A Reconsideration, A Retraction, and An Apology
In my last post I sketched at length my long-term professional relationship with the Center for Creative Photography and described my first-hand experience there during a 1996-97 residency. I did so in order to establish the basis on which I’d come to an assumption that has underpinned a number of my previous statements and comments in this series of posts. That assumption, in brief: The CCP was never in the business of providing anything resembling authentication services in relation to the work of Ansel Adams or any of the other photographers or other figures whose primary materials reside in its archives.
I spent 13 years (1987-2000) in regular correspondence with CCP director James Enyeart and his successor, Terence Pitts, plus members of their staff, concerning the Center’s acquisition of my own archive. I visited the CCP several times over that stretch of time, and, during a three-month residency 1996-97, spent hours there daily working on assorted projects, sometimes in the office they assigned to me but frequently in the archives and the Research Center, run by the estimable Amy Rule.
Even before that residency began, my growing understanding of the Center’s role and functions in our field had led me to produce an essay about its history and then-current situation. That piece appeared, in slightly varied form, in the New York Observer, Photo Metro, and Camera & Darkroom Photography, 199-95. For it I interviewed all three of the CCP’s line of directors, who spoke with me candidly and at length about the institution’s birth, growth, and activities over the years.
By that time Pitts had taken over the directorship, and, as I discovered when I arrived to start my residency in December ’96, he ran a very open administration. I frequently found myself invited to sit in on and even contribute to staff meetings. I watched the preparation for and mounting of shows drawn from the Center’s collection in the CCP’s galleries, as well as the intake of new materials for the archives. I also shared lunches and coffee breaks and dinners with Terry and the staffers, which made me privy to a lot of in-house, backstage information about the running of the place. As a result, I came to know a good bit about the policies, procedures, and day-to-day operations of the CCP.
When working in the Research Center I had ample opportunity to eyeball whatever projects the CCP staff pursued there, as well as the endeavors of other scholars and researchers who came to use the Research Center’s resources. By the same token, they could look over my shoulder as I followed my nose through those holdings. So I had three months of direct exposure to the diverse usages to which visiting researchers and the CCP’s staff put the materials in their charge — including, of course, the extensive Ansel Adams archive that had seeded the CCP’s creation.
(I should explain that the Research Center was available, by appointment only, to qualified researchers, who could use it to access all but the legally restricted materials in the CCP collection. There was also a ground-level Print Study Room, open to the general public with no appointment necessary, where one or more staffers were available to show the CCP’s exhibition-quality prints from opening time till closing time, weekdays plus Saturday afternoons.)
At that time Harold Jones, founding director of the CCP, who’d preceded Enyeart in that role, chaired and taught in the University of Arizona-Tucson’s photography program, a few hundred steps away from the CCP’s front door across a walkway. We hadn’t seen much of each other since he left New York for Tucson, so Harold and I made sure to spend some time together; inevitably, part of our dialogue concerned the early days of the CCP and the principles on which it had been created.
As a result of this prolonged immersion in the CCP’s inner workings, I felt reasonably secure in stating recently that authentication (or, as a logical corollary, the invalidating of) materials attributed to Ansel Adams or any other figure whose visual works or papers the CCP held did not fall within the CCP’s purview. In our formal and informal discussions, on and off the record, none of the three directors of the CCP through 2000 — Jones, Enyeart, and Pitts — had specified authentication of any outside materials as one of the Center’s services offered during their tenures.
Moreover, none of the former and current staffers with whom I’ve spoken up through the present, whether on or off the record, had mentioned any occasion on which such an activity took place there. In three consecutive months of residency at the CCP, including days each week spent in the CCP’s Research Center (where authentication would have to take place), I neither observed any such activity firsthand nor heard of it taking place in my absence. There was (still is) nothing about this in any of the descriptive literature about the Center and its range of services. And no scholar with whom I’ve been in contact has ever talked or written about the Center providing such a service.
I’ve gone to the trouble of laying this out in detail to indicate just why — based on my past experience — I felt confident in admonishing Team Norsigian on several occasions that their recurrent demand for CCP authentication of the Norsigian Collection negatives was inappropriate, because that simply wasn’t what the CCP did. They didn’t authenticate anything, I wrote; you went there with your own unvalidated materials and your own experts, and used the Center’s holdings to either authenticate or invalidate whatever you had. So far as I knew, Center policy circa 2000 in this regard still held true a decade later.
Turns out that was then, this is now. And sometime between then and now Center policy changed dramatically, though without much fanfare — without any public announcement at all, in fact, unless I missed something. Apparently the CCP has in fact actively gotten into the Ansel Adams authentication business. According to a report by Rebecca Rillos, “Ansel Adams authenticated: Center for Creative Photography verifies claims of original works,” published in the Arizona Daily Wildcat on November 23, 2010,
“The [University of Arizona's] Center for Creative Photography plays an increasingly larger role in questioning the authenticity of emerging photographs claimed to be Ansel Adams originals. . . . [P]eople come to the center almost monthly for authentication consults regarding possible Adams photographs. ‘It is a normal activity for the center for someone to bring us a print they think might be by Adams and ask us to help them authenticate it,’ [Rebecca Senf, acting senior curator for the CCP] said.”
Rillos’s story goes on to detail the authentication process provided by the Center:
“The center uses an initial three-step method to determine a photograph’s authenticity. First, the staff checks to see if an identical print exists in their collection. If one does they can certify the photograph is Adams’ work. If the center cannot find a match, then they move to step two and check the print against the 40,000 negatives in the archive. If they cannot locate the photograph then, they look at the published sources to see if the print matches against something published by Adams.
“‘Once we’ve moved beyond those three and we haven’t been able to find an exact match, then we are never going to be able to say without a doubt that something is or is not by Ansel Adams,’ Senf said.”
“In these cases, determining the validity of a photograph moves into much grayer territory, she said. The center utilizes other methods of verifying the work in question, such as crossing the paper type, handwriting, and possible time frame of when the photograph was taken against the styles and history of Adams. To be able to conduct these processes, Senf said, takes years of experience and connoisseurship.”
This new service goes unmentioned in the Center’s mission statement, its online FAQs, or anywhere else at its website. Yet the authentication of Ansel Adams material is now a “normal activity” at the Center for Creative Photography — and, I gather, provided to one and all as a courtesy, since Rillos mentions no fee. When did this significant change comes about, and who’s responsible for it?
In any case, it appears I need to retract and revise my prior statements (such as this one) asserting that the CCP doesn’t authenticate Ansel Adams material. The CCP I knew firsthand, up through 2000, didn’t do this. Somewhere along the line that changed, and now it provides “authentication consults” as a “normal activity.” Which raises a bunch of questions, not least about the CCP’s treatment of Rick Norsigian and his cohorts over the past decade. If the Center’s gotten itself into the Adams authentication biz, it was wrong of me to chastise Norsigian and his attorney, Arnold Peter, for demanding that the Center help them verify (or invalidate) Norsigian’s trove of glass-plate negatives as works by Adams. I extend my heartfelt apologies.
For an index of links to all previous posts related to this story, click here.