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Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (10)

Arnold Peter, Esq.

In a desperate, pathetic attempt to bamboozle the Federal District Court in San Francisco and hoodwink the public, Arnold Peter, attorney for Team Norsigian, has asked the court to dismiss the trademark infringement suit brought against Rick Norsigian and Peter’s Beverly Hills firm PRS Media Partners, filed on August 23 by the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. (Note: PRS Media Partners is an offshoot of Peter, Rubin & Simon, LLP, the law firm representing Norsigian. PRS Media is involved in the marketing of the prints and posters, and the production of a purported documentary film about this project.) 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).

Peter asked for this dismissal on the grounds that the suit is a “brazen” effort to squelch debate on the authentication of the 65 negatives that Norsigian found and bought at a yard sale in Fresno in 2000, and has attributed to Adams — complete with sales of prints and posters derived therefrom. (See Maria Dinzeo’s report, “Dismissal Sought in Ansel Adams Dispute,” datelined September 15, 2010, in Courthouse News Service. But read with caution; the story falsely asserts that the suit represents “a copyright complaint,” when in fact it’s a trademark-infringement issue, and states that “the trust sued Rick Norsigian in October 2009,” whereas the suit was actually filed August 23, 2010.)

Peter proposes that this suit somehow impinges on and interferes with an implied public right to know in the resolution of this situation. He puts it thus in his motion to dismiss: “The lawsuit represents a brazen attempt by The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust to muzzle public, scholarly and academic dialogue concerning the authenticity of 65 glass negatives as the works of famed photographer Ansel Adams. This litigation, if allowed to proceed, will have a chilling effect on the ongoing widespread debate, which has proven to be a matter of a high level of public interest and concern.”

Collector Rick Norsigian. Image courtesy of Rick Norsigian.

In short, more absolute bullshit from Team Norsigian, the accumulation of which now clearly outweighs the significantly diminished flow of cowflop from the Adams Herd. This authentication issue remains in the public eye for only one reason: Rick Norsigian and his legal partners have chosen for ten years not to hire a reputable, qualified researcher with a deep and widely recognized knowledge of photography, competent to authenticate (or invalidate) this find as the output of Ansel Adams.

That should have happened long before Team Norsigian’s July 27 press conference and announcement of this set of negatives as “The Lost Negatives of Ansel Adams.” Instead, for the past two months they’ve run a faith-based campaign clearly intended to position Norsigian as the working-class underdog who hit the jackpot. Pretty to think so, as Hemingway wrote, but where’s the supporting evidence?

"Photography Expert" Patrick Alt's website.

As Paul Simon sings, “Faith is an island in the setting sun/but proof, proof is the bottom line for everyone.” Norsigian et al have not only failed to offer persuasive proof of their assertions, they’ve presented the public with “experts” whose expertise evaporates under scrutiny. Their primary “art expert,” Robert C. Moeller III, who has no credentials relating to photography, has since publicly recanted his attribution and switched it to the amateur “Uncle” Earl Brooks — for which assertion he still has no qualifications, I quickly add. Their second “art expert,” gallerist David W. Streets, also a know-nothing in relation to photography, has been outed as a convicted felon with a record of fraud. Patrick Alt, their “photography expert,” absolutely unqualified as a photo historian and/or researcher, hasn’t exactly recanted, but has said it’s fine with him if these turn out to have come from Brooks — nicely hedging his initial wager, in which he bet the farm on Ansel. While all this has played itself out Team Norsigian’s two vaunted criminologists, former FBI Agent and Section Chief Thomas Knowles and former Assistant United States Attorney and Legal/Supreme Court Reporter for ABC News Manny Medrano, have faded back into the pack, clearly mortified at having their incompetence in this field made manifest and hoping that their fatuous validations of supposedly unimpeachable evidence supporting Adams’s authorship will get forgotten as quickly as possible.

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

Meanwhile, Team Norsigian has deliberately turned its back on dozens of competent researchers who could have verified the provenance of these negatives (assuming that such verification is in fact possible, not a sure thing). Paying money to and/or otherwise partnering with inept and/or irrelevant twits like Moeller, Streets, Alt, Knowles, and Medrano, instead of picking up the phone to bring anyone with a substantial and pertinent track record and skill set into the equation, speaks for itself as a strategic decision.

Yet none of that really matters in relation to this Bay Area court case. The issue of authorship of these negatives exists, and persists, entirely separately from the legal question of Team Norsigian’s alleged violation of trademark law in their willful, calculated use of Ansel Adams’s trademarked name to flog a product line for profit. Does Peter believe the SF Federal District Court can’t smell a red herring when he waggles it under their noses?

