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He is glass-plate positive

Times Staff Writer

RICK NORSIGIAN discovered the object of his obsession one sunny Saturday seven years ago at a garage sale.

A painter for the Fresno school district by day and inveterate antique buff the rest of his waking hours, Norsigian was combing through suburban castoffs when he came across a time-weathered wooden box. The crate was heavy with old glass-plate photographic negatives.

Frozen in early 20th century black and white were sharply detailed shots of Yosemite landmarks, the San Francisco waterfront, Carmel’s historic mission and scenic Point Lobos.

Norsigian bought the five dozen negatives for about 75 cents apiece. They were a nice bit of memorabilia, he figured, nothing more.

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Still, over the months that followed, when he gingerly pulled the delicate plates out of faded manila envelopes to show friends and relatives, nearly everyone said the same thing: These old glass negatives look like the work of Ansel Adams.

A notion slowly took hold of Norsigian: Perhaps this was a misplaced collection of the American photographic legend’s early work. Maybe he had turned up a lost treasure.

Antiques had always been Norsigian’s fixation. The 60-year-old grandfather spent a lifetime carting home an oddball collection of old stuff from auctions and estate sales around his Central Valley hometown. His good-natured wife, Pam, drew the line at letting it overflow into the master bedroom and bath.

But nothing amid the home’s antique sprawl -- not the vintage gas pump or cylinder phonograph or prized 1909 pool table -- ever hooked him like the glass-plate negatives.

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At first, he knew little of Adams, who died in 1984. Norsigian had never been to a photography exhibit. A plain-talking blue-collar guy, he preferred tinkering with his 1928 Ford to visiting museums.

Now, suddenly, he was boning up on all things Ansel. He put away his hot rod magazines and for months pored over a dozen Adams biographies and photo books, footnoting each with Post-it notes.

Page after page yielded coincidences.

Adams, who was born in San Francisco in 1902, worked early in his career with 6 1/2-by-8 1/2-inch glass-plate negatives just like the ones Norsigian had found. During the 1920s he shot mostly in Yosemite and the Sierra but also at San Francisco’s Baker Beach near his family home and in Carmel, spots featured in Norsigian’s negatives.

In the photo books, Norsigian found several Adams prints resembling his garage-sale negatives.

One negative shows Sentinel Dome’s weather-sculpted Jeffrey pine, but at a different angle from what Adams immortalized. Several are tight shots of billowing Nevada Falls, a frequent subject for Adams’ lens. Another depicts a gnarled oak tree fronting distant Cathedral Rock. During the 1940s, Adams printed virtually the same picture, but with a shapelier oak in the foreground.

Norsigian’s most tantalizing biographical discovery was the 1937 blaze that engulfed Adams’ Yosemite darkroom, destroying a third of his work. Some of the Fresno glass plates, he noticed, seemed scorched at the edges.

The man who sold Norsigian the plates in 2000 had told him they came from an abandoned warehouse in Los Angeles. Norsigian learned in his reading that Adams had moved briefly to L.A. in late 1942 to teach.

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Sketching a timeline in his mind, he became increasingly convinced that the negatives had been salvaged after the fire, carted to Southern California and then somehow left behind.

“It took me awhile to figure it out -- all the pictures I have, they’re trying to tell a story,” Norsigian said. “These are early Ansel Adams, before he became famous.”

*

ITCHING for proof, he took a day off from work on a fine spring morning in 2001, packed the pickup with family and a picnic lunch and prints he had made from the negatives and headed up the winding road from Fresno to the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley.

Glenn Crosby, the gallery curator, invited Norsigian into a back room while his wife and two grown daughters browsed out front, baby granddaughter Ashley gurgling.

On a big table they spread a dozen photographs printed from the glass plates. Crosby didn’t give an opinion but he asked his guest: Would you like to talk to Adams’ heirs?

That afternoon, Norsigian drove home excited, sure that the question meant that Crosby had seen the same thing he had.

For months, Norsigian waited. Finally, late that summer, he received a phone call from Jeanne Adams, wife of Ansel’s son, Michael. They wanted to come see the negatives firsthand.

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When the big day arrived, Pam spent the morning tidying up an already tidy house as Rick battled nerves.

Michael Adams arrived with his wife as the Central Valley heat settled on the Norsigian house. The air conditioner ran hard, but Norsigian found himself sweating. Adams, a retired Air Force officer and physician, declined a soft drink and settled on a couch with his wife.

Norsigian covered the coffee table with prints.

The couple gazed at each shot, not saying much. Norsigian remembers Michael Adams suggesting that the quality seemed similar to Ansel’s. Norsigian showed them the wooden box, pulled out a few glass negatives.

