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Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (9)

“I am simply an observer, who states facts. . . . I invent nothing.”

— Émile Zola, “Naturalism on the Stage” (1878)

Emile Zola

With Zola’s guideline in mind, a retraction. Heretofore, I’ve taken at face value Team Norsigian’s assertion that some of the glass-plate negatives purchased by Rick Norsigian in Fresno in 2000 show evidence of fire damage — which, in turn, suggests a possible connection to Ansel Adams, who lost some 5000 negatives (including negatives like these) in a 1937 Yosemite studio fire.

Reader Ken Nelson points out that, since Team Norsigian has performed no forensic tests on these negatives so far, the ascription of fire as the cause of this damage remains speculative at best. Nelson writes, in part:

“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 . . . 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 . . . 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 the ‘Fire Theory’ are also consistent with the look of prints made from moisture- or mold-damaged gelatin-silver glass plate negatives.”

Examples of "fire-damaged" negatives, from Team Norsigian's "Final Report."

Nelson is right, so I stand corrected. Given the general ineptitude and cavalier attitude toward precision and accuracy manifested by Team Norsigian’s “experts,” I should have looked more closely at their conclusion that the damaged emulsion on some of these negatives resulted from fire. I don’t automatically assume that conclusion is wrong, but I’ll await forensic testing before repeating that proposition as if it were fact.

Another of my close readers, Colleen Thornton, visiting me this past week, independently raised the issue to which Nelson refers in passing — the storing of these negatives in manila envelopes, and the wrapping of those envelopes in newspaper pages from 1942-43. Newspaper inks contained volatile chemicals. Wartime newsprint was mostly wood pulp, highly acidic and quick to deteriorate. Manila envelopes were not much better from an archival standpoint. Paper absorbs moisture, anathema to negatives. For which reasons savvy photographers of the period usually (though not always) stored their negatives in translucent glassine envelopes.

I alluded to this in a previous post, suggesting that forensic inquiry should include the question of whether Adams ever used paper storage envelopes instead of glassine. The use of paper sleeves for that purpose is hardly unheard of, and the hot, dry weather of southern California would minimize risks resulting from humidity. Still, it’s a possible clue, part of the (forgive me) paper trail that could help to establish or disprove authorship.

Robert C. Moeller III's website.

Team Norsigian has now fully entered damage-control mode. Their latest press release seeks to minimize the significance of the recantation by the team’s “art expert,” Robert C. Moeller III, of his guarded authentication of the negatives as produced by Adams. This release makes the argument (ingenious, desperate, or both, depending on your point of view) that since no evidence yet confirms that “Uncle” Earl Brooks made the negatives from which came the prints now in possession of his niece, Miriam Walton, of Fresno, it’s possible that Adams made them. In short, Norsigian attorney and team quarterback Arnold Peter throws a Hail Mary pass.

Earl Brooks. Detail of photo by Graham Hughes.

This requires a narrative in which Adams either sells or gives away unmounted, unsigned, and completely unidentified and unidentifiable exhibition-quality prints — which he’s not otherwise known to have done — after which they somehow come into the possession of the Brooks/Walton clan, with “Uncle Earl” handwritten on the back of one of the prints. I regret to report that my chum William of Ockham doesn’t look kindly on this explanation. With that said, we still know little about Brooks, and attribution to him of the prints owned by his niece, not to mention the Norsigian negatives, requires considerable further investigation

Damage control definitely includes CYA activity. At the Norsigian website, this new pop-up caveat emptor comes on-screen when you click on any of the images to order a print thereof:

Disclaimer to purchaser

This darkroom/digital print (or poster when applicable), is sold as is. The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust (“Adams Trust”) has not endorsed, condoned, sponsored, participated or otherwise approved of the sale of this print (poster when applicable). Further, the Adams Trust has not authenticated this print to be an original, or derivative work of Ansel Adams or anyone affiliated with the late artist or his trust.

The expert report cited on the “Lost Negatives” website is an opinion of authenticity and in no way represents a judicially enforceable or generally accepted certificate or warranty of authenticity. Seller makes no guarantee as to the authenticity, or present and/or future value of the print that you have agreed to purchase.
 The entire risk as to the quality and authenticity of the print described above is with the buyer.

The ship of fools, depicted in a 1549 German woodcut.

Commonly, an art dealer provides a certificate of authentication with the sale of a work — especially when said dealer has had a supervisory and/or sponsorial role in that work’s production. This “buyer beware” warning has no precedent I know of in the photography market. It should instantly raise a red flag for any prospective purchaser, particularly since it appears at a site where otherwise the words “authentication,” “authenticated,” “expert opinion,” and “by Ansel Adams” get sprinkled around like minced parsley on the specials at a yuppie brunch spot. Not to mention an international media environment in which Team Norsigian’s leaders continue to insist on the authenticity claimed.

Team Norsigian begins to resemble the medieval “ship of fools”: a transportable dumping ground for those considered one brick shy of a load by their communities. With this disclaimer, they invite others to hop on board. They need to redeem themselves, and quickly.

The necessary next step for Team Norsigian: A visit to the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ, and the spending of time in the CCP’s Research Center by one or more designated and reputable photo researchers, recognized as qualified by the photography world. If answers to this lie anywhere, it’s in the holdings of the CCP’s Ansel Adams archive, the largest such collection in the world.

