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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.

But that wasn’t that. Norsigian couldn’t stop thinking about the slides. After a couple of months, he pulled them back out and called Mary Street Alinder, author of the highly regarded biography Ansel Adams, who agreed to take a look. Alinder wrote to Norsigian in April 2002 to say she was baffled: The size of the negatives and the fire damage suggested an Adams provenance. Some of the images looked like Adams’s work; others did not. And she thought the penmanship on the sleeves resembled Virginia Adams’s (though because of Virginia’s work in galleries, she could have kept records on other photographers’ collections). Alinder also told Norsigian that many of the proofs from the negatives showed inattention to details that were inconsistent with Adams’s work—“messy things creeping over into the edges of the image.” But even the great master Ansel Adams had to work his way up the learning curve, Norsigian figured.

So he clamped onto the possibility that the envelopes contained Virginia’s handwriting. He began peppering curators and experts with calls. He talked to Adams biographer Anne Hammond. He consulted Melinda Pillsbury-Foster, granddaughter of prolific Western-landscape photographer Arthur C. Pillsbury. She recommended he speak to a couple of experts, including Gene Rose, a historian and author who focuses on Yosemite and the Sierra. “We sat right there at that table,” Norsigian remembers, “and I showed him what I had and he goes, ‘Well, this isn’t Pillsbury. This is Adams.’” Rose recalls feeling less certainty. “I figured they could be [Adams’s work], but probably weren’t,” he says. In any case, Rose didn’t feel convinced enough to provide the public endorsement Norsigian sought.

Norsigian sent samples of the handwriting and 30 or so images to the Smithsonian, and soon someone from the Institute called his house. “They told my wife, ‘Yeah, we’re all in agreement that it’s his [Adams’s] early work,’” Norsigian says. But when he called back, no one at the Smithsonian would confirm the conclusion in writing; Michelle Delaney, who spoke with Norsigian at the time, recalls telling him only that she wasn’t an Adams expert and couldn’t help him.

In the quest to unravel Norsigian’s story, this becomes a maddeningly familiar scenario: Norsigian recalls a conversation in the affirmative—this person believed it was Adams—but the expert in question remembers something different. Was Norsigian hearing what he wanted to hear? Or have some experts—wanting to avoid getting drawn into the controversy—retreated from what they originally said? Possibly it’s a little of both.

Having spent time researching the world of art and antiques, I could sympathize in one sense with Norsigian’s plight. It is a hall of mirrors. Experts ostensibly supplying objective opinions about an artist’s work have financial interests. There is academic snobbishness. Scholars fear angering foundations that provide funding. Outsiders trying to navigate this bewildering funhouse often find it infuriating and financially debilitating.

According to Norsigian, the experts he encountered fell into three groups. One group disagreed that the negatives were Adams’s work. A second set of authorities wasn’t sure, and a third concluded that Adams had made the glass plates but refused to say so on the record. Norsigian says he believes this last group feared the repercussions of taking a firm position. But he thinks they also held back because of who Norsigian was—or, more accurately, who he wasn’t. “A person like myself,” he says, “being a painter, only one year of college. So they’re thinking, Well, this guy, what in the hell does he know?”

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