Nearby Café Home > Art & Photography > Photocritic International

Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (8)

I find it charming that the moniker I hung on Rick Norsigian and his posse, Team Norsigian, appears to have taken hold — especially with Team Norsigian, which now self-identifies this way. At this rate, with any luck, William Turnage, managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, will become known to the ages as “Wild Bill” henceforth.

"DWS and Sly Stallone May 15, 2008," from Streets's Facebook album.

Things haven’t gone well for Team Norsigian in their month-long effort to persuade the world that Rick Norsigian bought 65 gen-u-wine Ansel Adams negatives for $45 at a yard sale in Y2K. Their cluster of presumed experts have mostly had the plausibility and/or relevance of their credentials impeached. David W. Streets, the Beverly Hills gallerist handling the marketing of prints and posters of these images, has been outed as a convicted felon. The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust has filed suit against them in San Francisco Federal District Court for trademark violation. An increasingly plausible alternative, “Uncle” Earl Brooks, has been proposed. (See below.)

And the hits just keep coming:

• Irving Schwartz, the Fresno dealer from whom Rick Norsigian claims to have purchased these negatives in 2000, has changed his story completely (to the extent that he’ll tell it at all). Initially, according to Norsigian, Schwartz stated that he’d bought them as salvage from a Pasadena warehouse sale in the early 1940s. Now, again according to Norsigian, Schwartz asserts that he got the negatives instead from “a person in Huntington Beach with a large family,” and that he “’bartered for the negatives’ in exchange for a statue that he was selling as part of his business (manufacturing figurines, furniture, trinkets and the like).” Schwartz claims that he can prove “without a doubt” who traded him for the negatives, but refuses to do so without compensation. (See Team Norsigian press release, August 15, 2010.) This raises numerous questions about the provenance of these artifacts, and about the credibility of Norsigian’s seller.

Collector Rick Norsigian. Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

• Rick Norsigian has told several versions of the story of his initial relationship to these negatives. In the original press release from Team Norsigian, dated July 21, 2010, he says, “You look at these photographs and they take your breath away. But it is even more meaningful and rewarding to finally have the leading experts confirm what I believed in my heart when I saw the images for the first time.” [Italics mine. Note also how those supposed “experts” have morphed in his comment to “the leading experts.”] At the initial press conference a few days later, however, Norsigian reportedly said that he “kept the glass plates under his pool table for four years before realizing they might be too valuable to store at home. . . . It would be two years before Norsigian realized the photos might be from Adams, he said.”

• California State University, Fresno won’t show the work in October, as announced last month by Team Norsigian. According to an August 20 news report, “Shirley Armbruster, a spokeswoman for the university, said this week that the event space is booked.” Armbruster had no other comment to make, aside from indicating that the decision had nothing to do with the brouhaha, the pending lawsuit, or anything except logistical issues. This showing was tentatively arranged by Arnold Peter, Norsigian’s attorney, a Fresno State alumnus and a man demonstrably inclined to count poultry long before it emerges from the shell.

Arnold Peter, Esq.

• Just one week later, the screening of a film about the discovery of these disputed “lost negatives” of Ansel Adams scheduled for sometime in October at California State University, Fresno was canceled by Peter, who also serves as the film’s executive producer. (Not coincidentally, Arnold is also part of PRS Media Partners, which is managing the whole Norsigian enterprise. This appears to be an offshoot of Peter, Rubin & Simon, LLP, which describes itself as “a full-service boutique firm offering expertise across a wide spectrum of practice areas covering entertainment transactions, labor, employment, compliance and litigation.”) According to an August 27 story by Kevin Flynn in the New York Times, “Mr. Peter, who is executive producer of the film, told the university last week that he no longer wanted to screen the film there. He said in a statement to The Bay Citizen on Friday that the screening no longer made sense because Mr. Adams’s grandson [Matthew Adams], and the managing director of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust [William Turnage], who dispute that the 65 negatives are the work of the famous photographer, had not agreed to take part in a discussion at the screening.” (The report concludes, “Mr. Peter said that material from the current debate is being added to the film, which should be finished by the end of October, at which time screenings will be arranged.”)

