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Cowflop from the Adams Herd (3)

"Horse teams on horse shoe curve, Yosemite National Park," 1902. Anonymous snapshot

Belatedly, I’ve uncovered another tall tale from William “Wild Bill” Turnage: In Lauren A. E. Schuker’s article “Ansel Adams Trove, or a Pile of Glass?” in the July 28 Wall Street Journal, Turnage, managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, gets quoted thus: “‘We don’t think they [the 65 glass-plate negatives discovered by Fresno wall painter Rick Norsigian] look like Ansel’s work,’ he said. ‘Do you have any idea how many people were photographing Yosemite in the 1920s and 1930s? Millions! It could be anyone.'”

In fact, according to the official website of Yosemite National Park, “Yosemite first hit the 1 million mark [for visitors] in 1954.” In the years tentatively ascribed to these negatives, 1919-1930, attendance would have ranged from 58,362 in 1919 to 498,289 in 1932, according to National Park Service statistics.

What’s important about this whopper isn’t that “Wild Bill” is off by several millions, nor that I checked these facts in five minutes but he couldn’t take the trouble to do so before shooting off his mouth. The evidence so far tells us this isn’t a man concerned with factual accuracy, his own credibility, or the reputation of the Trust he manages. What matters here is the deliberate misdirection embedded within the obvious untruth.

S49 Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, Cal. 5004 Keystone © 1907 Lingley. Stereo card.

Which is this: Even if every single one of the tens of thousands (not millions) visiting Yosemite annually during that period brought a camera and made photographs, only a very limited number of them brought large-format cameras and tripods and glass-plate negatives of the specific (and less common) 6.5″ x 8.5″ size, of which all the Norsigian negatives are examples.

Kodak "Brownie" box camera, circa 1900.

Large-format cameras, bulky to carry and difficult to operate, are not amateur-friendly. (You don’t take those negatives to the drugstore for processing and printing.) The vast majority of the tourists coming to Yosemite during the time period ascribed to these negatives would have brought with them the still-popular handheld box cameras using 120-mm. roll film, such as the Kodak “Brownie” Adams’s parents gave him in 1916 that sparked his interest in photography.

Other Yosemite visitors who wanted snapshots would have brought compact handheld cameras like the “vest-pocket” Kodaks, the newer 35-mm. rangefinder cameras, or other smaller, lighter, consumer-end instruments. Even many professionals there on assignment would have carried medium-format models, Speed Graphics and such, providing a combination of relative portability with the larger 4×5 negative size.

Vest Pocket Kodak, Model B, 1925-34.

Those few who did bring large-format cameras would have been either professionals whose assignments and/or commissions called for even larger negatives, or serious amateur photographers and professional creative photographers like Adams making large-format negatives in order to make exhibition-quality prints. Of those, many would already have switched from cumbersome and fragile glass-plate negatives to sheet film, introduced 1913-15, much less heavy and not at all breakable. Glass-plate negatives were on their way out by the 1930s, though still in use by some professionals and advanced amateurs.

And of the few still using glass-plate negatives (and shlepping them into and around Yosemite), only a fraction would have used the relatively uncommon 6.5″ x 8.5″ size. So the number of people who might have made the Norsigian negatives drops radically when one applies a little common sense and historical knowledge to the situation.

Turnage certainly has that historical knowledge, or ready access to it. Either he lacks common sense or else he chose deliberately to muddy the waters with his nonsensical exaggeration. In either case, his proposal that any of “millions” of people could have made those negatives distracts us from the truth — that only a few dozen people annually would have gone to Yosemite with that combination of camera model and negative. Those people would likely have been known to Adams (and vice versa), would perhaps have checked in at the Adams Gallery to say hello, would in short not have been anywhere near so mysterious and anonymous and untraceable as Turnage would like people to believe.

Then add in the fact that some of the Norsigian negatives were clearly salvaged from a fire, rewashed to remove soot and ash, then re-sleeved in manila envelopes and wrapped in sheets of 1942-43 newspapers. This further reduces the pool of candidates for production of these plates, leaving us with what I suspect would prove a very small number of prospects — and Adams, who lost an estimated 5000 negatives (including glass-plate negatives like these) in a 1937 conflagration at his Yosemite studio, certainly counts among them. Consequently, production of these Norsigian negatives by Adams remains the most-likely-case scenario.