No “chilling effect” on any “dialogue” eventuates from the filing of this suit, nor would it result should the court issue an injunction forbidding Team Norsigian from using Adams’s name to peddle their wares. The Adams Trust’s suit does not enjoin Team Norsigian from hiring one or more truly qualified professionals to investigate their claim and issue a public report. It does not prevent them from taking the negatives to the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, making an appointment in the CCP’s Research Center, and, in the company of their specialist(s), comparing them to the Adams materials in his archive there to verify (or not) their relation to Adams. It does not preclude me from opining about this case, as I’m doing right now, nor does it inhibit anyone else — including the general public and Team Norsigian — from doing so.

So there’s no free speech issue here, Peter’s smokescreen notwithstanding. His deceitful implication that there’s something censorious in this suit is disgraceful; he deserves public and professional condemnation for it. Censorship is a real and grave issue that merits attention whenever it truly occurs. Falsely claiming it, as Peter has done here, does damage to those who do get censored, by raising the skepticism level about any such claim.

Make no mistake about it: The only people keeping the truth about these negatives from the public are Rick Norsigian and Arnold Peter. By their staunch long-term resistance to engaging any recognized researcher in the field of photography history and conservation — dozens if not hundreds of whom accept such commissions regularly on behalf of private, corporate, and institutional collections — to submit these negatives to scrutiny and testing, they conspire to keep this “controversy” going and ensure that no hard forensic data gets produced. That collusion in a brazen campaign of obfuscation now steadily erodes any sympathy people (myself included) may have felt initially for Norsigian and his “cause.”

Peter has also claimed, in his motion to dismiss, that trademark violation doesn’t pertain here because, while Team Norsigian still asserts that the negatives are Adams’s, they’ve made it clear that someone else has made the prints. This seems to me a distinction without a difference. Another party — Carrboro, NC photographer Jesse Kalisher, to start with, and now someone unidentified taking over for him — may have made the prints, but Team Norsigian has from the beginning marketed them as prints of images made by Ansel Adams. They continue to do so. That’s trademark violation, prima facie, at least in my understanding of the law.

I predict that Peter’s rope-a-dope won’t fool the SF District Court for a minute. And I feel reasonably confident that the public — including the photo world and those who compose it — will see through this shucking and jiving as well.

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

I can understand why Peter would throw yet another Hail Mary pass on behalf of his client and his own business: they stand to lose not just credibility but money here, considerable money. If the  court finds for the Adams Trust, then Team Norsigian and their designated vendor, convicted ex-felon and Beverly Hills gallerist David W. Streets, will have to fork over whatever revenues they’ve gained from several months’ worth of sales of prints and posters. They’re liable for court costs. The court may even impose damages (though the plaintiffs, generously, have not asked for same).

Beyond that, of course, they’re going to have to eat their own expenses. That includes production costs for the prints made so far toward the 17 announced editions of 15 plus the poster, whatever fees they paid their woebegone crew of experts, legal costs, etc., etc. Not looking at all good for Team Norsigian.

So these bumblers have lost not only their momentum but any claim to some moral high ground here. Wisely, William “Wild Bill” Turnage of the Adams Trust has stopped slinging vituperative, deciding to let this play out in court — thus giving his antagonists room in which to shoot themselves in their feet repeatedly. (More on that anon.)

Beyond that, Team Norsigian now stands at a crossroads. Hiring one or more certified experts to replace the original crew of yo-yos moves them inexorably toward the point where these negatives may get formally invalidated as works by Adams, with that verdict coming from a genuinely authoritative source whose opinion the photo and art world will respect. Perhaps they’ll even get disproved (or not fully authenticated) as works by the amateur Brooks, in whom there’s now a bit of interest due to all this sturm und drang. That would leave Norsigian with 65 negatives by Anonymous, from which he might milk some revenue over time but nothing like what Team Norsigian announced as this find’s cumulative value — the ridiculous figure of $200 million proposed by Streets.

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

That prospect can’t have much appeal, even if this inquiry might also prove that Adams did indeed make these negatives — in which case Norsigian could possibly make a pretty penny by selling the negs themselves, but (due to the trademark and copyright laws) won’t have the ability to exploit them in any other way.

So they have some basis for their reluctance to initiate forensic inquiry. However, continuing to balk at undertaking a serious investigation of the negatives’ provenance will make it excruciatingly clear that Team Norsigian doesn’t want to know who made them, and adamantly refuses to find out. Which labels their entire enterprise a sham — an outcome they can’t afford, since they then lose all credibility.

So dramaturgy — what some would call the narrative arc of this story — puts the ball squarely in Team Norsigian’s court. Either they hire a skilled researcher and head to Tucson with those negatives or they fizzle out ignominiously, forever suspect as knowing frauds. For Rick Norsigian that’ll mean heartbreak, financial hardship, and perhaps sidelong looks from his neighbors at the supermarket and the pub, but he has no professional reputation or career at stake. Patrick Alt has doubtless become the butt of jokes among his colleagues, but that won’t likely affect sales of his alternative-processes large-format conventional landscapes and cheesecake photos.