• Simultaneously, the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ, which Adams co-founded and which had so far maintained a neutral position in the debate, issued the following statement on Friday, August 27: “We have no reason to believe that these negatives are, in fact, the work of Ansel Adams, and we support the efforts of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust to protect its rights in this matter.” I suspect this resulted from Team Norsigian’s public badgering of CCP management and staff in combination with its attempts to claim that the CCP has authenticated some of its purported evidence — this despite the fact, that, as I stated in a response to a comment by attorney Peter, “no one representing Team Norsigian who knows anything about photography has ever visited the CCP. There’s no excuse for that.” (Note: the CCP’s statement does not preclude Team Norsigian from visiting the Center and making use of its resources in their research. High time for Team Norsigian to explain why they’ve refused to do that for the past decade. All the same, I don’t understand why the CCP has seen fit to issue an opinion on this matter one way or the other, especially since no member of its staff has ever seen any of the original Norsigian materials. I hope this didn’t result from pressure from the Adams Trust, to which the CCP has umbilical ties.)

"Photography Expert" Patrick Alt's website.

• Team Norsigian’s “photo expert,” Patrick Alt, initially pronounced at the July 27 press conference unveiling these negatives as follows: “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.” Sounds unequivocal to me. Nowadays, however, according to the Los Angeles Times, Alt “would not be upset if the negatives prove to have been taken by a previously unknown photographer, Earl Brooks . . . ‘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.’” Hmmmm — not so unequivocal.

Robert C. Moeller III's website.

• Most recently, another member of Team Norsigian — its “art expert,” Robert C. Moeller III, former curator of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Director of the Duke University Art Museum, now a private dealer and consultant based in Jackson Hole, WY — simply jumped ship. In Team Norsigian’s “Final Report of Investigative Team” he declared that “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.” Then, on August 30, he reversed himself. Now, after two weeks of close study, he’s concluded that at least some of the negatives were made by Earl Brooks. “I made a mistake,” said Mr. Moeller. (See Reyhan Harmanci’s August 30 New York Times story, “A Turnaround in Ansel Adams Photo Dispute.”) “My report, which said there was a high probability that Ansel Adams took the photos, has got to change. . . . Maybe I kind of wanted them to be Ansel Adams,” Moeller continued. Oops. That’s the sort of error that can do serious and even permanent harm to one’s professional reputation in the field.

"Sotheby's Lisa Arden and DWS- Passover Seder/Spago 2008," from Streets's Facebook album.

• Last but not least, based on all of the above it seems probable that the announced exhibition of the “Lost Photographs of Ansel Adams” at the David W. Streets Gallery in late September will get cancelled, due to the same Adams Trust lawsuit. If not, I anticipate the Adams Trust will file suit against Streets as well, since this exhibition defines itself not only as a showcase for these images but a point-of-sale moment for the prints, all using Adams’s trademarked name. You read it here first.


Earl Brooks. Detail of photo by Graham Hughes.

The most-likely-case alternative scenario, at the moment, proposes “Uncle” Earl Brooks as the maker of these negatives. This claim, originally brought forward by his niece, Miriam Walton of Fresno, has its basis in her possession of some prints by Brooks that resemble very closely several of the Norsigian “Adams” images. The similarity has been confirmed, tentatively, by San Francisco gallerist Scott Nichols, who has announced his intention of including some of the Brooks prints in an upcoming fall 2010 show of works by Adams and his assistants.

Information about Brooks remains skimpy at best. Walton, who lost track of him in her teens, initially described him as a lifelong Fresno resident who traveled widely. However, according to his stepdaughter, Marge Bloomer, who lives in suburban Montreal, he was not a Fresnan. Instead, according to a Canadian newspaper report by Andy Blachford, “Born in Visalia, Calif. [ca. 1898], the well-read Brooks studied at Stanford University and was an ambulance driver in France during the First World War. . . . [He] moved to the East Coast in 1926, but took his family on two big road trips out west in the 1930s, hoping to capture natural wonders with his lens along the way. Bloomer recalled how he later tried to sell the photos to National Geographic to help pay for the journeys. He was rejected.” He died in 1978.

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

So we have Brooks as an East Coast professional photographer who ran a portrait studio in Delaware, “where he took portraits for wealthy clients, including the famed Du Pont family,” but who photographed on the west coast, including Yosemite. That would explain the skill level necessary to make these negatives. It wouldn’t explain how, with fire damage evident on some of them, they ended up in the hands of private parties in Huntington Beach, CA.

Ansel Adams's signature

Ansel Adams's signature

Arnold Peter, attorney for Norsigian and spearhead of Team Norsigian, has attempted to discredit claims that Brooks made these negatives by telling a reporter that “the fact that Walton has a similar print proves nothing. Her relatives could have purchased it from a Yosemite souvenir shop where Adams peddled prints early in his career, Peter said. Or it could have been one of many Adams gave away as gifts.” A specious argument at best. Adams is not on record as ever selling at Yosemite or giving away prints that did not bear his name, either stamped on the print or inscribed. (See “If not Ansel Adams, then who took garage-sale photos?” by Alan Duke, CNN, July 30.)