Team Norsigian should undertake this soon, despite the fact that the Center has opted to enter the fray by siding with the Adams Trust in re the trademark-violation lawsuit. (The case is Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust v. PRS Media Partners LLC, 3:10-cv-03740, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California — San Francisco.) Why Katharine Martinez of the CCP chose to do so mystifies me; the Center is not party to that suit, and its endorsement thereof has no bearing on the case. Martinez, as the CCP’s new director, has also opined that the negatives — on which neither she nor any Center staffer has laid eyes — are not by Adams, another irrelevant assertion. (See Mike Boehm’s September 1 story in the Los Angeles Times“Ansel Adams archive enters the fray.”

Katharine Martinez, incoming CCP Director.

There’s no requirement for the CCP to take or maintain a position in this matter. The Library of Congress doesn’t weigh in on disputes over authorship of the published books and manuscripts it houses. Better the Center had remained neutral ground, despite Team Norsigian’s repeated on-the-record efforts to inveigle its staff into pronouncing on this matter and what I now assume were Adams Trust pressures along the same lines.

Be that as it may, this is Team Norsigian’s next stop. I assume that, even having erred by inappropriately taking sides in this dispute, the CCP will treat the Norsigian posse with the same courtesy as they treat other researchers, and offer them the same impartial, skillful assistance they’ve provided to so many (myself included). Certainly comparison of the Norsigian negatives and prints therefrom with Adams negatives and prints therefrom would rank high on the list of crucial tests. Leslie Calmes, CCP Associate Librarian and supervisor of the Adams archive, is quoted in the LA Times story as saying, “They could make a research appointment and come in and do that.” Team Norsigian should take her at her word, and make that call.

One sidebar lesson derivable from this contentious situation concerns the speed at which not only information but misinformation and disinformation goes viral on the web. Just a few of the blatant untruths now embedded permanently in the cumulative, collective web account of this scenario, all citable from multiple credible sources:

• Ansel Adams’s print “Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park” brought $722,500 at auction this summer in New York, setting “a record for 20th century photography.” Fact: This was a record for Adams, not for “20th-century photography.” (See it here in an Associated Press story at MSNBC.)

• Rick Norsigian is both an “artist” and an “art teacher.” Fact: Norsigian paints walls for the Fresno school system as a day job, and does some independent contracting. Perfectly respectable trades. He does not produce visual art in any form. (See the “artist” bit here at the Los Angeles Times, and the “art teacher” bit here, at 2Space, via AFP.)

"The Ship of Fools," c. 1490-1500, by Hieronymus Bosch.

• Rick Norsigian “has become an overnight multimillionaire” from these negatives. Fact: Aside from whatever print and poster sales have occurred through the Streets Gallery (proceeds from which will likely get turned over to the Adams Trust, if that lawsuit succeeds), Norsigian has made no money from the negatives. (See it here on Yahoo! News, via AFP.)

• These negatives are worth USD $200 million. Fact: The only individuals who have asserted that these negatives are worth that amount are Arnold Peter, Esq. attorney for Norsigian; Norsigian himself; and Beverly Hills gallerist David W. Streets. Peter and Norsigian have based their statements on an evaluation by Streets. Both Streets, a dodgy character with a criminal record, and his evaluation have been scoffed at internationally. (See it here at the Macau Daily Times.)

• A “team of experts” has authenticated these negatives. Fact: The expertise of most of Team Norsigian’s troupe of experts has been widely derided and dismissed. Notably, instead of coming to their defense, attorney Arnold Peter has remained absolutely silent on that score. And, instead of coming to their own defense, they’ve vanished back into the woodwork. Nonetheless, the myth of their savvy persists. (See it here at ArtDaily, via the AP.)

These factoids have morphed into tropes, or memes, or both. Now they’re with us forever.

For an index of links to all previous posts related to this story, click here.

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4 comments to Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (9)

  • Richard Kuzniak

    Has anyone seen actual FORENSIC proof of anything? I don’t even recall seeing an exemplar of Virginia’s writing posted to compare to the writing on the neg sleeves, and this (confirmation that Virginia wrote on the sleeves)was one of the cited conclusions produced by TWO experts. Was money spent on spectroscopic analysis of the negs for fire residue? Any conclusions on who manufactured the plates, the envelopes, the plate-holders and how they compare to known samples used by Ansel? You’re right Mr. Coleman. Time to give William O a rest and get physicscal and chemical. Don’t be surprised to see more bailings as the experts try to salvage their reputations. I would love to know what percent of money spent (and by whom exactly!) went into real forensic testing rather than honorariums.

  • Richard Kuzniak

    You would think that lawyers, who traditionally claim to understand the concept of reasonable doubt, would defer to this bit of common sense and halt all print sales until acceptable proof of provenance was provided. Seems like that’s not the case and they have instead appended that rather lame caveat emptor statement. I do wonder how all this would have played out if we didn’t have the Uncle Earl spanner thrown into the works. Scary.

  • Ken Nelson

    My all-time favorite bumper-sticker, seen once in the 90’s, is “Too bad ignorance Isn’t painful.” Adopting it to Mr. Coleman’s credo, we arrive at “Too bad dumbness isn’t painful.”

    Caveat emptor is just that. Caveat emptor. In this situation, those willing to emptor the caveat, so to speak, deserve what they get. Nuff said.

    Ken Nelson

  • Ken Nelson

    Forensic testing of the Norsigian negatives = possible solution.

    This equation seems “black-and-white” to me.

    Come on guys, support your claim!

    Ken Nelson

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