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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

There were more striking clues. Alinder described one Adams shoot from atop Glacier Point when the photographer was in his 20s. The image, Alinder wrote, showed “Half Dome in three-quarter profile dramatically framed on the top and left side by the dark silhouette of a tree.” Norsigian consulted his negatives and found one showing that exact view. Another one closely resembled Adams’s iconic image of a Jeffrey pine.

Norsigian remembered that Irving Schwartz, the garage-sale proprietor who had sold him the negatives, had said he’d purchased them from someone in Southern California. Norsigian learned through his research that Adams had once accepted a teaching post in Pasadena.

Theories began to tick through Norsigian’s mind. Maybe some of Adams’s negatives were lost in the chaos surrounding the 1937 fire. Or maybe Adams had misplaced them in the transition to or from Pasadena. Maybe no one had pieced any of this together before. He loved his old-timey stuff. But this was something different, something much bigger: maybe the find of a lifetime.

Since you’re reading this article on, you probably understand what it means to feel the tractor-beam pull of distant mountains. Hikers and mountaineers have a habit of fixating on a looming summit, and a certain subset of wilderness seekers reserves a special affinity for peaks that are all but unattainable. The more difficult the route, the steeper the slope and the odds, the more attractive the mission.

In Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer describes his irrational but archetypal pursuit of an Alaskan peak called Devils Thumb. “I was dimly aware that I might be getting in over my head,” he writes. “But that only added to the scheme’s appeal. That it wouldn’t be easy was the whole point.” Krakauer endures various hardships—blizzards, unstable rock, a terrifying navigation of an icefall—but those setbacks only drive him to dig deeper in pursuit of what he believes will be a life-changing achievement.

Something much like that can happen with people who find art or photography of uncertain authorship. Bruch Loch, a prominent, Pennsylvania-based collector of Edward Hopper drawings, says he often sees extreme versions of tunnel vision and false grandiosity in people who believe they have found art created by a famous figure. “The deeper they drill into their quest,” says Loch, who also authenticates Hopper works, “the less likely they are to back down.” Contradictory evidence, personal bankruptcy, crippling blows to reputation—these are all mere snow squalls on the true believer’s upward march. Summit fever, in other words. And though some triumph at the top, the mountains are littered with dashed hopes—and sometimes the bodies—of climbers who refused to give up.

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