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Guest Post 7: Patrick Alt on the Norsigian/Adams Negatives

Patrick Alt's website

[On October 1 I received the following in the form of a Comment posted to this blog, sent by photographer Patrick Alt. As a member of what I've dubbed Team Norsigian, the group intent on convincing the world that a set of anonymous glass-plate negatives found in 2000 at a yard sale were made by Ansel Adams, Alt contributed substantially to that cohort's "final report," “The Lost Negatives of Ansel Adams” in his role as the team's designated "photo expert." He also declared, at the July 27 press conference held by Team Norsigian, “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.” As a result, Alt has been interviewed by and quoted in a wide variety of periodicals, thereby becoming the subject of numerous comments from my end throughout the course of my coverage of this story.

Due to the length of his response (over 2100 words), I proposed to Alt the conversion of his Comment to this Guest Post. As I wrote to him in an email on October 2, "Publishing your comment as a Guest Post would make it the main page of the blog for several days, definitely maximizing the number of readers who'd find it. As a comment, it will only get seen by people who visit that earlier post and scroll down to the Comments section. In my experience, people will read lengthy posts but won't usually read lengthy comments." With his subsequent consent, I'm presenting it as written in this form now. I'll save my response for a subsequent post. — A. D. C.]

A Statement

by Patrick Alt

Mr. Coleman,

I have been wanting to respond and clarify much of the misinformation and just general bullshit contained in your blog regarding the Norsigian negatives from one who was involved in this inquiery from the very beginning. I do apologize for this delay in responding as I have just been released from the hospital for my 2nd major cancer surgery this year and my physical strength is not up to it’s normal high level.

Patrick Alt, "Moving train and grain silo," Hereford, Texas, 2007

I have thought long and hard as how to respond to your snarky comments and attacks on both my professional qualifications and unnecessarily on my work, which is not at all relevant in this dialoque. I have spent so much time in interviews with everyone from the LA Times to the New York Times in explaining my qualifications to add to the dialogue of the Norsigian plates, but none of whom felt compelled to publish this information. I have decided to risk the possiblility of he who doth protest to much so that a true picture of who I am and my qualifications will stand.

Actually you and I met 29 years ago in Los Angeles when you were contracted to curate an exhibition of erotic photography for a gallery run by Richard Sullivan of Bostick and Sullivan, the company who currently supplies chemicals to those of us engaged in alternative process print making. Of the 182 images you selected for the show, I was the only one chosen to have 5 images. A few had either 2 or 3 and the rest single images. So there was something in my work at one point you positively responded to. Just a little aside.

Patrick Alt, "The Goddess Images - Jasmine with Finger Extensions," 2006

I have a BFA from Cal Arts and an MFA from UC Irvine, at the time considered with Yale the 2 best graduate programs in the country. 3 of the years I spent in school I worked in the arts library where my job was to stamp, number, and file, all of the art books acquired for the library. It allowed me time to go through each of the hundreds of books that passed over my desk. In addition to the art history classes I attended this gave me an enormous grounding and passion for art and photo history, which continues to this day.

My own library contains hundreds of volumes of monographs, biographies histories, and critical writings (including all of yours). These bookcases are floor to ceiling and take up entire walls. I read and study almost everyday and have for almost 40 years in addition to my own ongoing work. I will put my art knowledge up against just about anyone, including you. So how does this unqualify me as a photo expert? To say my expertise evaporates under scrutiny, whose scrutiny are you talking about as it certainly wasn’t yours. Your arrogance in assuming the only path to knowledge must run through some graduate academic program is unbecoming of you and an insult to me.

Patrick Alt, "The Arch and concrete wall," St. Louis, MO, 2008

So let me illuminate my involvment in all of this and the time line of my participation. I was contacted by phone by a representative of Anold Peter’s office and was given a brief outline of the Norsigian find. I was of course curious as to how they found me and was told they did an extensive 3 day internet search and it was my name they kept coming up with.