Collector Rick Norsigian. Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

Glass doesn’t burn, so Adams disposed in some fashion of the negatives he considered damaged or otherwise dispensable after the fire. Did he smash each and every one to ensure no one could re-use them? Then truck them to the dump? Leave them at the curb for the trash collector? Is it inconceivable that 65 of them — just a tad over one percent — somehow survived and got out of Adams’s hands? Not to me.

Which doesn’t mean I’ve concluded that Adams made the negatives in question. Nor does it mean I’ve concluded that someone other than he did. Per my several previous posts, Team Norsigian’s “Final Report of Investigative Team” is laughable in its ineptitude and overreaching, an incompetently researched and badly argued case with more holes than Swiss cheese. Norsigian attorney Arnold Peter asserted, in a public comment on July 17, that “on our team was Mr. Patrick Alt who I had the pleasure to work with and learn from. His expertise in this area is beyond reproach.” Alt’s qualifications as Team Norsigian’s “photography expert” have since become a laughing matter, as have the credentials of other Norsigian authenticators.

"El Capitan." Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

Nonetheless, some ineluctable facts remain: These negatives, made by someone with professional-level skills and non-standard photographic equipment and materials, were found in southern California in the 1940s. They portray places where Adams also photographed during the period to which the images date. They were made on a type of negative that Adams also used at the time, and a size of negative, less common than others, that he also used. And they give evidence, in some cases, of having survived a fire, which some of Adams’s negatives also underwent in 1937.

Furthermore, Adams had a studio at Yosemite, a perquisite of his marriage to Virginia Best, whose father had owned the photo concession in the park. This made it easier for Adams than for any other photographer to store unexposed glass-plate negatives there and to transport them around the park for picture-making purposes, as well as to process and print exposed glass-plate negatives without the chore and hazard of transporting them elsewhere. Safe to say, then, that no other photographer has as much access to Yosemite as did Adams, and very few photographers made as many negatives there as he did. No photographer who did so is known (so far) to have lost negatives in a fire.

William of Ockham

The Occam’s-razor principle — which suggests that, all things being equal, the simplest answer is usually the correct one — thus points toward Adams as the author of these works. But Occam’s razor doesn’t equate to credible art world/photo world authentication. It’s nothing more than likelihood, an educated guess at best. This means that I can see how Team Norsigian got to its jumping-off point, without agreeing that this justifies their subsequent leap of faith and the consequent faith-based assertions that they’ve presented to the world as proven facts.

So, when “Wild Bill” Turnage pops off fake statistics about how many people could lay claim to these negatives, is he simply running his mouth with his brain out of gear, or is he intentionally misleading the press and public, to distract them from the fact that very few photographers could have made these negatives, and Ansel Adams is high on the list of possibilities? You decide.

I certainly realize that Turnage et al may prove to be in the right regarding the authorship of these negatives. And I’m reasonably certain they’ll prevail in their legal effort to enjoin Team Norsigian from marketing prints and other products derived from these images. Still, someone has to keep these people honest.

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

As long as I’m speaking of one cluster of legal questions, let me raise another: By what authority did Ansel Adams come to have Yosemite National Park to himself as a prime marketing location from which he could sell his own prints, books, and workshops for something like five decades — a most-favored-photographer status enjoyed by no other since?

After all, we’re not talking about a quasi-saintly figure like Edward Weston, content to live like a hermit on Wildcat Hill and little concerned with making money. We’re talking about the Ansel Adams who cheerfully licensed use of his image “Winter Morning, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, CA, 1969” for a Hills Bros. Coffee can — an unqualifiedly commercial decision.

And what entitles his descendants, two generations removed, none of them making art, to continue that “tradition” by running a private for-profit gallery on some of the choicest real estate in the entire national park system, for the express purpose of distributing the Adams family product line and other trade goods — a merchandising privilege enjoyed by no other photographer or photographer’s estate? Was that concession ever put up for public bid, as I’m sure the law nowadays requires? If not, why not? Is this cash cow some exclusive Adams family perk in perpetuity? If so, how come? And if not, isn’t it high time to revisit that contract?

Just asking.

