Commercial painter Rick Norsigian, a resident of Fresno, California, has made a hobby of going to garage and yard sales, to look for inspiration, or for hidden treasures. The latter was something he usually did not come by, but, being the artist he is, he drew pleasure from the seemingly worthless — in currency, not sentiment — trinkets and novelty nothings presented in these sales. This time around, he was looking for a barber chair. He enjoyed the back-and-forth of friendly haggling and the stories behind the object’s being and coming to be. He purchased, occasionally, interesting items for a small collection he had, stored under the pool table in his home. In 2000, he attended a local garage sale, and among other items purchased two boxes of photo negatives for $45.
He returned home as usual and placed the boxes under the pool table with no extra care or thought — or a clue of what their contents would bring to his life. For Rick, it was one of those lazy days at home, when you suddenly remember a letter you wrote and placed in a drawer, or a book you left somewhere to read later and never returned to it. Maybe if you’re lucky, it can be a treat you forgot you had in your glove compartment, and now it was all yours to eat. So, on that day, Rick remembered suddenly not a treat or a letter, but rather a box — two, in fact — that he had purchased four years prior in one of the garage sales he regularly attended. Curious, he opened the boxes to review the negatives, and quickly, as he described it, he “went a little weak”, recognizing instantly what the photos could be. Those photo negatives, you see, were worth a little more than the $45 Rick paid for them — even a little more than their original set price of $70 he managed to haggle down from. A little more than that. About $200 million more.
A painter’s hobby
Rick Norsigian is a commission painter who lives and works out of Fresno, California. In 2014, he decided to attend a garage sale in Pasadena; it was a hobby of his to go and collect trinkets and scour for antiques, perhaps hoping some day — but certainly not knowing — they will turn out to be true treasures. At the sale, he was searching for a barber chair to add to his collection. He did not find one, but he did find two carton boxes, containing 65 glass plates — photographic negatives.
An avid traveler and photographer, Norsigian recognized the first negative he looked it without difficulty: it was taken at a famous spot at Yosemite Park in California, at the Jeffrey Pine, a spot where a stunning pine tree grew wild. The angle of the photo was impressive, but the location not extraordinary since the corner at Jeffrey Pine is considered one of the most beautiful spots at Yosemite Park, and is one of the most visited at the location.
Curious, Norsigian attempted to look through more of the negatives. Since they were seemingly from before the 40’s, they were glass negatives and therefore much easier to see and comprehend: glass negatives. as opposed to the more modern (yet already lost) digital film ones, are simply glass plates with an overexposure of the picture — an inverted photo in fact. It did not take Norsigian very long to understand that the glass negatives he had purchased were no ordinary, amateur photo negatives.
The purchase of a lifetime
Norsigian conducted two years of research to find out if the photo negatives were valuable. “When I pulled one of those glass negatives out, I seen Yosemite,” he said. “As a young man, I worked at Yosemite quite a bit. So, right away I recognized it as Yosemite,” said Norsigian. He also knew another man — a famed photographer — had spent time filming at and around Yosemite, black and white photos, very much like the ones he had bought at that fated garage sale.
A gap in the lifetime of an artist
Ansel Adams is one of the most famed American photographers; his black and white photos of the American west from the 20s to the 60s are synonymous with the time’s art and with the America’s artistic core, as they represent the raw beauty of the area. Adams had indeed worked around and near Yosemite often, and as Norsigian went over the negatives, he slowly began to realize exactly what it was that was in his possession.
Once Norsigian became convinced that the photos were similar enough in style, color, and location, to those of the late Ansel Adams, he turned to a lawyer, who, in turn, assembled a team of experts at art restoration, forensics, handwriting, photography, and even weather, in order to authenticate that the photos were indeed ones missing from the gallery of Adams. They combed through every photo with great care, comparing angles of camera and movements of leaves, attempting for about a year to determine if the photos were indeed Adams originals.
It was difficult to determine anything BUT the originality of the photos, according to the experts. The photos were “put to trial”, Norsigian’s lawyer said, and went through the judgement of some of the most qualified forensic investigators in the world. “We have come to the conclusion that, based on the evidence which was overwhelming, that no reasonable person would have any doubt that these, in fact, were the long-lost images of Ansel Adams,” said Norsigian’s lawyer.
