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[*Updated] Ansel Adams garage-sale find debunked? Experts say Yosemite shots are by Earl Brooks

August 8, 2010 |  1:13 pm



Rick Norsigian's 10-year quest to prove that he turned up a trove of "lost" Ansel Adams photo negatives at a Fresno garage sale now has a rival explanation advanced by Norsigian's opponents: They were taken by a heretofore unknown photographer from the Fresno area named Earl Brooks.

The suggestion was made July 27 by Brooks' 87-year-old niece, the same day that Norsigian made headlines by proclaiming that his find had been validated and was worth $200 million. Now, Marian Walton's theory has been endorsed by Adams' former business manager and two of the famed photographer's assistants. They shared their evidence with The Times this weekend.

Arnold Peter, the Beverly Hills attorney who is helping Norsigian market the pictures and a documentary film about his find, last week issued a rebuttal to numerous criticisms raised about the Norsigian claim. If prints attributed to Walton's long-dead Uncle Earl indeed turned out to have been created from the Norsigian negatives, Peter said, it only proved that, at some point, Ansel Adams made prints from the negatives, and they somehow found their way into Earl Brooks' hands.

Norsigian held a packed news conference July 27 at a Beverly Hills art gallery to reveal what he and his team of hired experts said was conclusive proof that his 65 old-fashioned glass-plate negatives of scenes from Yosemite and coastal California were previously unknown pictures that Adams shot during the 1920s and early 1930s.

The conference made the evening news in the Bay Area. Watching TV in her den in Oakland was Walton, a former secretary and grandmother of four whose family hailed from the Fresno and Visalia area. She saw Norsigian's picture of the Jeffrey pine on Yosemite's Sentinel Dome flash on her screen. "Oh my gosh," Walton thought to herself. "That's Uncle Earl's picture!" She didn't even have to get out of her chair to make the comparison -- it was hanging on the bathroom wall, in clear view from where she sat, she said in a recent interview.

Walton called the TV station, KTVU, and the next day, after her weekly tennis game, she got a visit from a reporter and Scott Nichols, owner of a San Francisco photo gallery that did a considerable business in Ansel Adams prints. Nichols took the Jeffrey pine picture and three other Yosemite shots from Uncle Earl that Walton had kept in a drawer.

KTVU did a story on Walton's picture, with Nichols saying there was only a minute difference between it and the one on Norisigian's website, which the Fresno school district employee had posted as one of 17 images he'd begun selling for $7,500 for a hand-made print, $1,500 for a digital one and $45 for a poster.

Nichols told The Times last week that the slight differences in the tree's shadow and the clouds behind it were probably caused by a short time lapse between the taking of each picture. Everything else -- the focus, brightness and angle, were the same. It was the best evidence yet, he said, of what he and other dealers, as well as Adams' family and professional circle of former assistants already had concluded: that Norsigian's negatives had been shot by somebody other than America's greatest nature photographer.

On Friday, Nichols sent digital images of Marian Walton's four pictures to William Turnage, Ansel Adams' former business manager and now managing trustee in charge of granting the rights to publish or copy Adams' work, and to Alan Ross, John Sexton and Rod Dresser, photographers who worked closely with Adams as his assistants during the 10 years before his death in 1984.

Last year, Norsigian's team sent Ross 61 of the images, hoping he would confirm that they had been taken by Adams. He didn't. So, Ross was able to make comparisons not just between Walton's prints and the 17 pictures Norsigian had published, but also to most of the Norsigian find.

The findings: One of Walton's prints, showing Old Inspiration Point road in Yosemite, is a seemingly identical match to an unpublished Norsigian image, Ross and Sexton said in e-mails that Turnage shared with The Times.


Two others were close matches, the two former Adams assistants said, differing slightly in such details as the shape of water spray at Bridal Veil Falls -- suggesting they were different takes from the same photo session. 

As telling as the identical photos showing the park entrance road, said Nichols, were flaws in one of the slightly different waterfall pictures. The Norsigian negative of the falls and the almost-identical print belonging to Walton had identical scratches and white spots, Nichols said Saturday, meaning they were taken by the same camera, whose internal imperfections -- possibly, specks of dirt --  registered the same on each image.

