Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Response to July 27, 2010 Article -- Experts: Ansel Adams photos found at garage sale worth $200 million

Matthew Adams
July 24, 2010
Yosemite, California

I was provided access in November 2009 to the evidence that the “Norsigian Team” had accumulated. No further evidence has been presented, and my comments are based on the information provided at the time and not updated.

Negative Sleeves –
The negative sleeves are manila envelopes with a stamp to organize handwritten information as:

Each sleeve is numbered with a 4 digit number, starting with “8”, and a title in the “Name” field. The title is suggested to be in the hand of Virginia Best Adams, Ansel’s wife (married 1928). The dates of the any glass plate negatives pre-date the marriage, meaning that the sleeves would have been new after 1928. The supposition presented is that the negatives were rescued from Ansel’s darkroom fire of 1937, sleeved and marked at that time. Ansel’s negative numbering system usually referenced glass plate negatives as “GP”. “1-GP-##” would mean 8x10 glass plate image number ##. 1937 is certainly after Ansel started using this negative numbering system, and these examples are inconsistent with that schema.

I am not aware if any carbon dating of the negative sleeves has been done. Presumably it would be possible, and might provide scientific evidence of the date of the sleeves and possibly the date of the marking.

Handwriting – The handwriting of the negative number does not match the handwriting of the title. The handwriting of the titles has been identified by Mr. Norsigian’s team as belonging to Virginia Best Adams. The expert, Michael Nattenburg, used samples from 1927, 1929, and 1950. My opinion, without expertise but familiarity only with her handwriting of a later date, is that it does not belong to Virginia. I have viewed the sample handwriting from the 1920s and subject handwriting, and found differences that I would consider significant.

In addition to not recognizing her handwriting, several of the titles, including “Bridal Vail *sic+ Falls”, “Happy Iles*sic+”, “Washborn *sic+ Point”, Glaciar *sic+ Point” are misspellings of common place names in Yosemite. Virginia had lived in Yosemite every year of her life, and at the time of the darkroom fire, she was 33 years old. Virginia was an intelligent, well read young woman, enjoyed Yosemite and the outdoors, and it is inconceivable to me that she would misspell any Yosemite place names.
Negatives –

There are 61 negatives, all 6½”x8½”, consistent with Ansel’s Korona camera. The negatives originally surfaced in the sale of contents of a storage facility in Greater Los Angeles, per “Norsigian Team”. They were acquired by Mr. Norsigian in 2000 at a garage sale in Fresno.

The negatives have been tentatively dated 1924, within a broader range of 1919 to 1932. The broader range of dates is irrelevant, as it begins with Ansel beginning to photograph and ends with the demise of glass plate negatives. Part of the dating is based on the emulsion silvering, a loose method of dating at best. I have seen prints from 1960 silvering, and prints from 1927 with no silvering. Further evidence of date was not provided. I have not inspected negatives, and do not know whether silvering is as varied with negatives as with prints.

Some of the negatives have been scorched, presumably by fire, and it has been suggested that this was from the 1937 darkroom fire in Yosemite Valley. Chemical analysis of the char or fire residue has not been conducted. I have suggested it, as this would provide at least one piece of hard circumstantial evidence. To the best of my knowledge, this has not been done, or at least is not part of the evidence provided to me.

Images –
The images include 50 images of Yosemite, six images of Carmel (possibly Pebble Beach?), one image of Baker Beach, and four images of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. I am not sure to what extent the location of the last five can be positively identified.

One image of Yosemite is of Jeffrey Pine on top of Sentinel Dome. Mr. Norsigian’s experts compared it with a print of Jeffrey Pine at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) in Tucson, where Adams’ archive is housed. Mr. Norsigian’s experts have verified that based on the cloud formation, shadows, and snow pack, the two negatives were made at the same time. However, that particular Jeffrey Pine is one of the most photographed trees in the world. The old Glacier Point Road ran very close to the dome, it was easily accessible to the many visitors that came to Yosemite. It was photographed in the late 19th century by Carlton Watkins, and the most common image by Ansel was made in 1940. The reference snow pack is on mountains that are 15-40 miles away, too far to make a distinguishing assessment of relative annual coverage and melt patterns. The clouds are Spring evaporation clouds, and commonly build over the same areas of mountains daily for several months every year. A similarity in photographs without corroborating evidence does not provide hard evidence. They could very easily be made in different years, let alone different days by different people.

Relative to the same image, the CCP negative is 5x7, whereas the subject negatives are 6½”x8½”. Mr. Norsigian’s experts explain this by either: the (purportedly common) use of a reducer back, which allows a camera to expose a smaller negative; or two cameras. The two negatives also have a slightly different perspective. A more simple explanation is that the two photographs were made by different people at different times.
The evidence did not include any reference to exposure records for the negatives. Ansel was meticulous about keeping track of exposures (for development notes and learning, it helped him develop and use the Zone System). If the subject negatives were indeed made by Ansel, it is logical to assume that there would be exposure records for them, and that if the subject Jeffrey Pine negative was made at the same time as the CCP negative, it should be in the same exposure record notebook.

Images –
Mr. Norsigian’s team speculates that these are from the “Pictorialist” period of Ansel’s career, or mark a transition from pictorialism to straight photography. Such speculation does not provide positive or negative evidence to whether they are in fact Ansel Adams’ images. “Pictorialism” was the standard practice in photography well into the 1930s.
Mr. Norsigian’s team uses the locations of the body of work on the whole as evidence of provenance. Again, it does not provide positive or negative evidence. Ansel was not the only photographer in Yosemite or the San Francisco Bay area in the 1920s. The subject matter of these photographs would be common subjects for any photographer living in or visiting these highly touristed areas.

Other photographers active –
Mr. Norsigian’s team did some research on other known photographers who were active in Yosemite. They have ruled out amateur photographers based on the quality of the negatives. That is a subjective opinion, but does narrow the field of alternatives. Boysen, Fiske, & Watkins were deceased by the estimated time of the negatives. Arthur Pillsbury was active in Yosemite, and moved from Yosemite to Los Angeles, however the negatives have been disclaimed by his grand-daughter, Melinda Pillsbury-Foster. Harry Best would have been active, and in his 60s during the period. This fact does not rule him in or out, nor does it rule in or out any of his employees. This is under an assumption that the handwriting is Virginia Best Adams’, which I don’t believe. These are areas that were highly visited tourist destinations, and it is conceivable that it was in fact a photographer from Los Angeles, where they originally surfaced, who made the negatives.

Circumstances –
The question that cannot be proven is how these photographs ended up in a storage facility in Los Angeles. Mr. Norsigian’s team speculates that they may have been a part of Ansel’s teaching process at the Art Center School in Los Angeles in 1941. It is reasonable to assume that Ansel would have used some of his negatives during a teaching process, and perhaps even damaged ones. What is less clear is how Ansel would have let negatives get out of his care, in any circumstance. Particularly after the fire, Ansel was very careful about his negatives. He kept them in a bank vault in San Francisco, and would go to the bank to pull a negative to work with. How 61 negatives could get out of his possession is hard to fathom.

Burden of Proof –
It is my opinion that with an artist of the stature of Ansel Adams, the burden of proof is on Mr. Norsigian and his team, and that the level of proof should be at a minimum “certainty”. This is based on the fact that a positive or negative conclusion is made for posterity, and therefore becomes a part of the legacy of Ansel Adams.

No comments: