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Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (13)

"Photography Expert" Patrick Alt's website.


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.

Ansel Adams, "Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs" (1983)

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:

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

• 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.

Robert C. Moeller III's website.

• 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.

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

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.

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24 comments to Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (13)

  • Richard Kuzniak

    I think you hit the nail on the head. Alt should have been utilized solely to convince the Norsigian ignorami of the absolute need for real forensic investigation, summarize what that would entail, and perhaps take part in its subsequent evaluation and determination of any required further study. Someone then should have suggested that somebody who understood the procedures, results and their implications, and who could write beyond early High School level, prepare a meaningful report.

  • Jim Heaphy

    Dear Mr. Coleman,
    I’ve been bemused by this story ever since it broke and reading your ongoing coverage last night was a delight, because you made observations from expertise that reinforced much of my skepticism from the beginning.

    My interest in Adams derives from a love of Yosemite and an interest in the history of the exploration of the Sierra Nevada and the Sierra Club. I am wondering if any competent person has taken a look at Cedric Weight as the photographer? He was Adams’ early mentor, his best friend for many years and it is well known that they photographed together many times.

    In addition, it is well known that Wright was very close to Virginia Adams even before the marriage. Possibly that could explain her handwriting. Wright certainly knew Albert Bender and it is likely he knew Robinson Jeffers as well.

    Do you have any thoughts on this possibility?

  • Jim Heaphy

    I hope that you will turn your critical analysis toward the “independent experts” who analyzed the handwriting. Matley trained Nattenberg, and handwriting analysis is a sideline for Nattenberg, who has been a licensed building contractor in Fresno for 32 years. His license expired last month, and he has no solid reputation in either construction or handwriting analysis.

    Matley was a central figure in the 2004 document forgery scandal involving George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service records. His ineptitude as well as that of others led to several CBS executives firings, and the early retirement of Dan Rather.

    Matley got started by analyzing people’s personalities through handwriting. It is pseudoscientific. He still runs a handwriting reference library full of pseudoscientific junk.

    On his website, Matley mocks the professional organizations of forensic document analysis with rigorous standards.

    Team Norsigian told Matley IN ADVANCE that the manilla envelopes held Ansel Adams negatives. They told him before he wrote his report that Nattenberg had confirmed Virginia Best Adams as the writer. They worked from copies rather than original documents.

    The whole thing steams and stinks like the output of the mules that used to haul Ansel Adams and his view camera into the High Sierra wilderness.

  • Jim Heaphy

    Nattenberg’s website is “under construction”. How fitting.

  • Richard Kuzniak

    Mr. Heaphy, I’ve been waiting and waiting for someone from the Team to post a hand-writing exemplar and comparison for us mere mortals to view and acquiesce to the experts’ conclusions…I think I now understand why there hasn’t been any! This bit of evidence was the one that gave me pause, but in context of your information, it just makes me roll my eyes.

  • Richard Kuzniak

    Man, it seems that somebody (not that rube Norsigian) cherry picked this crop of “experts” not for their forensic capability, but rather for their gullibility, suggestibility and malleability in the cause of trying to make plausible arguments to fit presumed conclusions. I think that the lawyer has been leading the witnesses!

  • Alan Layton

    If anything, this has been an interesting lesson for me on forensic authentication. I didn’t realize the plethora of physical tests that could be used to help identify these negatives. I do realize that art authentication does involve a lot of subjective analyses on style and content, but the range of tests available for physical evidence is long. Although I am not a scientist per se, I have been working in science labs for more than two decades and I would hope that any tests would be done by a third party, with no monetary nor emotional interests in the outcome. Lab testing should also involve ‘blinding’, which means that the people performing the test and/or making the analysis should not know which sample is which, or even what the samples are from. Scientists have learned, over the centuries, that even very small, seemingly insignificant biases can affect the outcome of an experiment. They should be avoided at every opportunity. Only then can you give a statically significant answer about the probability that the negatives were Adams or not. The ball is squarely in the court of Team Norsigian and I’m willing to bet that they will sit on this until it fades from people’s memory sufficiently to unload them for whatever they can get.