Nichols said that with three pictures either identical or apparently from the same photo shoots, it's enough to prove that the entire Norsigian find must be the lost work of Uncle Earl, not Ansel Adams. Sexton noted in an e-mail that, "now, of course, the Norsigian crew will claim that Uncle Earl didn't make the four photographs" but must have bought them from Adams or at Best's Studio, the Yosemite photography store that sold Adams' work. Adams married Virginia Best, daughter of the studio's owner, in 1928. The studio remains in business as the Ansel Adams Gallery, with their grandson in charge.

In an interview last week, Sexton told The Times that conclusive proof could well lie in the negatives themselves. Because all 44,000 Ansel Adams negatives are archived at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, a physical comparison should be made between Norsigian's negatives and identically sized glass negatives from the archive -- with particular attention to clear spots along the negatives' borders that invariably were caused by the wooden holders and metal clips used to slot the glass plates into old-time cameras.

Mark Osterman, an expert on photographic processes at the George Eastman International Museum of Photography in Rochester, N.Y., and Paul Messier, a Boston-based photographic conservator with high-profile expertise in photographic authentication, said last week that such proof could be telling if there were distinctive irregularities in the known Adams negatives that had been caused by the plate holders. Because photographers used their holders over and over, Norsigian's negatives should then have the same unexposed clear spots as the known Adams negatives. Messier said other useful comparisons could be made by testing the chemical composition of the two sets of glass plates, and their emulsion residues.

Walton said she had owned the four photographs since her father's death in 1981; he told her they were taken by his older brother in 1923.  Walton said she last saw her uncle in the late 1930s, when she and her parents paid a visit to the ailing man in Visalia, not long before his death.

She said she didn't know much about Earl Brooks, other than that he married twice and liked to take pictures. "He had an adventuresome spirit. He did travel around a lot," including a stay on a commune in an eastern state. "I don't think he had much schooling, but he was a good photographer."

As for Norsigian, "I may burst his bubble," Walton said. "I'm not trying to do anything but get to the truth. I hate to see anybody taken advantage of on the premise that he has what he thinks he has."

-- Mike Boehm

[*Updated: An earlier version of this post said that all four of Marian Walton's photos were exact or close matches to pictures from a group of 61 photos that Alan Ross examined from the Rick Norsigian find. Ross says that one is an exact match, two others are near matches, and the fourth is not a match.]


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Photos: Comparison of photos of the Jeffrey pine in Yosemite. On left is a print owned by Marian Walton that she says was taken in 1923 by her uncle, Earl Brooks. Credit: Photographer(s) in dispute/Marian Walton. At right is an image made from a negative that Rick Norsigian found 10 years ago and attributes to Ansel Adams.  Credit: Rick Norsigian Collection

Comments () | Archives (59)

With doubt cast upon this situation, who's going to pay 200M? Who's going to pay 10M?

Its not the back shot, it's the front of shot that shows the differences. The camera would have been on a tripod to take the still shot. The two pictures are taken from similar positions, possibly at the same session, from two different cameras. Obviously taken within hours/minutes of each other as the tree shape is identical. It seems unlikely that only one photographer would take one shot and then move the tripod a short distance to take a virtually identical image.

billybobb--No one said it was the *same* photograph--they look to be from the same photo session.

Apparently, one of the other photos that Walton possesses (only one of four is shown here) shows similarities to one of Norsigian's that means they were probably taken by the same camera....

Of course, if Uncle Earl lived in nearby Visalia, he may well have purchased the four prints in the Fresno store that sold Adams's works. It may just be family lore that says Uncle Earl took the photos.

Only Norsigian's own experts have verified the plates. Sounds like the plates Norsigian acquired need to be compared to known plates in the museum mentioned in the article--which may prove whether they were taken in Adam's camera (refer to the article).

If you find something at a yard sale that someone didn't want previously to you, isnt the find yours?? If they are Ansel Adam negatives or not the one who found them should own them and the rights to them

Looks like the pictures were not taken by Ansel Adams. Given the evidence that has come out, it might be kind of hard to convince someone that the negatives are worth 200 million.

who cares...this is the same photo and the Adams family knows it. Trust me...this is ALL about the money it could bring to an outsider based on a name.