(For some backstory from Jim Burnett at National Parks Traveler on the concession, whose contract was renewed automatically for another ten years in March 2010, click here.)

Part 10 of 14: 123456 I 789 I 10 I 11121314

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8 comments to Cowflop from the Adams Herd (3)

  • R. Keil

    I’ve read your ongoing coverage of this matter and have been quite impressed by the intelligence of your analysis and the balance exhibited.

    However I was disappointed in your August 28th post in which you overly magnify William Turnbridge’s comment about the “millions” of photographers who might have taken the purported Adams pictures.

    I’m certain “millions” was not intended literally. It’s a fairly common enough shorthand way of suggesting that there are “alot” of possibilities. I hardly think the incident reflects poorly upon Mr. Turnbridge.

    But I do agree with your apt critique of statements made by the Adams team regarding prints made by other photographers from the negatives being of no value. Obviously they are in no position to assert this with a straight face.

    I look forward to your continued coverage.

    • Per my previous posts, William “Wild Bill” Turnage is prone to exaggeration. This is, let’s remember, the man who compared Team Norsigian to Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.

      It’s quite clear from his “shorthand” use of the word “millions” that Turnage wants people to believe that “there are a lot of possibilities” as to who made the Norsigian negatives. The primary point of my post, as it happens, was that whereas obviously Turnage would like people to believe that, it’s simply not true. In fact, only a few dozen people visiting Yosemite during that period would likely have used a camera taking that particular size of glass-plate negative.

      As for me “overmagnifying” that comment: Turnage is speaking regularly to the local, national, and international press during this episode. His words receive widespread distribution. In the kindest interpretation of his public statements in his official role as managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, he makes a habit of playing fast and loose with the truth. I hold him to the same standard I hold myself: Be prepared to stand by your words, or be prepared to eat them.

  • Richard Kuzniak

    Hello Mr. Coleman;

    I’ve enjoyed all of your articles on this pathetic little saga but am a little surprised by your vacillation in the last (Part 10) article.

    In the absence of forensic proof (and I agree with all of your previously stated avenues of approach!), Occham’s razor does NOT point to Ansel as the creator (of the Norsigian negatives), but rather underscores the need for the Norsigian camp to quit the spin and ad campaign and go boldly to a real forensic evaluation (a few hundred miles and perhaps a paradigm shift, away from Beverly Hills).

    I have no doubt that this would culminate in an enhanced legacy for our Uncle Earl Brooks and rescue his reputation from the remembrances of step-daughters in Montreal and dusty museum discoveries in Delaware. He deserves at least that much.

    Now, as to the ever prickly Mr. Turnage. I’m a little less gob-smacked than you by his hyperbolic pronouncements, since in the context of even more ludicrous claims from the Norsigian camp, they seem to be an appropriate tit for tat reaction.

    Your analysis of the number of suitably equipped and inspired photographers working the great Yosemite misses the point I’m afraid. It has not to do with the calculus of qualified numbers suggesting a percentage probability but rather with the recognition that even ONE (probably Earl Brooks) that slipped through the pre Facebook era of social awareness of who was working what where when can skew the conclusion away from Ansel provenance. The fact that the niece possesses prints that are near identical to the Norsigian negs should give pause for re-application of Occham…

    And as to the Ansel et descendants presence in the Yosemite vale, …well why not? The people (we the people!) seem to associate the two (hmm..egg..chicken…chicken..egg which enhanced which reputation?) and expect and enjoy the association. Ansel and Yosemite are not alone in such a synergistic commercial arrangement. Frank Sutcliffe and Whitby spring to mind…

    – Richard K., Toronto

    • Not sure what you consider my “vacillation” on the attribution of authorship to these negatives. I’ve made it clear (I think, and hope) that, absent further hard data that can only result from forensic investigation and research by experts, I have no opinion as to who made these negatives, and no investment in any particular conclusion in that regard. If people I consider qualified render a verdict substantiated by transparent research and substantial evidence, I expect I’ll accept that, as will most others.

      Meanwhile, the preponderance of circumstantial evidence continues to point to Adams as the maker. Following the Occam’s Razor principle, that represents the simplest answer to fit the known facts — assuming, of course, that those are facts. The Earl Brooks alternative leaves much unexplained. What little visual evidence I’ve seen — small jpegs viewed on-screen — doesn’t satisfy me re the Brooks claim. Time for the application of expertise here.

