Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Lost Ansel Adams Negatives: 10 Essential Plot Points

A positive from a "lost" glass-plate negative
 That story about that guy who found the glass-plate negatives made by Ansel Adams in a garage sale has taken so many twists that I and most of the people I know have sort of lost track of it. All most of us remember is that the man paid next to nothing for them and now stands to make millions of dollars.
    If you'd like a quick refresher course, I suggest you watch the trailer for a proposed documentary about the discovery. It was prepared by the lawyer of the man who found the plates, and it has kind of "Law & Order: L.A." vibe. If you'd rather not, here is a brief summary:

Medium Shot: Security guard opens door of pickup truck. Man emerges carrying something. It looks like it might be a metal lock-box filled with money, jewelry, bearer bonds, or all three.
Cut To: Close-up of man putting on latex gloves. He opens box.  Urgent music. Words appear on screen: "An art world mystery..."
Cut To: A close-up of yellow crime-scene tape. Words on screen: "begins with a photography lab fire..."
Cut To: A series of antique-looking photographs showing wilderness scenes. Words on screen: "A school district painter..."
Cut To: A shot of several folding tables piled with old clothes and other junk.  Words on screen: "65 glass negatives from a garage sale..."
Cut To: Close-up of latex-gloved hands caressing glass negative. Words on screen: "A treasure worth millions?"
Cut To: Another series of prints made from the negatives. Words on screen: "Or just pieces of glass?"
And that, essentially, is that. If the trailer's visuals are a bit florid, at least the producers understood the nugget of drama at the heart of the story. Since last July, when it was announced that a man named Rick Norsigian had discovered glass-plate negatives with images taken by Adams in the 1920s, there has been only one real point of interest in the matter. And it isn't  art history.
"Ansel Adams photos found at garage sale worth $200 million," reported CNN after the announcement.
"California man paid $45 for glass negatives which may fetch $200 million," said the Today Show website.
"$200 million Ansel Adams negatives found at garage sale," said the trade website Photo District News.
The Catholic Online website actually did add historical perspective: "The items are the missing link in legendary photographer Ansel Adams' career—and they're worth $200 million," it explained.
Robert Louis Stevenson knew the narrative value off lost treasure, and its appeal has not diminished over the years. 
       It's true, of course, that the Norsigian story line has gone off in a few directions since the announcement of their discovery. The authentic origin of the glass plates has been called into question. And that $200 million figure? Well, maybe not. But we still want to know if someone found a treasure. Yes?

Rick Norsigian, as seen in the trailer for the proposed documentary
 Photo critic and historian A.D. Coleman is still interested in the story, that's for sure. His blog has become a kind of clearing house for information on the Norsigian drama, and he has been taking a lead in parsing out the truth about the glass plates, "snapping and snarling," as he puts it, over all the claims and counter-claims that have contributed to the "deepening mystery" (as per Britain's Mail Online) surrounding them. Did Adams really take the images on the glass plates? Or were they taken by a man named Earl Brooks, as his 87-year-old niece has claimed? Were the glass plates really authenticated before the July announcement was made? Or is it merely an intriguing tale that benefits from ponderous music and shots of crime-scene tape?
     I talked with Coleman recently, and he graciously walked me through those various complexities. Then he told me that the story might soon be getting even more complex. What if, he said, the images on the plates were made by neither Adams or Earl Brooks?
     "It might be someone else entirely," he said.  I'm working on it now. There's another contender out there who may be the creator of these negatives."

A view of Yosemite from the lost negatives. Did Ansel take it? Uncle Earl? Or Someone else?
 At this point, it might be useful to summarize the story (thus far) of the lost glass plates. If you have been following the saga in the news or, even better, on Coleman's blog, you can skip over this, but at any rate I'll try to keep it down to 10 plot points.

1. Ten years ago, Rick Norsigian, a painter working for the maintenance department of a school district in California, was looking for a barber chair at a garage sale when he found two boxes containing glass-plate negatives. The owner of the plates told Norsigian that he had acquired them in the 1940s at a warehouse salvage sale in Los Angeles. Norsigian talked the owner down from $70 to $45 and took the stuff home.

2. Some time later Norsigian, after looking at a biography of Ansel Adams, began wondering if his glass plates had been made by the famed photographer during the 1920s. In particular, he noted that the plates showed evidence of fire damage. In 1937, Adams had indeed lost a number of negatives in a fire that swept through his studio in Yosemite National Park.

3. Norsigian  took the plates to the Adams family, only to have them dispute his claim.

4. In 2007, Norsigian and a lawyer representing him, Arnold Peter, organized a team of experts to authentic the plates. As the New York Times has noted, the team included a former FBI agent, and former US attorney, handwriting experts,  meteorologists, a curator of sculpture and decorative arts from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and a landscape photographer familiar with the use of large-format cameras. That team concluded that the plates were consistent with work Adams had done in the 1920s.

5. The attorney chose David Streets, owner of a Beverly Hills art gallery, to market the Norsigian material. Streets estimated the glass plates to be worth $200 million. And then, in July, "Team Norsigian" (as Coleman calls them) announced it all at a press conference. "This truly is a missing link of Ansel Adams and history and his career," notes Street. "This is going to show the world the evolution of his eye, of his skill, his gift, but also his legacy."

