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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.

Norsigian, of course, couldn’t imagine how much he was personally risking when he embarked on his photographic quest a decade ago. In 2001, he decided to tell the story of his find to Glenn Crosby, curator of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley. Worst case, Norsigian figured, he would be dissuaded from his hunch and move on with his life. Crosby invited him up. In a back room, Norsigian spread out the dozen digital prints that he’d brought and showed Crosby the envelopes with the handwriting. Afterward, Norsigian recalls, Crosby asked him: “Do you want to talk to the family?” Meaning the Adamses.

“And I go, ‘Well, do you think I should? I don’t know if this is or isn’t,’” Norsigian recalls. “So he goes, ‘Well, let me put it to you—if it was me, I would do it.’ So then I got a little excited.” (Crosby has since left the gallery and couldn’t be reached for comment.)

While Norsigian hoped for a meeting with the Adams heirs, he also consulted the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, which houses Adams’s 60,000 known negatives. Norsigian sent 12 scanned photographs and copies of the handwriting on the envelopes. He says he received a reply stating that officials would consult the center’s archivist.

Soon after that, says Norsigian, Jeanne Adams, Ansel’s daughter-in-law, called about giving the negatives a look. She came to Norsigian’s house and examined the glass plates and the handwriting. “And then [she] turns to me and says, ‘Well, that’s not Ansel’s handwriting,’” Norsigian recalls. “So I apologized: ‘I’m sorry to bother you.’”

A few days later, another letter arrived from the Center for Creative Photography saying that the handwriting did not match Ansel’s, or his wife, Virginia’s, and that Ansel didn’t use a numbering system with his negatives. That’s that, Norsigian thought, and slid the box back under the pool table.

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