I was to be retained not as a research historian as they already had Bob Moeller [Robert C. Moeller III] working on this, but wanted my encyclapedic knowledge of cameras, lenses, and the more technical aspects of the plates. I spent a great deal of time looking at all 65 of the plates, examining the condition of the emulsions on the glass, as well as looking at the images themselves. In the first meeting, people were excited by what they thought were Ansel’s fingerprints. In fact they were just Newton Rings, a common occurence when two shiny surfaces are placed on top of each other. Only a working practioner would know this and as such this was my first contribution.

Patrick Alt, "Altarpiece to the Woman of the Trees," 2006

I have all of Ansel’s books as well as seeing his work repeatedly over the years, so I felt as qualified as any lay person to look at the work and submit my emotional appraisal over what I saw. I felt very strongly at the time the images were indeed made by Ansel as to me his compositional strategies and attention to the atmospherics of the image were very close to what would become his signature attributes. I had to remind everyone that these images would have been taken by him in his 20′s, a time any practioner knows is the time of exploration and development on one’s unique vision. This still hold true, but this fact seems to be lost in much of the dialogue about the plates.

I stated at the very first meeting that even though Bob Moeller brought an incredible research aesthetic to the project, I warned everyone then, that to not have a recognized photo historian on board would be how the attacks, when they came, would be directed. My extensive knowledge of how the photo world works was never listened to and I was subsequently sent out to left field with no further imput on my part. My participation was now over.

Patrick Alt, "The Goddess Images - Christine with Bamboo," 2007

I had a chance to spend some time getting to know Rick Norsigian and a more honest and honorable guy would be hard to find. This quest of his has always centered on finding the truth. It was his unfortunate meeting with Arnold Peter when everything fell apart. I finished my 14 page report, turned it in, and that was my last contact with the team. [Click here for the complete text of Alt's "Report on My Observations on the Norsigian Glass Plate Negatives."] I was never to be included in any finacial gains to be made from any future sales, etc. I was to do my report from a technical basis only to add to what Bob Moeller was able to find out.

Now my reputation in the photo world as an expert in cameras, lenses, and other aspects of working photographers is very extensive and wide spread. As an academic, you have no access to this information as it exists in a very different part of the photo community, people who actually make images, though you could have found this out by a little investigation or even calling me on the phone instead of blithely dismissing me out of hand, which shows an amazing lack of insight and professionalism on your part.

Patrick Alt, "Untitled," 2006

In addition to all of the other things I do (architecture, furniture design, teaching) I spent over 12 years as the country’s premier antique camera restorer. You still see some of my cameras appear on eBay where they get top dollar. I had at one point a three year waiting list for my servives. In that time I became an expert on identifying most types of wooden view cameras, their period of manufacture, and some of their variants. I can tell you with most certainty what camera a brass corner clip belonged to just by looking at it. There may and probably are some people at the George Eastman House who know more about vintage cameras than I, but unlikely to find 6 more around the country.

I was even invited by Gordon Baldwin, second curator in charge of the Getty Museum Collection after Weston Naef to come and lecture him and 4 other Getty curators on why much critical discussions on the compositional strategies of Carlton Watkins, O’Sullivan, and Jackson were mostly wrong. As is the case with so many academics, they had never actually looked through a mammoth plate camera to see how significantly the camera itself dictated the final outcome of the image. They didn’t know that to do a vertical image, the use of a ladder was required to load the film holder and remove the dark slide. The reason I was asked was that I am one of just a hand full of people left in the world working with an original mammoth plate, mine being from the 1890′s.

Patrick Alt, "Arc of Light," 2006

I am also very conversant on lenses and wrote one of 2 articles for View Camera Magazine on lenses for large and ultralarge format cameras. I have over 50 lenses in my possession, many from the early 20th century that I use in the creation of my work. I also have 15 different format cameras from 4 X 5 to the 18 X 22 mammoth plate. I am also a camera designer and builder and have built everything from a 4 X 10 panaramic, an 11 X 14 multiple focal length pinhole, to just completing the worlds largest wet plate camera, the 22 x 30 inch and 83 pound Altview WP2230 Behemoth plate. I know cameras.