  • Jim Heaphy

    In Team Norsigian’s final report, handwriting analyst Michael Nattenberg says he’s a member of the National Association of Document Examiners. That group’s code of ethics require the level of membership be disclosed: certified, general, associate and so on. Nattenberg does not do so. The online membership directory for this group does not list Nattenberg. Was he a member when he identified the handwriting as that of Virginia Best Adams? If so, was he certified? Why is he no longer a member if be ever was?

  • Jim Heaphy

    Cedric Wright, 12 years older than Ansel Adams, died in 1959. The following year, the Sierra Club republished Wrght’s photo book “Words of the Earth.” Adams wrote the foreword, describing the depth of their 35 year friendship. Cumulatively, they spent several months together on wilderness trips in the High Sierra and the Canadian Rockies. Wright was at Adams’s side in 1927 when he took “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome” and at his side in 1941 when he took “Moonrise, Hernandez, NM.”

    David Brower of the Sierra Club wrote the jacket copy for the 1960 edition of Wright’s photo and poetry book “Words of the Earth.” He makes it clear that Wright was very disorganized in filing and labeling his negatives. Sierra Club volunteers gathered to try to identify the locations of many of his photos.

    Wright was a mentor, a booster and and a very early critic when Ansel Adams was starting serious photography. He helped shape Adams’ philosophy and world view. Wright introduced Adams to Albert Bender, who became Adams’ most important patron and early collector.

    Cedric Wright knew Virginia Best well before she married Ansel Adams. The three were close friends for decades. Isn’t there a possibility that Virginia may have tried, at some point (perhaps the early 1940s per dates of newspaper wrapping) to assist Cedric in getting his negatives organized? And, if he was so disorganized, isn’t it also possible that some of his negatives may have ended up in a garage sale sometime after his death in 1959?

    I am not claiming that this is true. I am simply advancing it as a plausible alternative, and would be very interested in hearing what people with expertise in photography have to say about the possibility.

    • Having no idea where Wright’s materials went after his death, and no specific information indicating that he lost any 6.5″ x 8.5″ glass-plate negatives in a fire sometime prior to 1944, I see no good reason to construct yet another purely speculative fiction regarding the possible authorship of these negatives. We don’t have a shortage of such hypotheses; we have a shortage of concrete evidence resulting from forensic testing and direct comparison of the Norsigian materials with coterminous materials from the Adams archive in Tucson.

  • Jim Heaphy

    Mr. Coleman, I agree that the reasonable course here is for competent experts in glass plate negatives to take the Norsigian negatives and sit down at the Center for Creative Photography, and compare them side by side with Adams negatives of the same size. Forensic tests should also be done to verify that the damage seen is actually fire damage and not mold/mildew. I agree 100% with you on that.

    However, the well-known fire was at Best Gallery, and Cedric Wright and other Yosemite photographers gathered there as well. Again, I am not saying that these negatives are Wrights. I am saying that there are a variety of plausible explanations including Wright, which makes direct comparison by competent, neutral, independent experts all the more important.

    By the way, Cedric Wright was present and photographing beside him when Adams took “Frozen Lake and Cliffs” in 1932. It shouldn’t be a surprise that two men, best friends, standing side by side photographing together many times over decades, might produce similar images. I am just surprised that I haven’t heard any competent photo expert discuss Cedric Weight as a possibility before now. I am curious.

    • Wright is only a “plausible explanation” for the Norsigian negatives if there’s hard evidence verifying that (a) he not only hung out at the Best Studios in Yosemite but stored some of his negatives there, (b) negatives of his are known to have gone missing, and (c) he’s known to have lost some of his negs in that 1937 fire.

      None of those holds true, so far as I know. Thus I don’t find it at all “curious” that no one (except you) has floated his name as a candidate for authorship of these negatives. Thus I see no reason for anyone to spend time investigating Wright as an option.

  • Jim Heaphy

    You are assuming that the Norsigian negatives are fire damaged and not even that has been established yet. Rondal Partridge, son of Imogen Cunningham, was working in the darkroom at the time period of the fire, and he is still alive (age 92).