But for the others in Team Norsigian — Streets, Moeller, Knowles, Medrano, and especially Arnold Peter and his legal colleagues, Barbara M. Rubin and Jody Simon, who partner with him in both their eponymous law firm and in PRS Media Partners — the professional repercussions could prove substantial. They’ve all put reputations on the line here with unequivocal statements of absolute confidence in Adams’s authorship and their own credentials and skill sets for establishing that as fact. If they’ve erred, and have done so, egregiously and flamboyantly, on an international stage that they themselves commandeered, who will ever again take any of them seriously?

Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, Team Norsigian, I predict, will hire a pro and head to Tucson with those negs. That would demonstrate at least a good-faith commitment to discovering the truth, whatever it may be. They can do that even if, as I anticipate, the Federal District Court forces them to cease and desist in using Adams’s name. It’s the only honorable course open to them. Let’s see if they take it.

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4 comments to Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (10)

  • Richard Kuzniak

    The fact that anyone thinks that this is somehow a “debate” and that that is an appropriate mechanism for the resolution of provenance shows where their head is. HINT: They see large intestine in every direction they look.
    I would hope that a judge will immediately see through the blatant irrelevance of Peter’s motion.

  • Milka

    Most thinking folk who are little impressed by “big” names (Adams) are bemused by this silly tempest in a tea pot of “an art form of the second rate” according to Picasso or “pretty postcards” according to a famous contemporary of the celebrated pianist turned photographer. It is of course all about money and control of it.

    The Adams name having been hyped as a great photographer brings in the money; one can imagine the upheaval and consternation among the pseudo art photo curators in galleries and auction houses all watching to see how this plays out $$$$$. People buy names, they don’t by “pitchers,” the galleries hype it up and the auction houses are right there with them. Want proof – announce that the overhyped Moon over whatever ” is proven to be by photographer X and not the celebrated Adams , and just watch the price drop and all the curators rush to point out why it is not as good as they once thought. The art world for the most part has a smell about it, the world of photography even more so.

    • Regardless of my opinion (or yours) of the importance of the images in question, and my estimation (or yours) of the various parties involved, this remains the highest-profile situation to date involving the issue of authentication of a set of photographs. Thus, as I’ve written previously, it’s a chance for professionals in the field of photography to demonstrate the possibility of verifying (or not) the authorship of these works.

      That’s a form of applied scholarship, a skill set that underpins any inquiry into any form of material culture. Either photo research and historianship have risen to that level, or they haven’t. Now we have an opportunity to find out. So, if we can get past the bluster of the Adams Herd and the smoke-blowing of Team Norsigian, a real test of investigative abilities awaits.

      I don’t detect the slightest “consternation” among the auctioneers and gallerists and private dealers pending the outcome here. Either way, it’ll have no effect at all on the prices for authenticated Adams prints. What concerns me is the possible widespread public misapprehension that there are no procedures in place for determining who actually made a particular photographic print, or who actually made the negative from which it was derived. I wouldn’t see that as a happy end result.

      As for how “most thinking folk” respond to this situation . . apparently you’re in touch with them, and delegated to speak on their behalf. My opinions are strictly my own.

  • Milka

    “most thinking folk ” — you noticed !, — Having been for many decades involved in the “art field” of museums , galleries, & lecturer etc. one is, believe it or not, in touch many times with “thinking folk” who like yourself have their own opinions. While many times these opinions are similar one does not deem to comment as a delegate of this shared opinion Your swipe was unnecessary.

    You seem to be overly concerned as to what the public will think in determining the veracity of a print ,while they are in truth concerned mostly over the signature as are auction houses and galleries .A second rate work by Adams will command more $$ than a first rate by photograper X

    Dealers I have spoken with are “quietly” concerned ,where will this take us ? hopefully not into the world of Dali signatures. You have been around long enough to know it is mostly hype.

    Years ago when the copyright laws were evolving I was invited to an exhibit by a world famous photographer ,I attended along with many celebrated photraphers, while we all were in conversation I pulled a print from an envelope( it was a famous portrait) and everything became quiet as the star of the show was staring at it not speaking, finally he asked quietly where did you get that – having recognized it as an early original printing of the now famous work-minus signature and copyright -he looked nervous but at last laughed when I said “Forget where I got it just sign it and don’t forget the C. He quickly signed it and a big C was circled . It is all about signature

    The simple and best way to resolve this problem is to go for the signature – if it”s there, and not faked (this being the art world ) then it is to be considered as by the artist ,or at least with his approval -if no signature then use the age old attributed to – or better- “from a negative attributed to ” This of course will fly as a ton of bricks with auction houses and dealers, and would work only with the already famous -(as trophies to hang) a Geo Schmo signed print means nothing until he is hyped into fame . But that’s another game .

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