Ansel Adams negatives revealed? Fresno man makes his case


A wall painter for the Fresno school district who bought a cache of antique glass-plate photographic negatives at a garage sale 10 years ago laid out his case Tuesday that they were created by Ansel Adams early in his career, offering affirmations from photographic and forensic experts he had hired.

In a Beverly Hills gallery packed with reporters and photographers, Rick Norsigian and the Beverly Hills law firm that is helping him market prints made from the negatives (and promote a documentary about his find) said the negatives of Yosemite, the San Francisco waterfront, and Carmel’s mission and nearby Point Lobos were taken by Adams from 1919 to the 1930s, before he became famous as the visual bard of America’s natural landscape.

According to David W. Streets, the gallery owner who hosted the news conference and was part of a team of appraisers, the eventual yield from selling prints struck from Norsigian’s find could amount to more than $200 million.

But that sum and the flurry of publicity seemed absurd to dealers who have sold Adams’ prints for millions of dollars, and to people from Adams’ inner circle, including his grandson, Matthew Adams, and William Turnage, who was Adams’ business manager until his death in 1984 and remains managing trustee in charge of administering the rights to publish or reproduce Adams’ work.

They pointedly question, if not outright dismiss, the conclusions Norsigian and his team have drawn. The evidence advanced Tuesday included handwriting on manila envelopes in which the negatives were found, and analyses of how the plates stack up physically, aesthetically and by subject with known Adams photographs from the period.

“I really resent people who have gone out and hired some so-called experts. I give them no credence in terms of their knowledge of Ansel’s work,” Turnage said. “They’re doing this for only one thing, to make money. I feel sad for people who might be gulled into buying these things we think are fakes.”

Even if the negatives did spring from Adams’ camera, art-photography dealers say, any prints made from them will be essentially worthless in the collectors’ market.

It’s not the negative that makes an Adams an Adams for the museums and private collectors who cherish his work and establish its market value, said Santa Monica dealer Peter Fetterman. It’s the magic he worked in his darkroom to create the prints that bear the fruit of his artistry — not to mention his signature.

A 1920s Adams negative developed in a 21st century darkroom by other hands just doesn’t rate, agreed Andrew Smith, a Santa Fe art-photography dealer who says his gallery is America’s busiest when it comes to reselling prints Adams made himself. “They just don’t have much value. They weren’t made by him.”

Nevertheless, Norsigian and Arnold Peter, co-founder of the law firm that hired the experts and is helping Norsigian market what’s billed as “The Lost Negatives of Ansel Adams,” said that Internet sales began a few days ago at for the first 17 images being offered. Limited edition prints hand-developed by North Carolina photographer Jesse Kalisher go for $7,500 each; digital prints cost $1,500, and for $45 you can get a poster.

That compares to the record $722,500 paid last month at auction for “Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park,” and the $609,000 paid in 2006 for Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.”

“If they were any good, he would have printed them,” Turnage said. “He printed everything that he felt was good. And [prints from Adams’ hand] look completely different from what anybody they’ve hired to stamp out prints would make.”

A 21-page summary of the Norsigian team’s findings theorizes that the negatives survived a 1937 fire in Adams’ studio, as suggested by scorch marks on some of them. Photography expert Patrick Alt of Los Angeles wrote that “it is very easy to imagine” that Norsigian’s negatives were among the ones Adams’ autobiography notes were saved by “throwing them in a bathtub filled with water.” Alt said that it was left to Adams’ wife, Virginia, to write the identifying notes on the paper sleeves covering the negatives Norsigian bought 63 years later for about 75 cents each.

Alt theorized that Adams brought the Norsigian negatives to Southern California in the early 1940s as examples for his students at what’s now the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. “It would not be unreasonable for him to show the fire-damaged plates and regale his students with what was surely a great story,” Alt wrote. He added, “In almost all of the photographs, the compositions are virtually flawless,” indicating “a photographer of singular vision and talent.”

Alt said the 6 1/2-by-8 1/2-inch negatives are consistent with what Adams is known to have used, and oxidation of the silver emulsion places the date they were taken at 70 years ago or more.

Robert Moeller, a former curator of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, attested that, from the subjects and style, there is “a high degree of probability” that Adams took the pictures. Meteorologist George Wright compared the Norsigian photograph of a tree against a distant mountain backdrop with a known Adams photograph of the same tree and concluded that the cloud formation and snowcap prove they were taken at the same time. Handwriting experts Marcel Matley and Michael Nattenberg concluded that the writing on the envelopes matched samples from Virginia Adams.

Matthew Adams, who is president of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite, doubts that his grandmother, who grew up in Yosemite, would have committed the misspellings of prominent Yosemite place names he saw when Norsigian’s team provided him with copies of some of the manila sleeves. Adams said she never would have written “Vail” instead of “Veil” in Bridal Veil Falls, “Washborn Point” instead of “Washburn Point,” or “Glaciar Point” instead of “Glacier Point.”

“She would know Yosemite place names extremely well and she was literate and well-read,” Adams said. “And to claim that she was ignorant and made these kinds of errors, I don’t see how that happened.”

Norsigian attorney Peter said the misspellings are few, and likely the result of hasty writing as Virginia Adams tried to scrawl identifications on hundreds of envelopes containing negatives rescued from the 1937 fire. “The best spellers from time to time will make typographical errors.”

Matthew Adams and Turnage said Adams was extremely cautious about his negatives, keeping them under lock and key when not using them to make prints. “There’s no way on God’s green earth that Ansel would have left 65 negatives sitting somewhere,” then lose track of them, Turnage said. “He treated the negatives as if they were his children,” going so far as to house them in a concrete bunker built into a hillside behind his home in Carmel — where nobody could venture unless accompanied by the photographer. Adams left all 44,000 of his negatives to the Center for Creative Photography, which he helped establish at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Turnage said.

Norsigian and Peter said the documentary about the find will premiere in October at the fledgling Anaheim International Film Festival. The film also will be shown Oct. 14 at Cal State Fresno, along with prints of some of the photographs, as part of the university’s centennial celebration.