Then the couple asked to see the fraying manila envelopes the plates had been stored in, each one marked with distinctive handwriting.

They looked at the writing, then at each other. Nothing was said. Finally, Jeanne Adams turned to face Norsigian.

This isn’t Ansel’s handwriting, she told him. His was much smaller.

It didn’t hit Norsigian until late that night -- his hunt might be over, his treasure fool’s gold. It might be time to give up.

But in the days to come, the unanswered questions gnawed at him. Night after night, he kept picking up the books. If not Adams, he wanted to know, who else might have shot the images?

Numerous photographers plied their trade in Yosemite during the early 20th century. D.J. Foley and Julius T. Boysen operated studios in the valley, as did the prolific Arthur C. Pillsbury. Adams often praised the work of Yosemite predecessor George Fiske, who died in 1918.

Norsigian, however, couldn’t stop thinking about Adams. He needed a second opinion. There were other experts out there.

He sent his prints to Mary Street Alinder, Adams’ biographer and assistant in the final years before his death. Alinder’s book had become his Adams bible. He had read it seven times, all 500 pages. If anyone had answers, Norsigian figured, she would.

Alinder wrote back in April 2002 to say she was baffled. The size and apparent fire damage “seem to indicate they might be Ansel’s,” Alinder wrote. Although some of the images looked like the work of Adams, “some do not,” Alinder said. “The handwriting just complicates matters.” She thought the writing on the envelopes might belong to Virginia Adams, Ansel’s wife, but conceded she was no handwriting expert.

The possibility was enough to keep Norsigian going -- and bring out his stubborn streak. At work, he was known as a guy who didn’t bow to the old-boy system. Now, in pursuing his quest, he proved every bit the bulldog.

After another Adams biographer, Anne Hammond, expressed doubt that Norsigian’s negatives came from the famed photographer, he began peppering her with e-mails. Finally, Hammond gave up and conceded she really didn’t know.

Norsigian haggled for months to get handwriting samples from the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography, home to Adams’ archives. Eventually, he lost his temper and dashed off a growling e-mail. “You people are supposed to preserve history,” he wrote, “not destroy it!”

His hunt was becoming everything to him. The negatives had come to dominate his thoughts and conversations. Buddies at work knew all the twists and turns. He showed them the prints, kept them posted on the latest developments.

Attaboy, Rick, they’d tell him.

Alone at work, brushing paint on a blank wall, his mind dwelt on what new evidence might prove to the world what he already believed. He chatted endlessly on the telephone with his grown son, John, who shared his father’s yearning for proof.

His wife lost him to evenings spent on the computer hunting for clues. He searched the Library of Congress’ online photo archives, hoping to spot a rare Adams print that might match one of his negatives. Hours in front of the screen got him nowhere.

Meanwhile, he kept searching for an Adams expert with a different point of view -- and eventually found one.

Jonathan Spaulding, yet another Adams biographer, was at the time an associate curator with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. In September 2003, Norsigian took more time off from work and drove to Southern California.

Spaulding voiced several possibilities.

He said the print of a park ranger standing atop Diving Board Rock at Glacier Point looked like Ansel Hall, a pioneering Yosemite naturalist who befriended Adams in the early 1920s. Spaulding said the car pictured in front of the Carmel mission in another of the shots might be the 1926 Buick owned by Albert Bender, an Adams benefactor known to take road trips with the photographer.

None of the negatives approached Adams’ best work, Spaulding said, but in the early 1920s the photographer still had not developed the mature style of decades to come.

*

NEWLY energized, Norsigian hit the books again, digging up a reference to a Carmel trip Bender took with Ansel and Virginia Adams. Norsigian also hunted down a pair of antique auto experts, who confirmed that the car in his picture was a 1926 Buick.

Norsigian had an idea. The search now seemed like a detective story. Maybe a detective could solve it.

After work one day, he met with a forensic crime expert at Cal State Fresno who agreed to help at no charge. Norsigian knew it was a long shot but asked if it might be possible to coax fingerprints off the old envelopes or decipher a license number on the Buick that he could then trace to Bender.

The crime expert dipped the brittle envelopes into a bath of ninhydrin, a chemical that reacts with the amino acids of fingerprints. Any surviving print, the expert said, would reappear in ghostly purple.

Nothing.

Next he turned to the Buick photo. The criminologist used his computer to magnify the car’s license plate. Despite the digital assist, the image remained too fuzzy to read.

Just as Norsigian was ready to pull his hair out once again, the lead he had gotten on the Yosemite park ranger paid off.

Searching the Internet, Norsigian learned that Ansel Hall, the ranger he suspected was in the photo, had a daughter living in Colorado. He called her up.