As to the current status of my stance on the Norgigian plates, after hearing the opinion of my old friend John Sexton, who is convinced they are not by Ansel, I am now leaning toward that as well. I trust John’s integrity and his long history with Ansel and if it is good enough for John, I think I should follow his lead. However, there are still very compelling bits of evidence for Ansel’s authorship that have yet to be addressed, such as the fire damage on some of the plates and Virginia Adam’s handwriting on the paper sleeves, as well as the pictures of 3 men who appear to be 3 of Ansel’s closest friends, Robinson Jeffers, Albert Bender, and Dick McGraw across the road from Jeffers house.

To me one image from Uncle Earl does not disqualify all of the rest of the evidence. This is much more complicated than it appears. There is in addition to the Uncle Earl photo, another photograph of the same tree shot on the same day from a slightly different angle and is 5 X 7 instead of the 6 1/2 X 8 1/2 Norsigian negative. This image came from the Center in Tuscon [the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ], a confirmed Ansel photograph. In my research I not only discovered that the Korona camera Ansel worked with at the time had a 5 X 7 reducing back available, but that he also owned 3 additional 5 X 7 cameras, which he could have easily taken up there with him. One explanation was that he knew and was friends with Earl and they both traded camera positions to take their respective images. As someone who travels extensively with colleagues all over the country, such an exchange is common.

Patrick Alt, "Unknown Tuscany" (2006)

Regardless of how you feel about what a train wreck much of this has become due to Mr. Peter and the people he subsequently added to the team, especially Mr. Street [David W. Streets], why did you feel it necessary to attack my work, which has no relevance to the discussion. I hope I have proved from my comments above that I was emminently qualified to do what was asked of me and did so. My reputation amongst my friends and colleagues in the photo world is absolute and unimpeachable. So rest assured, there is no one sniggering behind my back. The only comments I have gotten from my friends so far is about the bunch of crap you are throwing around and what an asshole you are. I had always admired your writing and what I preceived as your integrity, but such snarky attacks on my work are so far beneath you. My landscapes are anything but conventional and to dismiss my figurative work as “cheesecake” shows you don’t even hold your own opinions to what I always considered a very high standard.

I have been represented by some of the foremost galleries in the country, have published one book, am in another coming put in Nov. and have been askeed by the Kinsey Institute to participate in an important exhibition of erotic work done with 19th century processes. My Photo Constructions are unlike anything else being done right now. Also, one does not take cheescake with a mammoth plate camera. I invite all interested parties to spend time on my website and judge for themselves. I stand by my work.

I agree that the negatives should be given to the Center [the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ] for extensive forensic evaluations so that this matter can once and for all be laid to rest. The Adams family and the Trust has also not behaved in a manner appropriate to the importance of this find. I was, from the beginning, in favor of the Adams Trust to partner with the Norsigian team to find out the final truth to this find. My pleas obviously fell on deaf ears, too many dollar signs were floating around the room.

Frank Schlegel, portrait of Patrick Alt, n.d.

It is my hope that Rick will see reason, fire everyone, and proceed to do what is necessary to authenticate or not this mystery. So I ask until such times happen, get your facts straight, refrain from your infantile evaluations of matters irrelevant to the discussion, and let’s see where this goes. I offer to talk with you anytime.

Patrick Alt is a photographer based in Culver City, California, working with large-format cameras and alternative processes. His first book, Unknown Tuscany, was published in 2006 by Mammoth Plate Press, with an introduction by Lyle Rexer.

Text and images for this post copyright © 2010 by Patrick Alt, except for the portrait of Alt, copyright © 2010 by Frank Schlegel. Alt’s “Report on My Observations on the Norsigian Glass Plate Negatives” posted here courtesy of Patrick Alt. All rights reserved. Published by permission of the authors. To contact Patrick Alt, visit his website.

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

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6 comments to Guest Post 7: Patrick Alt on the Norsigian/Adams Negatives

  • I give you much credit for publishing this! I still think Mr. Alt is out of his depth as a historian of images. He seems to disavow proper academia for that of practitioner. I worked in antiquarian bookstores, have a vast library of photobooks (surely to trump his), am a darkroom practitioner, a photography dealer, and in no way would I ever offer my opinion on something as loose and sketchy as this attribution. The problem is, he put his neck out there for no reason and has had it snapped off.