    As for where Wright’s materials went after his death, much of it went to David Brower, then executive director of the Sierra Club, who was then working with Nancy Newhall on “This is the American Earth”.

    Simultaneously, Newhall edited and Brower published Wright’s book. Six years later, Brower used some of Wright’s photos in a book about Big Sir with text by Robinson Jeffers.

    David Brower, then a 25 year old world class mountaineer, had spent the week before the 1937 fire accompanying Edward Weston and Ansel Adams through the Yosemite backcountry to what is now called the Ansel Adams Wilderness. They had just arrived back in Yosemite Valley shortly before the fire started.

    Surely Rondal Partridge would know if negatives taken by other photographers were stored at Best Gallery at that time. He ran the darkroom then. But Team Norsigian isn’t asking such questions because Rondal debunked the attribution to Ansel Adams at least three years ago, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

    • You’re correct in pointing out that we don’t yet have forensic proof that the damage to some of the Norsigian negatives resulted from fire.

      However, this seems more like a campaign on your part to draw attention to Cedric Wright than a fact-based (or even a faith-based) argument for adding him to the list of candidates for production of these negatives.

  • Jim Heaphy

    Well, I have also provided information that casts doubt on the credibility of the two “independent hand writing experts” who said Virginia Adams wrote the envelope notes. I’ve noted Wright’s friendship with Virginia. If I was advocating for Wright, that would weaken my case. Like you, however, I advocate only for the truth.

    Again, I have no idea who made those negatives. I am just trying to add useful information to the debate.

    I will say no more here about Wright unless I learn new information of substance. In conclusion, I will only express the opinion that if a list of other photographers to be ruled out was compiled, Cedric Wright’s name would be near the top.

    • Initially, I considered the handwriting experts, the meteorologist, and even the two criminologists as bit players in this drama. But with the recanting and/or disqualification of the art and photo “experts,” those others start to occupy center stage.

      When time allows, I’ll get to them. Your input on the handwriting analysts is valuable, and I thank you for it.

  • Richard Kuzniak

    “Team Norsigian told Matley IN ADVANCE that the manilla envelopes held Ansel Adams negatives. They told him before he wrote his report that Nattenberg had confirmed Virginia Best Adams as the writer. They worked from copies rather than original documents.”

    Mr. Heaphy, how do you know this? Also, do you have a link to the Rondal Partridge debunking?

  • Jim Heaphy

    Thank you, sir

  • Richard Kuzniak

    Mr. Coleman, in “Team Norsigian Accentuates the Negative (11)” you enticed us with the published comment by Brooke DeLarco and promised follow-up; in other posts, both yours and David Schonauer’s “The Lost Ansel Adams Negatives: 10 Essential Plot Points,” you further tantalize us with, among other, the statement:

    “Do you mean,” I asked, “that Uncle Earl isn’t responsible for those glass plates?” “Yes,” he said. “I’m not prepared to say who it might have been right now, but indeed it might not have been Uncle Earl. In fact I’m pretty close to being convinced that it wasn’t Uncle Earl. It might have been someone else whose negatives were lost in a fire. I’m going to be working on that for the next month.”

    I can’t take much more of this titallation! When? At least give us a hint on why you’re close to being convinced that it isn’t Uncle Earl … and why the (unproved) fire scenario?

    Enough teasing, I promise I’ll buy your book!!

    • I’m waiting to hear more from Brooke Delarco about the material and information she’s uncovered relating to her grandfather, Earl Brooks. As soon as she makes that public, I’ll pass it along and comment on it here.

      As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m not convinced that these images were made by Ansel Adams; there’s no hard evidence (yet) to prove that. There’s also no hard evidence (yet) to prove the “Uncle” Earl Theory, so I don’t lean in that direction either.

      I’ve seen some material suggesting a plausible third alternative candidate. That material belongs to others, who are preparing their own arguments and substantiating evidence. When they’re ready, and make it public, I’ll respond to it.

