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Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (7)

Arnold Peter, Esq.

While reading the news reports on Monday night announcing the lawsuit filed against Team Norsigian in federal district court in San Francisco by The Ansel Adams Publishing Trust, my email inbox yielded up a two-part press release from Team Norsigian. The filename on one indicates that it was sent to the Paris newspaper Le Monde and other publications and writers.

The first attachment, titled “Statement of clarification concerning the lost negatives,” recounts a set of episodes in Rick Norsigian’s decade-long effort to prove that the disputed negatives were made by Ansel Adams. The second attachment, “Exhibits for Press,” purports to provide supporting evidence for the first part. Both are unsigned, presumably coming from the desk of Arnold Peter, Norsigian’s counsel.

The main thrust of this communiqué seems an attempt to somehow vindicate Team Norsigian’s actions to date by listing, chronologically, representatives of the Adams family, the Adams Trust, the Center for Creative Photography, and others to whom collector Rick Norsigian and members of his posse have “reached out” since 2001. (“Reach out,” with its implications of psychotherapeutic/help-line selflessness, appears to have replaced the old-school term “contact.”) The list includes, chronologically, Glenn Crosby, curator of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite; Jeanne Adams, Ansel Adams’s daughter-in-law; Dr. Johnathan Schaefer, then curator at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP); CCP archivist Leslie Calmes; Dr. Michael Adams, Ansel’s son; and Adams biographer Mary Street Alinder. Nowhere do I find specified the reasons for the provision of this list — nor can I make heads or tails of it.

The release intermittently includes, and concludes with, a list of complaints about the Center for Creative Photography. “To date, no one at the Center for Creative Photography has ever examined or asked to examine the actual negatives in Norsigian’s possession. Further, the CCP has not offered to provide any original specimens so that they can be compared to Norsigian’s negatives. Team Norsigian has espoused a position which calls for an independent and unbiased panel of experts to authentication [sic] Rick Norsigian’s collection. An expert panel will not be useful, however, if the CCP refuses to furnish original specimens from the Ansel Adams archive. . . . Team Norsigian is prepared to work together with multiple experts and institutions, including the CCP. In fact, Arnold Peter, Mr. Norsigian’s attorney, reached out to the CCP as recently as August 16, 2010 (Exhibit G). Mr. Peter has not heard back, but hopes that a response is forthcoming.”

Sherlock Holmes in a 1904 illustration by Sidney Paget.

What a load of hooey. “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts,” wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in “Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Bohemia” (1891). Team Norsigian certainly comes late to its commitment to impartial fact-finding by independent experts. Until now, they have ignored Sherlock Holmes’s classic advice, theorizing before gathering data and twisting facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

Beyond that, I find the aggrieved tone of this ridiculous statement, and the implication that the CCP has “refused” its help, especially egregious. The Center is not the photo-world equivalent of the Antiques Roadshow, a free authentication service; it’s a research institution. They don’t send you materials on demand; you travel there, with your documents and materials, and use their archival resources for your own investigation. It would be irresponsible of them, and probably illegal, to “furnish original specimens from the Ansel Adams archive” in any way other than to put on a table in their Research Center whatever materials a qualified researcher who’d made an appointment asks to see.

However, if you have a plausible reason for doing so (such as a research or authentication project), the CCP welcomes you at its Research Center, gives you access to its printed and digitized records of its holdings, and brings out whatever materials you request from opening time in the morning till closing time in the afternoon. As the Ansel and Virginia Adams Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence in early 1997 I spent much time in the CCP’s Research Center over a period of several months, which gave me ample opportunity to observe how respectfully and professionally its staff worked, day in and day out, to serve the diverse needs of the individuals who came there.

Robert C. Moeller III's website.

