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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

But if Norsigian lacked fine-art credentials, he had the persistence of a Yosemite bear that’s scented your leftovers. Norsigian burned away evenings on the computer. In the Library of Congress’s photo archives, he trolled for long-forgotten Adams images that might match one of his negatives. Then he lay awake, turning over bits of evidence in his mind, weighing new approaches. Pam worried about him. She asked him: Isn’t it time to give up? He wouldn’t. Or couldn’t. “If I put my mind to something,” he says, “I won’t let go until you can prove I’m wrong.”

In 2003, he went to see Adams biographer Jonathan Spaulding, then an associate curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Spaulding suggested a number of possibilities. One of them concerned a negative that showed a park ranger standing on Diving Board Rock at Glacier Point. That ranger, Spaulding said, looked like Ansel Hall, a Yosemite naturalist who had befriended Adams. Norsigian rooted around on the internet until he found that Hall had a granddaughter living in Colorado. He called Merrie Winkler, and she said that yes, her grandfather had affectionately told stories about a young Ansel Adams. Norsigian sent the print in the mail, and Winkler studied the image under magnification and called back soon after. There was no doubt. That was Hall in the image.

Norsigian was now back on the trail. He found a court-certified handwriting expert who told him the writing on the envelopes matched Virginia Adams’s. A meteorologist, George Wright, studied two Jeffrey pine images—Norsigian’s and the iconic photograph known to be Ansel Adams’s. Based on “the clouds in the photographs and the snow cover present in the mountains,” Wright wrote to him, “it is my opinion that these photographs were taken on the same day.” Norsigian thought all that remained was to find an acknowledged Adams expert to step out on his behalf. But he kept striking out, and years rolled by. Finally, in 2007, a distant acquaintance mentioned the mystery to Arnold Peter, a Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer.

Peter was from Fresno but had gone on to big things, working on Hollywood movies and founding the Peter Law Group, which specializes in entertainment transactions and litigation. Intrigued, Peter arranged to meet Norsigian. The attorney listened to the story and told Norsigian he could help. His idea was to take the existing evidence and task a research team to fill in the holes. Then he would synthesize it into something conclusive. Thus the Fresno painter and the Hollywood lawyer struck up an unlikely friendship. Peter was no photography expert, and this was an atypical case for him, but when you’ve been wandering the woods alone, like Norsigian had been, you’re happy to have a companion.

Peter’s associates began enlisting experts: Patrick Alt, a large-format photographer with a photo-history background. Robert C. Moeller III, former director of the Duke University Art Museum and curator of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Team Norsigian, as it came to be known, found a second expert who agreed that the handwriting on the envelopes matched Virginia Adams’s. Alt would conclude: “Every photographer has a distinct compositional style. In a number of these images, you can see Adams is experimenting, but you can also see his unique vision—the way he paid attention to pictorial space and atmospherics like clouds and light—that would appear later.” Stories about the find, and its purported link to Adams, began to appear in local newspapers.

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