those prints, and the presence of those negatives in Huntington Beach circa 1943.

The likelihood of those prints owned by Walton having been made by Adams or one of his assistants for exhibition or sale is small, since they neither bear Adams’s signature or initials nor carry any of the stamps and other markings characteristic of the prints he sold during that period. So their production and existence calls for some other explanation. In the event, the “Uncle Earl” theory has neither been “vehemently advanced by the Adams Family” nor “debunked” by the identification of Norsigian’s seller. My amazement at Team Norsigian’s indulgence in careless and misleading public statements — with no less than three lawyers on board — persists.

Finally (for this post, anyhow), a tip of the Coleman hat to Peter Marshall of the UK, who responds periodically to this blog at his own, >Re: PHOTO, and has now posted three thoughtful commentaries on the Adams/Norsigian debacle: “Lost Ansel Adams?” (July 28), “Coleman on Adams or Not” (August 4), and “Uncle Earl’s Photos” (August 20). The latter two also address my own coverage thereof, of which he says, in part, “[S]tart reading each of his contributions in turn just for the sheer pleasure of seeing a critical sledge-hammer applied with immense control and precision to a rather small and mouldy nut.” I’m not convinced the nut is all that small and mouldy. In any case, Marshall’s also worth reading, and not just because he has some good things to say about me.

Part 7 of 14: 12 I 345 I 6 I 7 I 8 I 91011121314

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