If forensic scrutiny determines that Brooks did in fact make them, Team Norsigian will have a much less valuable set of negatives on its hands. But, ironically, they’ll face the same legal problem they now confront in relation to the Ansel Adams Trust: Copyright law dictates that unpublished works have copyright protection for 70 years after the author’s death, which in Brooks’s case means 2048. Aside from selling the negatives outright, they can’t do anything with them — at least not without negotiating some arrangement with Brooks’s heirs and assigns, whomever they may be.

Probably worth everyone’s while. If these negatives do get traced to Brooks, Team Norsigian will deserve credit for making him an internationally recognized name. Not their plan, obviously. But, following the famous advice, they could make some lemonade.

Part 11 of 14: 12345678 I 9 I 10 I 11 I 121314

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

10 comments to Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (8)

  • Richard Kuzniak

    Ah man, this is just getting too easy. After they keep shooting themselves in the foot, we can’t expect them to quit limping around!

    Interesting that after Moeller bailed, Peter has become the de facto expert advocating continuing the farce and again not understanding or appreciating evidence. The fact that there is one Brooks print that but for subsequent damage to the neg is identical to the Norsigian neg should give anyone pause. …[pause]…hmmm, which is more likely, Ansel giving away or selling unsigned (and the only known copies of) prints and then losing THOSE negs or that Earl Brooks’ family misplaced his negs over the years?

    Maybe THIS is a more fertile ground for the application of Occham’s razor…

    • I can’t wait till we leave the territory of hypothesis and speculation — home-field advantage for William of Ockham — and get to actual forensic research on this.

      Unfortunately, that won’t happen immediately. As I understand it, presently we have only four examples of vintage prints attributed to Earl Brooks, none of his negatives, and no other information about his photographic practice. That limits anyone’s ability to do detailed comparisons with the Norsigian negatives, assuming that high-quality prints or hi-res scans of the Norsigian negatives were available.

      Meanwhile, Team Norsigian hasn’t actually raced to the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson with those materials, to compare them with the wealth of Adams negatives there. So that’s still pending.

      Plus we have a court date coming up sometime soon for the suit filed by the Adams Trust. And the still-planned show and sale at the David W. Streets Gallery in Beverly Hills. So I suspect more PR and legal shenanigans await before rational scrutiny of the evidence sets in.

  • Speaking of monikers, just wondering, why the dignified “Team Norsigian,” but on the other side the derogatory “Adams Herd”?

    • I found the initial comments on this situation by William Turnage of the Adams Trust and Matthew Adams of the Adams Gallery deeply offensive, worthy of description as “cowflop.” Due to their common interests, those two corporate entities tend to think and act in tandem, as in this case. Their early responses also had an air of panicked stampede. The “herd” image arose out of all that.

      I used “Team Norsigian” sardonically, as I assumed the reader would glean from the context — a series of posts in which I’ve challenged the credibility of most of their experts and the content of almost all their public utterances. (It helps that they defined themselves as a “team” from the outset.) That tag takes on even more of an edge as the posse begins to fall apart, starting with yesterday’s defection of “art expert” Robert C. Moeller III. Assuming that others fly (or have already flown) the coop, it’ll take on more such nuance. So I don’t consider it flattering, or even value-neutral, in conjunction with my posts.

  • Ken Nelson

    Interesting; the only remaining fundamental pillar used by Team Norsigian to connect these negatives to Ansel Adams that remains unchallenged (to the point of being accepted at face value), is the assertion that the damage evident on some of these negatives occurred by fire.

    The only source for this assertion that I can see is in Team Norsigian’s “Final Report…” via Patrick Alt, whose credentials as an Adams Scholar and Photographic Expert have been rightly reduced to “junk-bond” status by Mr. Coleman. My own reading of the “Final Report” also reveals that Mr. Alt’s understanding of the chemistry of photographic development is equally laughable.

    So why is seemingly everyone involved, including the surgically skeptical Mr. Coleman, willing to accept that Mr. Alt is somehow also enough of a photographic materials scientist and conservator to determine as fact that the damage to Norsigian’s negatives resulted from fire, and not from some other cause? Seems to me like another case of (questionable) evidence being twisted to fit theory.