    He makes good points about his work, whether I agree about his proficiency or not. Perhaps it is easier to pigeonhole him and Team Norsigian as wannabe scholars (at the behest of lots of potential money). I am sure Norsigian is actually a pleasant fellow and I am sure that Alt is probably, even if fevered with ego, a decent guy. That in no way should allow them to make such preposterous claims at scholarship.

  • I have to agree, Mr Alt should never have got involved in this at all, the moment he did so he opened the door for the attacks. Making such bold statements from the get go was a spectacular home goal.

    That being said, your attacks on him have gotten pretty personal, and I think that’s unnecessary. …

    Fact is till a real professional team has looked at the plates we will not know for sure whether they are Adams work or not. At the moment it is sheer guesswork. Sure Team Norsigian hasn’t handled the situation well, but neither has the Adams side of the equation – but none of that will matter a jot if they are proven to be Adams work, and who knows they just might!

    Alan

    • Let me remind one and all that I’ve neither endorsed the “Uncle” Earl Brooks Theory, which holds that commercial studio photographer Earl Brooks made these negatives, nor rejected the possibility that Ansel Adams made them. I reserve judgment on both counts.

      So far as I know, excepting Team Norsigian’s own members, no one else with any credibility in the fields of photography history and art/photography authentication has publicly subscribed to their hypothesis that Adams made these images. Indeed, aside from myself I know of no one else in the field still publicly keeping an open mind on the matter.

      As for my “snarky” comments about Alt’s credentials, and about his photographic work: Team Norsigian has held from the beginning that they’ve constructed their case according to the highest legal standards, going so far as to claim that they’ve “put these negatives on trial.” You can’t interrogate mute objects, of course (though you can certainly subject them to assorted tests). But you can surely cross-examine people presenting themselves as expert witnesses participating in what they themselves have defined as a courtroom drama.

      In that context, I don’t think I’ve been any tougher on Patrick Alt than a trial attorney would have been. Offering my opinion of his photographic work doesn’t constitute “personal attack.” I don’t believe any judge would rule discussion of that work out of order when Alt’s claim to expertise rests in large part on that work (and not, for example, on a long track record of successful authentication via forensic research of other photo “finds”). Given that he’s never had eyes-on encounters with Adams’s verified negatives, nor published anything on Adams, much less achieved any recognition for Adams-related scholarship, I’m convinced a court would restrict Alt exclusively to commentary about technical issues relating to the cameras and lenses and glass plates employed in making these negatives. And I do believe that a judge would order stricken from the record all of Alt’s narrative about how these negatives got to southern California, how Adams might have used them as teaching aids, etc., as sheer speculation with no basis in provable fact.

      In short (and, I reiterate, I’m not a lawyer), from my standpoint Alt, if he appeared in a courtroom to repeat what’s in his report, would get “qualified” as a witness much more narrowly than he allows himself to roam in his report, most of which would get quickly impeached if he took the stand. Trial attorneys don’t generally pull their punches in such proceedings; I’ve seen no reason to pull mine.

  • robert kyle

    I find it amusing that Mr. Alt cemented his involvement with Team Norsigian with a ringing endorsement of the plates as authentic works by Ansel Adams.

    Indeed, his enthusiastic authentication was presented by team Norsigian as a lynchpin of its justification for proclaiming prints made from them authentic (and offering them for sale to the public at $1,500-$7,500. each.)

    In the present guest post, au contraire, he opines that Norsigian would be wise to fire his team and get real experts to check the plates out! The mind boggles.

  • Alan Layton

    I’ve seen other people use their track record as as exhibiting photographers and/or their education, to qualify them to be experts in all fields of photography. This would be like a research scientist who studies the brain professing to be an expert in psychiatry. To me all of the people involved in Team Norsigian saw dollar signs first and foremost and when fabulous riches are at stake, fervent desire often trumps personal logic.

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