      Whether I agree with it or not, I understand the decision to let Adams have Yosemite as his professional fiefdom during his lifetime. Arguably, he earned that. That he thereby also earned it for his descendants, eternally, I find much harder to swallow.

  • Richard Kuzniak

    Just a quick addendum to my previous post…the statement by Turnage that causes you to bristle: ‘Do you have any idea how many people were photographing Yosemite in the 1920s and 1930s? Millions! It could be anyone.’ is in point of fact technically correct. Just change “were photographing” to “photographed” since the salient fact is that there were millions of visitors over this time period (yes of course many repeats but you would still have millions even if everyone doubled up once in the 20s and 30s) The figures posted at the ParK Service are not cumulative but rather yearly attendance figures. Thus 1954 saw 1 million visitors to the park THAT YEAR. By 1926, 1.2 million HAD visited and 2 million by 1929/30. So Wild Bill seems to be correct and it does kind of dull your point, no? :>)

    • As the statistics I provided demonstrate quite inarguably, “Wild Bill” Turnage’s assertion that “millions” of people were photographing Yosemite in the 1920s and 1930s” is in point of fact technically incorrect.

      According to National Park Service stats, between 1919-1930 some 2 million people visited Yosemite. Not all of them carried cameras. Indeed, one reason Ansel’s Yosemite gallery supported him and his family handsomely, even in the Depression era, was that people bought his prints in lieu of making their own images.

      Detailed stats aren’t available, of course, but it seems reasonable to assume that no more than one-quarter of those visitors, at most, carried their own cameras. Hardly millions.

      But you seem to have missed my primary point, not “dulled” at all by the stats: Only a minute number of those who came to photograph brought view cameras and used 6.5″ x 8.5″ glass-plate negatives. One of the very few who did, we know for a fact, was Ansel Adams. Get lost in those “millions of people photographing,” as I suspect “Wild Bill” wants you to, and you won’t see that tree for the forest.

  • Richard Kuzniak

    My primary point was that statistics are not the best tool to use here since a diminishingly small percent compliance of visitor requirement in the way of equipment and ability does not necessarily increase the liklihood of Ansel provenance. Just one Earl Brooks working in whole-plare format in that time in that area with prints owned by descendants takes the discussion away from probability to one of forensics, exactly what it should be about, Turnage’s irrelevant bluster not withstanding.

    Also,when I mentioned vacillation, I was referring to the change in tone between your articles, of the artful, near mocking logic laden come-uppance of team Norsigian to a tone of acquiescence via Sir William of Occham. I don’t have a pony in this race either, other than respecting logic and science, but I’ll admit to thoroughly enjoying your analyses!

    • You’re misreading me and my purposes, I think.

      I would never use statistics to try to “prove” the case of authorship for either Adams or Brooks. I’ve used statistics specifically and only to disprove “Wild Bill” Turnage’s assertions that (a) millions of people were photographing at Yosemite during that decade and a half, and (b) that therefore any of them could have made those negatives. Far fewer people were photographing there than Turnage claims, and only a handful of them worked with the equipment in question. Those matters are subject, appropriately, to some elementary statistical analysis.

      Not only am I not “vacillating” in regard to the debate, I’m not “acquiescing” to Team Norsigian’s argument either. I’m simply pointing out that the known facts about these negatives, from their subject matter and physical size and type to the general geographic area of their discovery and their condition, fit more closely with known facts about Adams’s life and professional practice than they do with the same info about Brooks (at least to date). Under those circumstances, prior to any serious forensic inquiry, the Occam’s Razor principle points to Adams as the more likely author.

      As I wrote, above, “This means that I can see how Team Norsigian got to its jumping-off point, without agreeing that this justifies their subsequent leap of faith and the consequent faith-based assertions that they’ve presented to the world as proven facts.” Team Norsigian has based its assertions on that principle, not on serious investigation; that’s their fatal flaw, since Occam’s Razor can’t justify authentication.

      Which is exactly why the time has come for forensic testing and expert research, as I’ve recommended all along. No “acquiescence” involved.

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