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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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In the days and weeks following the announcement, the level of scrutiny on Team Norsigian increased exponentially. In news reports, Ansel Adams’s relatives and associates immediately dismissed the findings: Matthew Adams, Ansel’s grandson, called Norsigian’s enterprise “a scam.” William Turnage, the managing trustee of the Adams Trust, labeled Norsigian and company “a bunch of crooks” and likened them to the Nazis. (Matthew Adams and Turnage declined to comment for this story.)

Critics tore into the 19-page authentication report. Why did Norsigian’s team not include an Adams scholar? Robert Moeller, they pointed out, had a background in art but not photography. And why was the final report so light on hard science—for example, no forensic testing—and so thick with phrases like “in my opinion” and “not completely verifiable”?

Even more problematic: Several people stepped forward claiming to have evidence that someone other than Adams had created the negatives. In Oakland, 87-year-old Marian Walton saw a television-news segment about Norsigian that included an image of the Jeffrey pine. The print looked identical to one she had been given by her uncle, Earl Brooks, a photographer who had worked in Yosemite in the early 20th century. (Team Norsigian later issued a report refuting the Brooks connection, pointing out that Adams might have given Brooks an unsigned photograph, among other arguments.)

Melinda Pillsbury-Foster, who had met with Norsigian years earlier, proffered compelling evidence of her own. Her grandfather, Arthur C. Pillsbury, was the only Yosemite photographer of that era who cataloged his negatives using a numbering system—and some of the numbers on Norsigian’s envelopes match the numbers on negatives missing from Pillsbury’s catalog, she says. And Pillsbury consistently made spelling errors—a distinctive feature of the writing on Norsigian’s envelopes.




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