The pieces fall together
Ansel Adams had an unbelievably prolific career, and his photos are, as a whole, curated in various museums and collections around the world. However, the experts had another reason to believe especially that these were the actual originals of his: the negatives had signs of fire damage on them. It is known and documented that in 1937, a darkroom fire destroyed 5,000 of Ansel’s plates from his early career. Assumingly destroyed them, that is.
It could be nothing else
The style and location of the photos could not be confused, and most experts agreed the negatives were, in fact, lost plates from Ansel’s gallery, which were assumed to be destroyed in the fire. Not only that, but the plates were individually wrapped in newspaper, and on each was a note; experts attributed these notes to Virginia Best Adams, Ansel Adam’s wife. A large group of well known researchers all agreed — the plates were those of Ansel Adams photos.
A teacher and an artist
Even though the experts could not explain exactly why or how the plates would arrive to Pasadena and not be reclaimed by Adams, their enthusiasm only grew. The experts agreed that Adams had brought the plates to use in a class in Pasadena that he was teaching. “It is my belief that he brought these negatives with him for teaching purposes,” said one expert, Patrick Alt. Adams often taught classes at Pasadena and near it and was a guest professor at many photography and art classes.
An astounding range of work
“I think this clearly explains the range of work in these negatives, from very early pictorialist boat pictures, to images not as successful, to images of the highest level of his work during this time period,” Alt added. The photos would have been from a very early stage in Adams’ career, which would only make them more valuable, as it would showcase the astounding and prolific body of work Adams produced in his day.
No ordinary super-find
The art world was buzzing at this point, round 2006 – 2007, with the news regarding the find of the lost photos. The collection was appraised at over $200 dollars, and institutions from around the world began contacting Norsigian with offers to buy the collection. “I gotta say, when I found out, I went a little weak,” he laughs. Offers skyrocketed in price, as Adams is probably the artist most identified with American photography ever.
Ansel Adams was born in 1902 in San Francisco, an only child to his parents, who were of Irish descent. He was a devoted protector and lover of wildlife and frequented Yosemite park, which was near him, and other areas around Pasadena. He presented his first portfolio in 1927 and soon became a synonym of American landscape photography, with his unique style of black-and-white photos, at peaceful yet wild angles, which seemed to capture the movement of the wildlife.
A man and a myth
Ansel Adams is a celebrated and iconic artist around the world; but he is weaved deeply into the history of the United States. Not only a member of the circle of artists composed by painters and photographers like Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, and John Marin, he was also published in every significant American magazine, and photographed numerous iconic American figures. He even photographed then-president Jimmy Carter — by commission of the president himself. This became the first official portrait of a president made by way of photography.
American history in a being
Ansel Adams took photos, in effect, of American history, as it was happening. In the 30s he photographed stunning landscape and wildlife, in the 40s Indian Reservations and the War Relocation Centers, in the 50s he photographed commercially for the Polaroid company, in the 60s he photographed president Jimmy Carter. He was a teacher; he was awarded the presidential medal of honor. Revered for his unique eye and pure photography as well as his unusually beautiful control of light in his work, he was and remains the quintessential American photographer.
Perfection – or is it?
The situation, then — in light of all this — seemed bright for Norsigian. He was receiving offers from around the world and countless media attention, and was responsible for a classic take of a treasure trove; bought in a yard sale, and turned out to be an invaluable trove of endless opportunities. But just then — when everything seemed perfect — the story turned on its head.
As sure as certain curators and forensic specials were about the authenticity of the photos, it turned out a large majority did not agree with them. And that large majority included Adams’ grandson, Matthew Adams, the well-respected Ansel Adams Society’s manager and curator. He took some serious issue with Norsigian’s claim over his grandfather’s negatives. The Society released a statement in which Matthew himself expressed his lack of faith that the negatives were real:
The Adams Society
“The question that cannot be proven is how these photographs ended up in a storage facility in Los Angeles. Mr. Norsigian’s team speculates that they may have been a part of Ansel’s teaching process. It is reasonable to assume that Ansel would have used some of his negatives, even damaged ones. What is less clear is how Ansel would have let negatives get out of his care after the fire,” Adams wrote. The Adams Society did not accept the negatives as a part of The Ansel Adams Legacy.
