In his Guest Post sent in rebuttal to my comments about his relevant expertise, published here on October 6, photographer Patrick Alt writes, “I felt as qualified as any lay person to look at the work and submit my emotional appraisal over what I saw.” I wouldn’t argue with a word of that self-description, which I consider forthright and accurate. It also precisely summarizes why Alt had no business posing as a qualified expert here, or allowing himself to get positioned as such by Team Norsigian. The “emotional appraisal” of a “lay person” has absolutely no relevance to the issue of expert authentication of these negatives.
Clearly, Alt has confused the role of expert with that of juror in his participation in what Team Norsigian has described as the “trial” to which they subjected these negatives. A juror gets to lean now this way and now that, as Alt acknowledges he now does, depending on who’s persuasive at the moment. An expert witness who switches from one side to the other during or after a trial constitutes a lawyer’s worst nightmare; such testimony gets impeached quickly, with the judge commonly instructing jurors to disregard it.
I’m pleased for Alt that, as a library intern at CalArts during his student days, he got to go through hundreds and even thousands of art and photo books. I’m happy for him, along the same lines, that he has an extensive personal library of photo books. So do I, and so do hundreds of photographers, photo critics, photo historians, photo dealers, and photo curators I’ve met over the decades, dozens of whom have or had floor-to-ceiling bookcases: Jerry Uelsmann, Ralph Gibson, Gail Buckland, Carl Chiarenza, Lee Witkin, Estelle Jussim, Bill Jay, to name just a few. Most of them (and I) have gone to numerous Adams shows and had other opportunities to spend time with Adams prints. That hardly makes Patrick Alt unique — and it hardly makes him, or any of us who own a lot of photo and art books and go to Adams shows, an expert qualified to authenticate anonymous negatives as the work of Ansel Adams.
As Dirty Harry reminds us, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” (And I remind you, off-topic, that the police detective/inspector played by Clint Eastwood was named Harry Callahan — possibly, in his terseness and taciturnity, modeled after that great photographer, with whom he otherwise had little in common.)
I’m not in a position to challenge Alt’s professed expertise in the identification and restoration of classic/vintage view cameras, and see no reason to do so. That’s because this knowledge base, which I grant him without question, pertains only marginally to the situation at hand, due in large part to his own failure to apply it where it would count.
Alt’s impressive credentials as a view-camera repair and restoration maven have little pertinence to the Norsigian negatives. Alt himself indicates, in his own full report, that he verified Ansel Adams’s ownership and use of of a camera of the type needed to produce negatives of the Norsigian find’s size not from any forensic investigation but from Adams’s own writings: “On page 3 from Ansel’s book, Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, he talks about using his 6 ½ x 8 ½ inch Korona view camera to make one of the most important images in his career . . . ‘Monolith, the face of Half Dome.'” Since I also own a copy of this book, I could have made the same verification; no technical expertise required.
From reading his full report, I can see that Alt did prove useful to Team Norsigian in such matters as indicating the difference between Newton rings and fingerprints. To his credit, also, he did caution them that the absence from the group of a “photo historian” left them vulnerable to challenge. Obviously they didn’t listen, which partly explains how things have come to this sorry pass.
Alt writes that he issued this warning to them on the basis of his “extensive knowledge of how the photo world works.” Lucky for them to have an insider on hand, eh? And too bad they didn’t take his savvy to heart.
However, if I announce at a press conference that I found a Roman war helmet at a yard sale, the world of archaeology will ask for hard evidence confirming the find and inquire about my credentials in verifying it. And if I announce that I found the manuscript of a lost Mozart quartet in a second-hand store, the world of musicology will ask for hard evidence confirming the find and inquire about my credentials in verifying it. I can make those statements confidently without anything more than a layman’s superficial knowledge of the worlds of archaeology and musicology, because what Alt describes here as his “extensive knowledge of how the photo world works” is nothing more than common knowledge about how the world in general works, applied to photography. This isn’t proof of any kind of expertise, though he seems to consider it as such.
Nonetheless, Alt could have helped Team Norsigian further in the following ways:
• There are forensic tests not yet conducted on the negatives themselves: checking for fingerprints in the emulsions; ensuring that the blackening, blistering, and flaking on the damaged plates resulted from fire and not from mold; chemical analysis of the emulsions themselves to compare with analysis of the emulsions of known Adams negatives, to see if they came from the same manufacturer. I listed a number of these in an earlier post; a qualified photo conservator could certainly amend and augment my layman’s suggestions. Alt does not have the skills necessary to conduct those tests, I’m guessing; but he certainly has the ability to explain the outcome of them to Team Norsigian, and to the press.
• There’s substantial research to undertake in person using the materials available to qualified researchers at the Ansel Adams Archive housed in the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson: comparison of the Norsigian negatives to Adams negatives from the same period for similarity of plateholder marks, tonal range, etc.; comparison of forensic tests of the Norsigian negatives against any existing forensic tests of Adams glass-plate negatives; comparison of the protective materials in which Norsigian acquired these plates — manila envelopes and newspapers from 1942-43 — to Adams’s storage methods for such plates from that period; close study of his negative filing system, darkroom records, and journals from that period for relevant data. I listed some of these in the same post mentioned in the previous paragraph. Alt certainly has some of the skills and knowledge necessary to conduct some aspects of such an inquiry, perhaps in tandem with a reputable conservator — and he surely has the ability to explain the outcome of them to Team Norsigian, and to the press.
• Alt had the ability to demand that Team Norsigian conduct such forensic tests through independent experts, to insist on accompanying Robert C. Moeller III to Tucson for supervision of Moeller’s researches at the CCP, and to review the results himself, as a condition of putting his authenticating imprimatur on these negatives as works by Adams. He failed to do so. He had the ability to require that, regardless of outcome, the full results of all such forensic tests and researches would become part of the public record; he failed to do so. And he surely had the ability to refuse to lend his name to this project without having those conditions met; this too he failed to do.
Alt thus failed Team Norsigian in every significant way. Of everyone in this crew, he was in the best position to ensure the production of hard evidence to support what otherwise constitutes mostly extrapolation, assumption, and hypothesis — or to bow out. He did neither, instead boarding the “lost Adams negatives” bandwagon and urging it forward (for hire, not pro bono, I remind the reader).
That was highly irresponsible and unprofessional of him. In partial consequence of his laxness in this regard, a decade after Rick Norsigian first acquired them nothing resembling a forensic test of any kind has ever been performed on these negatives, nor have they ever been directly compared to Adams negatives. That’s a deep embarrassment to Team Norsigian, and Alt surely shares in accountability for it.
Patrick Alt wants to have his cake and eat it too. He asserts that his educational and professional experience qualifies him to authenticate these negatives, as he’s done, unequivocally, on the public record, while also proposing that the disproving of his position, or his reversal of it, should have no professional consequence to him, either in his new professional role as “photo expert” or his ongoing professional roles as a maker and restorer of large-format cameras and an exhibiting and publishing photographer. And he insists that he has “encyclapedic knowledge of cameras, lenses, and the more technical aspects of the plates” and “was emminently qualified to do what was asked of me and did so,” while, in point of fact, he left Team Norsigian with no shred of physical evidence, conclusive forensic testing, or other documentation to validate their claim (which is, or was, also his claim) re Adams.
That’s an operative definition of hypocrisy, and also extremely delusional. I hate to bear these bad tidings to Alt, but the world — not just “the photo world,” but the world in general — simply doesn’t work that way.
For an index of links to all previous posts related to this story, click here.