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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.

He realizes what he’s up against. “If anybody knows anything about Adams,” Norsigian says, “they all pretty much know each other and [are] friends in one way or another.” He snorts, “They don’t want me in their business. And I don’t want to be in their business. I’m 64 [65 now]. If I wanted to be a businessman, don’t you think I’d be in business by now?”

Except he did go into business—in a limited way—on the heels of a March 2011 settlement with the Adams Trust that allows Norsigian to continue selling prints of his negatives without using Adams’s name or trademark. Both sides agreed “not to make any defamatory statements about the other or unlawfully interfere in each other’s businesses.” (The suit against the University of Arizona’s CCP is still pending.)

Norsigian and his team rejiggered their business plan in response. Having rebranded the enterprise as “The Lost Negatives,” they offered free posters to “celebrate” the lawsuit’s resolution. Then they drastically cut the prices of prints. Norsigian says this is part of an effort to make the images more accessible, and now they’re available for as little as $90 on Adams scholars point out that even if the negatives were Ansel’s, they’re still not worth anything approaching an authentic print created by the legend. Much of the magic Adams worked was in the darkroom. Alinder, his biographer and former assistant, says Adams thought of this process in terms of his training as a pianist: The negatives were the musical score, and the prints were the performance.

Still, for Norsigian the agreement would seem to offer the chance for something approximating a happy ending—maybe as close as is possible under the circumstances. Near the end of our long visit in autumn 2010, Norsigian recalled his original vision for the slides. He’d imagined gathering all of the evidence along with the negatives and creating a sort of traveling exhibition. The show would be like a trial, and the public would be the jury. The lawsuit’s resolution allowed for a scenario not so different than what he’d envisioned. Norsigian announced plans to donate prints to publicly funded schools and museums. He hoped to turn them into teaching tools, so that people could experience the same thrill that he had felt in looking at the images.

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