Merrie Winkler and her husband, William, recalled that Hall, who died in 1962, had vivid memories of the young Adams from the early 1920s as a pesky budding photographer who eventually won him over.

After the photo arrived in the mail, the couple peered through a magnifying lens at the ranger on the rock. They wrote back in December 2003.

There was no doubt, they said. It was Hall.

With that, any uncertainty left in Norsigian evaporated like saltwater on a ship’s deck.

But his hunt was taking a toll.

A night didn’t pass when he didn’t fret over finding proof. His wife was growing antsy about his preoccupation.

He had spent $10,000 on trips, research and the dozens of framed prints that now hung on nearly every wall of the house.

And he had grown wary -- enough to rent a safe-deposit box for the glass plates. He knew anything related to Adams was valuable. A print of “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” recently sold for $609,600. Norsigian considered his negatives a national treasure also worth plenty.

But without an expert stamp of approval, attempts to interest the big New York auction houses led nowhere.

*

BY 2004, a dark suspicion had crept into Norsigian’s thoughts. He wondered if his authentication attempts were being stymied by photographic scholars’ ingrained fear of upsetting the Adams estate.

The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust closely guards the reproduction and exhibition of the photographer’s work. Perhaps the best way to break the logjam, acquaintances told Norsigian, would be to enlist the trust in authentication.

An ominous response came in March 2004. William Turnage, the trustee who propelled Adams to financial success, dismissed any interest in Norsigian’s negatives, warning that the trust “owns all rights to Ansel’s name and likeness” and that any unauthorized use would be referred to attorneys.

Norsigian’s wife wondered aloud if maybe it was time to quit. She fretted that they could get sued, lose everything they had worked so hard for -- the house full of antiques, a good life on the eve of retirement.

At times they bickered. Maybe you should give up, she said. He soothed her and, undaunted, headed in the next new direction.

Norsigian needed an expert on his side. So he asked Alinder to vouch for his negatives. But repeated e-mails went unanswered. By summer he had grown weary of waiting. He ended up irking her with an intemperate e-mail accusing her of refusing to “help prove history.”

In 2005, he sent a package of prints to the Smithsonian Institution. The museum’s photo archivists seemed enthusiastic in a phone conversation but less so in a letter simply wishing him luck.

More recently, Norsigian’s negatives found the lap of an aging aide-de-camp of Adams.

Rondal Partridge, still spry at 89, has a long and storied career of his own -- son of photo pioneer Imogen Cunningham, apprentice to the legendary Dorothea Lange, late-1930s lab assistant to Adams.

Partridge was there in 1937 when Adams’ Yosemite darkroom went up in flames. They had just returned from an outing with Edward Weston, a co-founder with Adams of the legendary photo collective Group f/64, when fire belched out the darkroom’s windows.

“I don’t remember any glass negatives, but there might have been,” Partridge said.

Adams in those days was “a bit of a genius and a bit of a nut,” Partridge said, up at 6 a.m., fueled in part by Irish whiskey. But nobody, he said, “has ever reached the level of photographic technique that Ansel did.”

Norsigian’s negatives don’t begin to approach that skill, Partridge said as he flipped through the prints in his Berkeley hills home.

“Oh, no. Oh, no. Not Ansel.”

Flip.

“Noooo. Noooo.”

Flip. Flip.

“These are not compositions Ansel would have made,” he concluded. “I’m 99% certain.”

He shrugged. “This is a real mystery.”

*

IT’S a mystery worth solving, said Spaulding, now chief curator at Los Angeles’ Museum of the American West. Spaulding suggests that Norsigian’s negatives be lent to an archive where scholars could study them and form opinions.

Adams’ heirs don’t want any part of the puzzle. Jeanne and Michael Adams declined to comment.

Their son, Matthew, president of the Ansel Adams Gallery, said the family wishes Norsigian would take no for an answer.

“We’ve looked at them, and they’re not Ansel Adams’ negatives,” Matthew said. “I’ve heard some people build greenhouses out of glass-plate negatives. Maybe that ought to be considered in this case.”

Norsigian scoffs at the dismissal. Naysayers, he contends, are looking at the negatives through the wrong end of the lens -- judging them not by the early and unperfected Adams but by the huge talent he became.

He’s sick of weak-willed experts, their hopeful words in private melting away in public. “I’m 100% certain, no matter what they feel,” Norsigian said. “I’ve got all this evidence.”

This search that began so innocently so many years ago, he said, now has taken over his days and nights and become “a knot in the stomach that won’t go away.”

The truth is right there on the horizon, in black and white. He’s sure of it.

*

eric.bailey@latimes.com


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