6. Almost immediately following the announcement, the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust announced that the Norsigian claim was false. Not long after that, Miriam Walton, 87, of Oakland, California, said that images put out by the Norsigian group were identical to photographs taken by her uncle, Earl Brooks, in the 1920s. The Adams Trust tended to agree with Walton that Uncle Earl, as he came to be called, was the creator of the Norsigian plates.

7. Questions began to be raised about the expertise of the experts brought in by Norsigian's attorney to authenticate the material. On August 13 the Times reported that the Beverly Hills gallery owner who appraised the plates  was "a convicted felon with a criminal record for petty theft and fraud in Louisiana and Kentucky."

8. John Sexton, a respected photographer familiar with Adams's work, announced that he doubted that the glass plates had been made by Adams.

9. On September 1, the Los Angeles Times art blog reported that one of the experts who authenticated the plates, Robert Moeller III, had changed his mind, in part because of Sexton's opinion, and that he now could not say that all the Norsegian plates had been made by Adams.

10. The Norsigian website carries a Final Report containing the finding of its experts and offers prints, as well as the trailer for the planned documentary about the glass plates. Uncle Earl rebuttals are also available.

Now, back to A.D, Coleman

     "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." 
     Coleman was in China, working on a numbers of projects when a friend emailed him with a link to a story about the July announcement from Norsigian's group. "Initially, I was struck, with some irritation, at some of the bizarre responses that came from the Adams side," he said. "William Turnage, the managing trustee of the Adams Trust, was comparing the statements from the Norsigian people to the Big Lies of Goebbels and Hitler, and claiming that it was outright fraud. Matthew Adams, Ansel's grandson, was saying that any prints made from these negatives could not be considered original prints,  because original prints could only be made by the photographer himself. But that's simply not what the market has held."
     Then, said Coleman, the Adams side shut up and he began to focus on the claims being made by the Norsigian group. "I can't say they were deliberately propagating falsehoods," Coleman told me, "but the holes in their story just became more apparent."
     "What holes?" I asked.

A Lack of Qualifications

"The most glaring fact was that there was nobody on the team of experts who knew anything about photography except for Patrick Alt, who is a talented practitioner of large-format photography," replied Coleman. "But this claim called for a genuine forensic examination of the negatives and research in the Adams archive."
      (An aside here: Coleman recently posted a lengthy missive from Mr. Alt, who, while putting forth his credentials, essentially threw the rest of the Norsigian team under the bus. He now also seems to vaguely agree with John Sexton that Adams did not take the pictures.)
     The Adams archive resides at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, and, as Coleman noted, "it's open to any qualified researcher." But, he said, there was not one person among the Norsigian experts who "was grounded in photo history, or conservation and restoration—someone who could speak with authority and would know what types of forensic tests to subject the negatives to."
The "Final Report"
     Those tests, Coleman noted, would focus on the apparent fire damage of the plates. "Was it indeed fire damage, or was it damage from mold, which can look like fire damage?" he asked.
     Likewise, he said, clues to the true origin of the plates could be gleaned from an examination of the emulsion on them. "You might be able to tell, for example, what developing and fixing solutions were used. You might be able to tell who manufactured the emulsion, which in all probability would also be the manufacturer of the glass plates themselves."
     That information could be compared to the extensive notes that Adams kept in his darkroom journals.
     It might also be possible to examine the distinctive marks left by the plate holders that secured the glass negatives in the camera. "You would want to compare the marks on the Norsigian plates to the marks on authenticated Adams plates from the period to see if they were similar," Coleman said.
     None of that kind of research was done, said Coleman. Instead, the team of experts assembled by Norsigian's chief adviser, Beverly Hills-based entertainment lawyer Arnold Peter, seems to have based its claims on analysis of handwriting on the envelopes in which the plates were enclosed, along with visual similarities between the images on the plates and known Adams images.

True Value
Think of it as a kind of East Coast-West Coast difference of opinion. Coleman the buzz-killing intellectual versus the Norsigian side's irresistible story. (Cue the documentary trailer.)
    Even if the negatives were proven to be by Adams, Coleman questions whether they would offer historians important new insights into the photographer's career. "He would have been young when he made them," Coleman says. "He hadn't yet become the poet of the wilderness."
    And there is plenty of that young work around. "We know Ansel lost 5,000 negatives in a studio fire in 1937, so in that sense there's interest in that lost material," Coleman says. "But he also salvaged 10,000-plus negatives. And from what I've read, Adams didn't feel that he'd lost anything of great importance."
     Unfortunately for those of us who like a good story, there is another buzz-kill: The name "Ansel Adams" is trademarked. And the trademark is held by the fiercely protective Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, which has sued the Norsigian group. Even if the glass-plate negatives were proven to have been made by Ansel, Rick Norsigian would be unable to sell prints made from them under the Adams name. And print sales accounted for a sizable part of the $200-million value put on the plates.
     "They could try to sell prints and say they were made by an anonymous photographer. But then who would want to buy the prints?"
      If indeed Adams did make the negatives, says Coleman, Rick Norsigian might be able to publish the material as a catalog of his collection. Or he might sell the plates to a museum. "He would probably make a pretty penny," Coleman says. "But nowhere near $200 million."
In that case, would the plates still be a treasure? Would we still care?
      At this point, the Norsigians are marketing prints made from the glass negatives. You can add them to your cart at The digital prints seem to be running in the $1,500 area. You will however have to sign a disclaimer noting that the material has not been endorsed or authenticated by the Adam Trust.

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