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Backpacker Magazine – November 2011

Ansel Adams's Lost Photos?

David Howard investigates the mystery of 61 black-and-white negatives that are stirring up a hornet's nest of accusations, threats, and lawsuits.

by: David Howard

Rick Norsigian (Photo by Craig Kohlruss)
Rick Norsigian (Photo by Craig Kohlruss)
Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Valley
Ansel Hall at Glacier Point
Ansel Hall at Glacier Point
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If Norsigian thought the truth was clear for all to see, that exhibition was just another false summit. Soon, it was hard to find anyone in the world of high-end photography willing to give Norsigian the benefit of the doubt. And Streets’s $200-million estimate opened Norsigian to caricature. At galleries, Norsigian became the butt of a recurring joke. Eric Rollins, a 20-year veteran of the 4th Street Antiques Mall, near Fresno, said that at shows up and down the state, Yosemite photographs were eliciting guffaws. “Someone will say, ‘Oh, that’s a $2 million shot,’” Rollins said.

But Norsigian and his lawyers fought back. Last December, Peter filed a countersuit against the Adams Trust on Norsigian’s behalf, alleging defamation. The suit included a claim for civil conspiracy against the University of Arizona, which houses the Center for Creative Photography; Peter’s firm had obtained emails that appear to show that William Turnage, of the Adams Trust, had pressured the CCP to discredit Norsigian’s find. (The CCP had never examined the negatives.)

Still, Norsigian was struggling. Facing a potentially long legal battle and public ridicule, he couldn’t sleep. His blood pressure spiked. His doctor told him he needed to back off. His wife and kids begged him to let go, saying he was more important to them than any negatives.

To Norsigian, it was an odd experience: On any given day, he could roll out of bed in the morning and see that none of the essential details of his daily life had changed at all. He still lived in his modest house stuffed with Americana. He was no richer, and in fact he estimated he’d spent about $15,000 over the years on his quest. As a person, he says, he is fundamentally unchanged: “All my friends and family, they’re Levi’s-type people. I hate ties, wear Harley shirts, and bum around and have a few beers with the boys after work.”




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