Later on, the story turned more convoluted, when it turned out that, without Norsigian’s knowledge, his lawyer Arnold Peter was selling prints of the negatives for millions of dollars through his company, Media Partners Global. Before they even managed to file a suit against Norsigian for use of the unauthenticated prints, the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust filed a suit against Media Partners Global. The sides settled, but Norsigian then sued Peters for selling the prints without his knowledge and even sharing them with pertinent experts to make a profit.
Successful in his own right
It was around this time that major forensic artists and art restorers were changing their views regarding the negatives, claiming they were not originals and that the Ansel Adams claim was a scam, that a woman named Mariam L. Walton, a California native who saw the news regarding the lost negatives, came forward with a bold claim: not only were the negatives not Adams’, they belonged to her uncle, Earl Brooks, who lived near Yosemite and was a somewhat successful photographer in his own right.
My Uncle Earl
Walton’s claims were not nearly as cooky as they sound. She was equipped with proof after proof that the negatives were, in fact, glass plate negatives of photographs taken by her uncle, Earl Brooks, who lived in the Fresno area his whole life and often took photographs around the park, especially black and white ones, of the gorgeous landscape. The piece de resistance was her own print of a photo that Norsigian claimed he bought, the one by the Jeffrey Pine. The angle of the lens and the placement of the lights, experts determined, would make it impossible to be a forged image.
“They’re a bunch of crooks”
While this was happening, Norsigian was still at court with his lawyer. Eventually, the sides settled outside of court. Matthew Adams, however, was not ready to let go of the matter. The Ansel Adams Society claimed over and over that the matter was “bogus” and that the media and public have been hoodwinked. Matthew Adams interviewed repeatedly claiming his displeasement with even the notion that some think the negatives could belong to his grandfather.
A change of heart
The mystery began to sway towards its resolution when a key expert, Robert C. Moellen III, said — after supporting Norsigian’s claims and being an integral part of the original team of art restorers and experts who were hired to determine if the negatives were original Adams — that he trusts the judgement of the Adams Society and those who have worked with the artists far more than that of the team that originally composed the decision to protect the negatives as original.
Experts change of heart
“I take full responsibility for having made the first decision, and I take full responsibility for having changed my mind,” said Moeller. He also acknowledged that he is not, in fact, a photography specialist, but a curator in Boston and Carolina in the 60s and 70s, with an unrelated speciality in medieval and European art, and currently serves as a private counselor to collectors. All members of the original team hired to authenticate the photos retracted their statements, similarly to Moeller.
One left standing
All but one, that is. Patrick Alt, an original head of the team Norsigian hired, still insists the photos are original Adams. But the matter seemed to have been laid to rest. Following the discovery of a website selling the ‘original’ Ansel Adams prints for about $7,500 a print — with none of the money going to Norsigian — the Ansel Adams society has, mostly, exonerated Adams of the ‘fraud’, as they phrased it, and believe the image belong to that same uncle Earl.
“He’ll die with the belief”
“I’m very fond of Rick Norsigian,” Moeller added. “He’s a guy who at least ought to be praised for stick-to-it-iveness. I think his drive is not principally about money, but his conviction that what he has is [by] Ansel Adams. The team organizer is Arnold Peter, and Rick is the fellow who will probably die with the belief that these are by Ansel Adams.”
Many experts take pleasure in rediscovering Uncle Earl’s lost art for what it is, though. Despite the fact that their authenticity has been discredited, some experts and collectors enjoy Uncle Earl’s photos for their own merit. Not that much is known of him; he moved with his family to the East Coast eventually, but took at least two big trips back West to Yosemite, to capture his beloved landscape. He was around 80 when he passed away, and his remaining family is ‘delighted’ to have his photos rediscovered.
Take a chance
The mystery that rocked the art and photography world has been laid to rest following the Uncle Earl photo discovery — for now, at least. Norsigian still believes that the negatives are Adams’; and his pleasure lies in that, as the newly discovered Earl Brooks photos continued to delight curators such as Scott Adams, a San-Francisco photography dealer. Either way, go visit the garage sale closest to your home, and dig until you find a trinket that catches your eye. Who knows what fortunes — and adventures — it might bring.