Ansel Adams photo face-off scheduled

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Works from the three leading players in this summer’s big art-photography controversy will be hung in a Los Angeles gallery on Saturday for a brief exhibition aimed at giving folks a chance to see what the hubbub is all about, and decide for themselves.

One is Ansel Adams, America’s greatest nature photographer, who’ll be represented by about 20 prints — hand-developed and signed by Adams himself and guaranteed to be authentic by the Duncan Miller Gallery in West Los Angeles, which is putting on the show.

As for the other two, well, exactly who the photographers are is still a matter of conjecture.


Three pictures are prints from the widely publicized but disputed garage-sale find of Rick Norsigian, the Fresno resident who believes he has a trove of 65 “lost” photographs that Adams shot in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Next to each Norsigian image will be a look-alike equivalent attributed by some of Norsigian’s opponents to “Uncle Earl” Brooks, the previously unknown photographer they contend is the man who actually shot the pictures in the Norsigian find.

“This is the first time these prints have been exhibited side by side,” gallery owner Daniel Miller said Wednesday.

Miller isn’t selling the Norsigians or the Uncle Earls. Those, he says, are borrowed prints he’s displaying for educational purposes only. But at least some of the Adams photographs can be purchased, with an asking price of $80,000 to $90,000 for the most famous image in the show, “Moonrise Over Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941.”

Miller, who opened his photography gallery five years ago, said the Norsigian controversy has been a hot topic among his customers since July 27, when Norsigian and his marketing partners announced at a Beverly Hills news conference that a team of experts had authenticated his old-fashioned glass-plate negatives showing Yosemite and coastal California as previously unknown works of Ansel Adams.

But Adams’ heirs, his former photographic assistants, the trust that administers his copyrights and leading photography dealers quickly disputed the claim. One of Norsigian’s experts, Robert C. Moeller III, a Wyoming-based art consultant and former curator of European art, recently retracted his opinion and embraced the Uncle Earl theory.


Miller says he thinks it is “very unlikely” that the Norsigian find is Adams’ work; when his customers ask whether they should invest in prints Norsigian is selling for $7,500 and $1,500 each, his advice has been that “it will not hurt to move very slowly.”

The story has gotten legs from the revelation that 87-year-old Marian Walton of Oakland owned a photograph of a bent and lonesome Yellowstone pine that bore a close resemblance to one of the “lost Adams” images Norsigian had unveiled. The theory sprang up that the “lost” Adams negatives were actually the lost oeuvre of her uncle, Earl Brooks.

Miller got digital enlargements of the Uncle Earl prints from Scott Nichols, a leading Adams dealer who has a photography gallery in San Francisco, whom Walton has entrusted with her pictures for temporary safekeeping and research. The three corresponding Norsigian images were provided by former Adams assistant Alan Ross; Norsigian had sent him copies of most of the pictures in his cache last year in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Ross that they’d been shot by Adams, who died in 1984.

Miller said that he didn’t seek approval from Norsigian and his marketing team, and acknowledged that they probably would not like it that he’s displaying the prints. He says that under copyright law, he has a right to show them for educational purposes. Norsigian’s team has scheduled a Sept. 25 public showing of his trove at the David W. Streets Gallery in Beverly Hills.

Arnold Peter, Norsigian’s attorney, said he had no objection to Miller’s show.

Miller’s show is entitled “Ansel Adams: Vintage and Modern Prints.” It can be seen on Saturday and Wednesday through Sept. 18. An afternoon lecture on Adams and his work by Carol McCusker, former curator at San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts, will be held Sept. 19, followed by a panel discussion focusing at least partly on the Norsigian find. McCusker, Nichols and John Upton, a photographer and friend of Ansel Adams, will participate.

“I think there will be a spirited dialogue, and whether any conclusions will be reached is beyond my grasp,” Miller said.

Miller is charging $40 for the Sept. 19 program, with seating limited to 30 people. Otherwise, the exhibition is free. Information: (310) 838-2440. The Norsigian show in Beverly Hills is also free, but reservations are required via his website,