    Damage to a gelatin emulsion by moisture, and subsequent destruction of the moist gelatin itself by mold and mildew, often results in blackish or brownish stains, flakes, and residues that could possibly (I’d like to say “quite possibly” but that would be an editorial leap) be mistaken for fire damage. The possibility that the residues on Norsigian’s negatives could have been caused by moisture rather than fire becomes even more plausible in light of Team Norsigian’s original claim that the negatives were purchased at a warehouse liquidation sale (pardon the pun), especially if the warehouse had no climate control for all the years the negatives were in storage there, sleeved and wrapped as they apparently were, in moisture-loving paper. The images used by Alt in the “Final Report” to support of the ‘Fire Theory’ are also consistent with the look of prints made from moisture- or mold-damaged gelatin-silver glass plate negatives.

    Seconding Mr. Coleman in intent, determining whether the gelatin on these glass plates was either burned or got moldy would be straightforward in a photographic conservation laboratory, but I don’t believe Team Norsigian would ever allow even one negative to go out on that particular 50/50 limb.

    On the other hand, determining quote “…the fact [italics mine] that some of the Norsigian negatives were clearly salvaged from a fire, rewashed to remove soot and ash, then re-sleeved…” as Mr. Coleman says in his 10th chapter of this saga, apparently deduced just by looking at the images presented in the Norsigian “Final Report” and elsewhere, short of a scientific examination of the negatives themselves, is patently impossible.

    But, we all NEED the ‘Fire Damage Theory’ to stay “in play”!! After all, Team Norsigian’s house of cards is largely built upon this sand. And, it also provides Mr. Coleman with fantastic grist for his excellent and necessary editorial mill. And, without all of this, all of us avid readers of all of this information, Photocritic International, Team Norsigian, the Adams Camp, the NY Times and all the other sources, would be that much closer to having not much interesting to read…

    I’d ask “who’s got the movie rights to this romp?” but Oops, Team Norsigian does, and has withdrawn their premiere showing in Fresno. Carry on!

    • You’re absolutely right. I’ve taken Team Norsigian’s assertion of fire damage largely on faith, supported by minimal second-hand visual evidence — online jpegs of Norsigian holding up one of the damaged negs, and another online jpeg made from a print from one such negative or a scan thereof. I shouldn’t rely on Team Norsigian for accuracy in relation to any facts, as my own investigation proves. So I stand corrected, and will pursue this in my next post.

      In an earlier post, I indicated my own interest in optioning the rights to the Hollywood film about this debacle. (Forget the documentary — no money in that.) I guess whichever of us shows up first with a check and an option contract wins.

  • Ken Nelson

    Game on! One of my hands is searching my pockets for coins, the other is writing “option contract” on a sheet of paper, as we speak.

    How should it be titled? “Fatal Attraction” and “Blow-Up” are already taken. “Obsession” is cool, but would be yet [i]another[/i] trademark infringement.

    Oh heck. Nevermind. I think I’ll opt for a share of what the Adams Trust lawyers will get.

  • Thanks for the clarification, but I hardly see thinking/acting in tandem. From the beginning, Matthew Adams has distanced himself from Turnage, refusing to accuse Norsigian of fraud. Like I commented on the initial post, I think his only objectionable move has been to use the term “original prints”. While the use of the term is unfortunate because it has a more precise meaning in photographic printmaking, I don’t find it “deeply offensive”, when the underlying idea – that the Norsigian prints aren’t that valuable because not made/approved by Adams – is so easily understood.

    • I see this differently. The ties between the Adams Gallery and the Adams Trust are umbilical. These people know each other both personally and professionally. They’ve collaborated for years. They communicate with each other on a regular basis. They’re linked by their mutual interest in maximizing profits off the Adams brand and product line, and by contractual relationships.

      Norsigian and his confreres have been “reaching out” to both the Adams Gallery and the Adams Trust for years. Therefore this can’t have taken either of those entities by surprise. They’ve had ample time to plan their response. It’s naive to think that response was neither calculated nor coordinated.

      Matthew Adams has in no way “distanced himself from Turnage.” He has never publicly rejected any of Turnage’s assertions about Team Norsigian. What they’ve done is play hard cop (Turnage) and con cop (Adams).

  • Allan,
    Thanks for your incisive and accurate reports as this debacle continues to test the limits of rational thought (well, at least mine). The other blogs I subscribe to are suffering from neglect!

    The world is watching – voyeuristically, at least. Keep up the good work.

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>