  • Jim Heaphy

    Mr. Kuzniak,

    Here is a link to an April 21, 2007 Los Angeles Times article that describes Rondal Partridge’s opinion of the negatives:

    “He is glass-plate positive” (Norsigian, that is)

  • Jim Heaphy

    As for Matley and Nattenberg, simply do a critical and skeptical reading the handwriting section in the “Expert Authentication Report” available as a PDF on It starts on page 7. Matley wrote:

    “I was asked to examine COPIES of envelopes in which glass negatives CREATED BY ANSEL ADAMS had been kept. The question was whether the notations on these envelopes were written by Virginia Adams, Ansel Adams’ wife. I was supplied COPIES of samples of Virginia Adams’ authentic writing for comparison. After I had made an ORAL report of my opinion that Virginia Adams had written the notations in question, I WAS SUPPLIED A DECLARATION, dated April 24,2007, by Michael Nattenberg stating his opinion to the same effect. Since I am confident that Mr. Nattenberg would have sufficiently addressed the significant similarities that support his opinion, I suggested that I address why any apparent evidence to the contrary can be reasonably explained and thus was not cogent. I was instructed to follow this approach.” (emphasis added)

    Five examples of writing on the manila envelopes are provided, and it is clear that they were faxed, since the fax header is reproduced. No examples of writing known to be by Virginia Best Adams are provided. Competent forensic document examiners work from original documents when they are available. Copies would normally be used only when the originals have been destroyed or are missing.

    If you really want to delve into the swamp, use Google and Wikipedia, and read up on the continuum of “expertise” on handwriting analysis, ranging from mystics who look at handwriting like others look at tea leaves or tarot cards, to forensic analysts who rely entirely on scrupulous scientific methods. Here’s a good start, a Graphology Fact Sheet:

    Determine for yourself which trade groups have the highest professional standards, and read what Matley says on his web site about those groups. Then, read about Matley’s role in the 2004 case that cost Dan Rather his job at CBS. Matley came from graphology and has tried to move to the center of the continuum to gain credibility, without ever disavowing his pseudoscientific theories.

    However, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Maybe Virginia Adams did write those notes. But I don’t trust Matley and Nattenberg when they say so.

  • Richard Kuzniak

    I’m very happy to see that more of Earl Brooks’ family is becoming involved in the effort to determine the provenance of the Norsigian negatives. If nothing else, this will bring some belated recognition to a, if not spectacular as hyperbolized by Alt, then certainly competent and historically interesting photographer – at least for 15 minutes.
    I’m also wondering if it might not possibly be beneficial to reveal the identity and process of evaluation of the third candidate (good title for a book!). Can’t we have the candidate’s name and a couple of reasons for his plausibility? Maybe I watch too much TV (well Dexter and Bill Maher anyway) so I do understand the concept of “teaser” to generate interest and thirst for further entertainment but in this instance, wouldn’t it benefit the process to have input from anyone who may have an unexpected insight, association or special knowledge? One needs only to read Mr. Heaphy above as illustration of my point. It also occurs to me that the third candidate evaluation procedure may be being kept under wraps not only for reasons of impact and build-up but possibly to ensure exclusiveness when the story finally breaks. This too I understand but I am playing that against the spirit of cooperation and open research. The above not any kind of criticism but rather a genuine question on how best to solve our little mystery! Regardless, kudos on this entire series of blog posts and I will wait with bated breath for the next installment!

  • Jim Heaphy

    I contacted the National Association of Document Examiners regarding Nattenberg’s membership. Here’s the relevant part of the response I received from ther president, Linda James:

    “I checked with our membership chairperson and was told that Mr. Nattenberg has been a general member since 2006. As for being listed on the NADE website, that is totally optional to our members.

    Specifying the type of membership on their curriculum vitae is something new and was not a part of the NADE Code of Ethics in 2007.

    As for your other questions, they pertain to casework and the document examiner. I believe I have answered your questions concerning NADE. If not, please let me know.”

    So, Nattenberg is a general member, not a certified examiner or candidate for certification.

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