It’s not the CCP staff’s job to examine whatever materials you happen to have and offer opinions about them; it’s the visiting researcher’s job to transport to the CCP whatever documents and artifacts he or she wants to compare with the CCP’s holdings. Team Norsigian’s “reaching out” to the CCP so far consists of two courses of action, neither of them adequate to the challenge: sending them a few letters and emails, and delegating a curator and art consultant with no demonstrated credentials or competence in photo research, Robert C. Moeller III, to visit the CCP twice.

Collector Rick Norsigian. Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

Notably, in Team Norsigian’s own report I find no indication that Moeller brought with him any of the Norsigian negatives or related materials (the hand-inscribed manila envelopes in which they were stored, the newspaper sheets in which they were wrapped) for comparison purposes. If so, this would mean that, ignorant of the basics of photo research, Moeller did no direct comparisons between Norsigian negatives from the period 1919 to the early 1930s and the CCP’s Adams negatives from that same stretch to determine whether plateholder markings on both types correlated. All he found, according to the report, was that some of the Norsigian images resembled other images by Adams, and whoever made them had photographed in places Adams also visited with his camera.

Katharine Martinez, incoming CCP Director.

Though I’ve informed him of this in our previous correspondence, Peter ignores the fact that the CCP has undergone extreme internal turmoil and redefinition over the past decade. This has been widely covered in the art and photo press: multiple changes of directorship, numerous changes of personnel, severe reduction of its schedule of activities, and radical redefinition of its mission within the University of Arizona library system, of which it’s a component. Its incoming director, Katharine Martinez, just took office this past July 12. Under those circumstances, expecting personalized authentication services that the CCP didn’t provide even when at its peak of efficiency is simply irrational.

Moreover, the CCP is, as just stated, part of the library system of the University of Arizona, Tucson, where the CCP is located. It’s common knowledge that, throughout the northern hemisphere, colleges ― and their libraries ― pretty much close up shop in August, after summer school has ended, so that faculty and staff can take vacations. Only someone oblivious to reality would expect quick responses from university librarians to a query dated August 16, or be so rude as to prompt them for same in an internationally distributed press release dated just one week later.

This is what results when ignorami (plural of ignoramus) both run an investigation and populate the investigative crew. GIGO, as they say in the computer world — garbage in, garbage out. And counterproductive garbage, to boot, because Team Norsigian desperately needs cooperation from the CCP if it’s to salvage anything from its almost total mishandling of this situation.

I’m betting that the federal district court in San Francisco will quickly shut down Team Norsigian’s up-and-running merchandising strategy for Adams prints and posters derived from these negatives. Blue-collar Norsigian may be a sentimental favorite for those who like to see a working stiff hit the jackpot, but what we have here involves copyright violation and trademark infringement, which doesn’t make the judiciary go all weepy. I also seriously doubt that, once the district court rolls up Team Norsigian’s operation, an appeals court will revisit that decision.

"National Park Naturalist Ansel Hall." Courtesy Rick Norsigian.

In that case, any revenues from those editions to date will get turned over to the Adams Trust. (Click here for my own estimate of what those sales might have added up to.) Team Norsigian will be precluded from any subsidiary-rights licensing of the images using Adams’s name. They’ll have court costs to pay, materials and custom-printing costs for the editions to date, the fees of their initial team of experts, whatever they’ve laid out for the documentary film now in production, and other expenses. And they’ll have no revenue stream to amortize any of that.

Team Norsigian’s last hope? Authentication of the negatives as made by Adams. In that case, as I’ve proposed, the negatives themselves will have market value as museum-quality artifacts. And the only way to authenticate the negatives is to dump the original Team Norsigian posse (with the possible exceptions of the meteorologist and handwriting experts), bring in a set of recognized and reputable researchers, and head to the CCP in Tucson. If the proof’s anywhere, it’s there.

That court decision will most likely preclude the planned exhibition of these prints at the David W. Streets Gallery in Beverly Hills, presently set for September 23-25. California State University, Fresno has already bowed out of an earlier, tentative interest in showing the work in October. This whole enterprise seems headed for the rocks. Time for Team Norsigian to learn to make nice with the CCP, instead of haranguing them inappropriately.

