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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.

The first time Norsigian drove through the Wawona Tunnel as a young man, he was astonished: There opened up the entire Yosemite Valley, in all its magnificence. Bridalveil Fall splashed down on the right, El Capitan rose up on the left, and Half Dome jutted skyward in the middle. He remembers pulling into the parking lot beyond the tunnel—the one where Ansel Adams sold his photographs in his early days—just to stare.

“You never forget the view,” Norsigian says. “It was unbelievable. I mean, everybody ought to be able to experience that one time.” It was mostly coincidence that he ever made it there. Norsigian’s early life reads more like blue-collar Springsteen than wandering John Muir: Meet a girl at 17, graduate high school, get drafted into the military. He’d completed one year at Fresno City College when his number came up. After serving in the National Guard in Fresno, Norsigian got married to the girl at 21, and they had three kids.

Back when he was a teenager, his mom had told him not to expect to sit around the house all summer, so he’d asked his girlfriend’s father for a job. Norsigian’s future father-in-law was a commercial painter, and the work stuck. Another contractor had business in Yosemite, so Norsigian went there for months at a time to paint newly built offices and lodges.

When Norsigian and his buddies got off work at 4:30 every day, they went fishing or hiked to the waterfalls. Norsigian once made his way up to Glacier Point, where the sheer drop made him wobbly. It was a little to the northwest that another young man, Ansel Adams, had first glimpsed the park, just as wide-eyed, about 50 years earlier. Adams was a sickly 14-year-old in 1916, and he later credited the park with restoring his health both on that seminal visit and during the Spanish influenza pandemic a few years later. Fatefully, on that first trip, his parents gave him a gift: a Kodak #1 Box Brownie, to record the journey.

When Norsigian first bought the garage-sale negatives, all he knew about Adams was that he was a world-famous photographer whose original work a school-district painter couldn’t afford. Norsigian decided he might as well educate himself. He read a biography by Mary Street Alinder, Adams’s longtime assistant, and learned some interesting things. For example, the negatives from that era were large: 8½ inches by 6½ was the size Adams used for a period as a young man. Norsigian took out his slides and measured: 8½ by 6½. He read that a fire had hit Adams’s Yosemite darkroom in 1937.

Norsigian had noticed that eight of his slides looked blackened, as if they’d been scorched. Was that simply a coincidence? And there were the locations: Yosemite, mostly, but also Carmel and Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. They were all places Adams had photographed. One of Norsigian’s negatives showed Baker Beach—which was the very place, Norsigian discovered, to his growing excitement, where Adams grew up. Was this too just a fluke?

Norsigian finished the Alinder book and then picked up Jonathon Spaulding’s biography. He read Adams’s autobiography. He devoured Anne Hammond’s Ansel Adams: Divine Performance, tagging pages with Post-it notes as he went. He again plowed through Alinder’s book, all 500 pages.

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