Ansel Adams garage-sale find debunked? Experts say Yosemite shots are by Earl Brooks
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Rick Norsigian’s 10-year quest to prove that he turned up a trove of ‘lost’ Ansel Adams photo negatives at a Fresno garage sale now has a rival explanation advanced by Norsigian’s opponents: They were taken by a heretofore unknown photographer from the Fresno area named Earl Brooks.
The suggestion was made July 27 by Brooks’ 87-year-old niece, the same day that Norsigian made headlines by proclaiming that his find had been validated and was worth $200 million. Now, Marian Walton’s theory has been endorsed by Adams’ former business manager and two of the famed photographer’s assistants. They shared their evidence with The Times this weekend.
Arnold Peter, the Beverly Hills attorney who is helping Norsigian market the pictures and a documentary film about his find, last week issued a rebuttal to numerous criticisms raised about the Norsigian claim. If prints attributed to Walton’s long-dead Uncle Earl indeed turned out to have been created from the Norsigian negatives, Peter said, it only proved that, at some point, Ansel Adams made prints from the negatives, and they somehow found their way into Earl Brooks’ hands.
Norsigian held a packed news conference July 27 at a Beverly Hills art gallery to reveal what he and his team of hired experts said was conclusive proof that his 65 old-fashioned glass-plate negatives of scenes from Yosemite and coastal California were previously unknown pictures that Adams shot during the 1920s and early 1930s.
The conference made the evening news in the Bay Area. Watching TV in her den in Oakland was Walton, a former secretary and grandmother of four whose family hailed from the Fresno and Visalia area. She saw Norsigian’s picture of the Jeffrey pine on Yosemite’s Sentinel Dome flash on her screen. ‘Oh my gosh,’ Walton thought to herself. ‘That’s Uncle Earl’s picture!’ She didn’t even have to get out of her chair to make the comparison -- it was hanging on the bathroom wall, in clear view from where she sat, she said in a recent interview.
Walton called the TV station, KTVU, and the next day, after her weekly tennis game, she got a visit from a reporter and Scott Nichols, owner of a San Francisco photo gallery that did a considerable business in Ansel Adams prints. Nichols took the Jeffrey pine picture and three other Yosemite shots from Uncle Earl that Walton had kept in a drawer.
KTVU did a story on Walton’s picture, with Nichols saying there was only a minute difference between it and the one on Norisigian’s website, which the Fresno school district employee had posted as one of 17 images he’d begun selling for $7,500 for a hand-made print, $1,500 for a digital one and $45 for a poster.
Nichols told The Times last week that the slight differences in the tree’s shadow and the clouds behind it were probably caused by a short time lapse between the taking of each picture. Everything else -- the focus, brightness and angle, were the same. It was the best evidence yet, he said, of what he and other dealers, as well as Adams’ family and professional circle of former assistants already had concluded: that Norsigian’s negatives had been shot by somebody other than America’s greatest nature photographer. On Friday, Nichols sent digital images of Marian Walton’s four pictures to William Turnage, Ansel Adams’ former business manager and now managing trustee in charge of granting the rights to publish or copy Adams’ work, and to Alan Ross, John Sexton and Rod Dresser, photographers who worked closely with Adams as his assistants during the 10 years before his death in 1984.
Last year, Norsigian’s team sent Ross 61 of the images, hoping he would confirm that they had been taken by Adams. He didn’t. So, Ross was able to make comparisons not just between Walton’s prints and the 17 pictures Norsigian had published, but also to most of the Norsigian find.
The findings: One of Walton’s prints, showing Old Inspiration Point road in Yosemite, is a seemingly identical match to an unpublished Norsigian image, Ross and Sexton said in e-mails that Turnage shared with The Times.
Two others were close matches, the two former Adams assistants said, differing slightly in such details as the shape of water spray at Bridal Veil Falls -- suggesting they were different takes from the same photo session.
As telling as the identical photos showing the park entrance road, said Nichols, were flaws in one of the slightly different waterfall pictures. The Norsigian negative of the falls and the almost-identical print belonging to Walton had identical scratches and white spots, Nichols said Saturday, meaning they were taken by the same camera, whose internal imperfections -- possibly, specks of dirt -- registered the same on each image.
Nichols said that with three pictures either identical or apparently from the same photo shoots, it’s enough to prove that the entire Norsigian find must be the lost work of Uncle Earl, not Ansel Adams. Sexton noted in an e-mail that, ‘now, of course, the Norsigian crew will claim that Uncle Earl didn’t make the four photographs’ but must have bought them from Adams or at Best’s Studio, the Yosemite photography store that sold Adams’ work. Adams married Virginia Best, daughter of the studio’s owner, in 1928. The studio remains in business as the Ansel Adams Gallery, with their grandson in charge.
In an interview last week, Sexton told The Times that conclusive proof could well lie in the negatives themselves. Because all 44,000 Ansel Adams negatives are archived at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, a physical comparison should be made between Norsigian’s negatives and identically sized glass negatives from the archive -- with particular attention to clear spots along the negatives’ borders that invariably were caused by the wooden holders and metal clips used to slot the glass plates into old-time cameras.
Mark Osterman, an expert on photographic processes at the George Eastman International Museum of Photography in Rochester, N.Y., and Paul Messier, a Boston-based photographic conservator with high-profile expertise in photographic authentication, said last week that such proof could be telling if there were distinctive irregularities in the known Adams negatives that had been caused by the plate holders. Because photographers used their holders over and over, Norsigian’s negatives should then have the same unexposed clear spots as the known Adams negatives. Messier said other useful comparisons could be made by testing the chemical composition of the two sets of glass plates, and their emulsion residues.
Walton said she had owned the four photographs since her father’s death in 1981; he told her they were taken by his older brother in 1923. Walton said she last saw her uncle in the late 1930s, when she and her parents paid a visit to the ailing man in Visalia, not long before his death.
She said she didn’t know much about Earl Brooks, other than that he married twice and liked to take pictures. ‘He had an adventuresome spirit. He did travel around a lot,’ including a stay on a commune in an eastern state. ‘I don’t think he had much schooling, but he was a good photographer.’
As for Norsigian, ‘I may burst his bubble,’ Walton said. ‘I’m not trying to do anything but get to the truth. I hate to see anybody taken advantage of on the premise that he has what he thinks he has.’
-- Mike Boehm
[*Updated: An earlier version of this post said that all four of Marian Walton’s photos were exact or close matches to pictures from a group of 61 photos that Alan Ross examined from the Rick Norsigian find. Ross says that one is an exact match, two others are near matches, and the fourth is not a match.]
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Photographer(s) in dispute/Marian Walton. At right is an image made from a negative that Rick Norsigian found 10 years ago and attributes to Ansel Adams. Credit: Rick Norsigian Collection