"El Capitan." Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

Let’s conduct a thought experiment here, in advance of what I hope will eventuate: forensic testing of these negatives. Suppose it turns out that, incontrovertibly, Ansel Adams made them. What do we then have?

Like virtually all working professional photographers (and virtually all amateurs, for that matter), Adams generated far more negatives than he eventually selected for public presentation in magazines, books, portfolios, and exhibitions. Without assistance in this matter, he carefully and deliberately redacted his substantial output to define what he considered to constitute his own approved body of work. In the vernacular, only a small percentage of his negatives were “keepers.”

But, also like virtually all photographers, professional or amateur, he didn’t destroy or discard the rejected negatives; he simply stored them away. This meant that when his Yosemite studio caught fire in 1937, he had a lot of second- and third-drawer negatives on hand — work he had already decided to exclude from his oeuvre.

We have no shortage of such work in the Adams archive at the CCP. That fire wiped out somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of his output up till then, but did not destroy any works Adams considered major that Norsigian’s find recuperates. Nor did it leave any specific chronological or developmental hole in his production, unfilled until Norsigian stumbled across that box in Fresno.

No historian has argued that we can’t understand Adams’s early work due to those destroyed negatives. Team Norsigian likes to claim that these images fill some crucial “gap” in our understanding of Adams, but that’s pure bullshit, an uninformed and naïve assertion. The only gap these images fill is the space on the shelf where Adams kept them along with his other technically adept but uninspired efforts, as he made his transition from pictorialism to the U.S. version of photographic modernism that came to be called “purism.”

Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, AZ

In short, even if verified as work by Adams, this is study material, and nothing more. Thanks to Adams himself, who inspired the University of Arizona, Tucson, to create the CCP and inaugurated it with his own archive, we have no shortage of Adams study material. Walk in off the street during working hours and they’ll show you master prints till your eyeballs fall out. Make a reservation at the Research Center as a qualified scholar and you can wallow in the stuff for months.

Do these negatives differ in any notable way from thousands already in the Center’s collection? No. Does the world need more of same? Not from my standpoint as a critic and historian and exhibition curator. But if I ran an art museum with a photography department, or a photography museum, or directed a photography department within an art museum, would I give serious thought to buying and displaying one or more Ansel Adams glass-plate negatives if they came on the market?

You bet. Especially after all this hoopla. Because, aside from the CCP, no one else has any. They’d be among the things that visitors would want to see — among the things they’d come to see. Splinters off the true cross. So even if the court tells Norsigian, in no uncertain terms, that he doesn’t have a goldmine here, he might still have a small silver mine. If, and only if, he can establish, via impeccable research by qualified experts, that Adams made these images.

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3 comments to Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (7)

  • Emma Sorenson

    Thank you for your laser-sharp analysis. It’s a thriller!!

  • I have had a few email exchanges with Mr. Coleman because I felt that he has been one of the more even-handed and balanced commentators on this current debate. He has been kind enough to point out that, even when we disagreed, our communication has been respectful and professional. In fact, we so value his expertise and knowledge that I offered to engage him to help us develop an appropriate protocol for a secondary authentication process. I did, however, want to point out in this forum a couple of items in Mr. Coleman’s current post that require clarification.

    First, he correctly points out that the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) is not a “free authentication service.” Unfortunately, it has assumed this role from time to time and in my opinion has done so in an irresponsible manner. For example, the CCP sent Rick Norsigian a letter (a copy of which we supplied to Mr. Coleman and to international media outlets), in which it volunteered an opinion “with certainty,” about the handwriting on the Norsigian negative envelopes. When it was pointed out that this opinion was faulty, the CCP stated that it could not make such a determination because it was not qualified to do so.

    Second, Mr. Coleman suggests that Team Norsigian “comes late to its commitment to impartial fact finding by independent experts.” Mr. Norsigian’s overtures to the CCP and others, including the Adams family, date back almost a decade. It is not, nor has it ever been Mr. Norsigian’s intention to hide his collection from those who are qualified and willing to render an objective analysis.

    Third, Mr. Coleman has discredited the experts who have heretofore participated in authenticating the Norsigian negatives. In this post, Mr. Coleman does at least acknowledge the value of the meteorologist and handwriting experts, who he believes should be assisted by chemical and forensic analysts. We are in the process of arranging for a chemical analysis of the negatives and comparison of the Norsigian negatives with authenticated Adams negatives to determine if there are identical plate-holder markings around the borders of the images. In order to conduct such analyses, any experts will need original specimens from the CCP, and not digital copies that Mr. Coleman alludes to.

    Finally, Mr. Coleman states that “It is common knowledge, throughout the northern hemisphere, colleges – and their libraries – pretty much close shop in August . . . .” We just spoke to Katherine Martinez, the current CCP Director who assured us that its facilities are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday, throughout the year. Mr. Coleman reports that there has been turmoil at the CCP in the past and Mr. Norsigian’s experiences are fairly consistent with Mr. Coleman’s assessment. We anticipate that this situation has changed under Ms. Martinez’s leadership.

    Arnold P. Peter

    • Arnold Peter needs to stop this nonsense about how Team Norsigian has “made overtures” to the Center for Creative Photography. This isn’t a courtship situation. You don’t woo the CCP; you make use of their resources. You do that by going there. You do so, in this case, because the CCP is the mother lode of primary research materials relating to Ansel Adams.

      Tucson, Arizona lies almost exactly 700 miles east and south of Fresno. That’s one long day’s drive or two half-days on the road. Somehow, in the 10 years of Rick Norsigian’s passionate search for the truth about these negatives, he hasn’t found a way to get himself to Tucson and the CCP, in the company of an expert photo conservator and researcher, with those 65 yard-sale negatives and their wrappings, in order to enable eyes-on side-by-side comparison with the world’s largest trove of authenticated Ansel Adams material. That’s not the behavior of a man in dedicated pursuit of the facts; it bespeaks someone doing anything he can to avoid them.

      That visit to the CCP should have been the very first step in this process — not the course of action Team Norsigian has just now initiated, ten years on. Had Norsigian started there, we’d have actual facts on the table, instead of speculations, extrapolations, and fabulations from a cluster of people with inflated, non-existent, or irrelevant credentials. Bluntly put, no one representing Team Norsigian who knows anything about photography has ever visited the CCP. There’s no excuse for that.

      Adams kept detailed notes on his darkroom activities. Additionally, the CCP may have the results of tests its staff has already run on those materials, for various purposes. I believe it should be possible to determine, from those notes and test results, what brands of glass plates Adams used, and what chemical solutions he employed for development thereof, during the period in question. Comparison of that data to test results from the Norsigian negatives should indicate whether the latter are consistent with Adams’s own works or not.

      Visual examination of the Norsigian negatives, and full-frame prints thereof, in comparison with Adams negatives and full-frame prints in the CCP’s archive, will indicate the presence or absence of similarities in plate-holder marks around the borders of the negatives. This can be determined on the spot, without requiring any Adams materials to leave the Research Center.

      I did not suggest, nor mean to imply, that the CCP has some obligation to turn over to Team Norsigian any of Adams’s actual materials for testing. As I understand it, their commitment to assisting qualified researchers does not extend to providing samples for lab use on demand. Their first obligation is to protect and preserve the materials deposited in their care.

      I made no allusion to any “digital copies” of CCP materials, and can’t imagine what Peter refers to in that regard.

      I do know that the Center is open weekdays year-round. The point I made — that expecting immediate response from an academic institution in mid-August is foolish, and that publicizing a mere’s week’s delay in response during that season is rude — remains valid.

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