Bobbybobb, the article addressed the differences in the images. It said those shots were not the same but were probably taken from the same place on the same day, within minutes of each other.

this is really interesting. they should go through adam's old negatives and check the defects.

I say....WHOA!!!!

You know, I think the wisest comments here are the few that mention how fortunate we are to have more photos of Yosemite from this by-gone era, no matter who took them. And, Marian, your uncle took beautiful photos!

BILLYBOB gives men named Billy and Bob a bad name.

When did reading comprehension become such a lost art? It is acknowledged several times in the article that the pictures are not the same.

Anyone who has taken nature photography knows that once the camera is set up, many exposures are taken, both to take advantage of different light (on days with patchy clouds) and also with different aperture/shutter speeds to bracket exposures. It is highly likely that these two photos are but a couple of many exposures Earl Wilson made on that day in Yosemite.

OF COURSE the clouds are different. The photos would have been taken anywhere from seconds to minutes apart. What is irrelevant is the look of the clouds in the background; what is highly relevant is the identical set up and framing of the two pictures. For anyone to so slavishly duplicate the set up of another photographer so as to duplicate his or her original work is beyond implausible.

Sorry, but it completely doesn't matter at all if the negatives are Ansel Adams' or not, because, it was Ansel Adams' technique in the darkroom that made them worth so much, not the Yosemite content.

Even Ansel Adams' estate is not too concerned about whether the negatives are genuine, because, Ansel Adams was a virtuoso in the darkroom, and his techniques made the prints unique.

Sorry to inform you, but, if you would have followed this story from the begining, you would have known this little factoid.

@Glenn Davis - all "art" today functions within an economic structure, and is thus branded by the artist to attain value. A great photograph or artwork is generally considered as part of an entire body of work by an artist, not as a one-off 'masterpiece' image. That's why great advertising imagery doesn't rise to the level of art.

*Lots* of people take great photos of nature. However, Ansel Adams and his work are considered to be hugely significant because he took and printed beautiful photographs of natural subjects at a time when that subject matter was not in fashion; he created the Zone System, a rigorous approach to black-and-white photography that is still in use (even by digital shooters); and he was an early and vocal advocate for the protection of wilderness areas.

That's why his name association means something - and why his entire body of work (not just his photographs) is much more than "relics."

I read all of Ansel Adam's books about photography and know that he would NEVER have gotten sloppy about securing his original negatives.

He was a careful, thorough genies.

That's why he was so great.

Like, duhh!

who cares who pressed the shutter button on pictures of the same old landmarks that thousands of tourists photograph every day of every year from before Adams time until now. The content of the pictures is uninteresting and the identity of whoever took them couldn't possibly mean any less.

What's in a name? Apparently $200 million.

This is one of the things that has always irritated me about "art".
Something should have value because of its intrinsic nature, not
the fact that it was done bu a particular person.

I am Rick Norsigian’s attorney and the person who put together the investigative team that issued the authentication report almost two weeks ago. So, I will state up front that I have my own point of view and opinion. I will not reiterate that here and will let you all decide for yourself whether the negatives were created by Ansel Adams. What I wanted to note here is this story is not only inaccurate but falls below accepted journalistic standards. This reporter appears to have become nothing more than an advocate for the Adams family and the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. The reason for my belief is two-fold. First, while I specifically asked the reporter for the opportunity to comment on and respond to this story, he has now twice failed to do so and published the positions and statements of the Ansel Adams Family and Trust without providing me an opportunity to respond or refute. Second, last week the reporter expressly told me in writing that “the Uncle Earl theory is highly questionable.” The only thing that has happened since he made this statement is that over the weekend he received from or through the Managing Trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trusts statements of three alleged experts who claim these are the works of someone other than Ansel Adams—these supposed experts are Alan Ross, Rod Dresser and John Sexton. A single Google search reveals the following: Alan Ross is currently the print-maker for the Ansel Adams Gallery, Rod Dresser is the former Business Manager for the Trust and John Sexton is currently the Photographic Special Projects Consultant to the Trust. Regardless of where one comes out on the current debate, I think everyone would agree that these are important facts to point out and that the reporter’s failure to do so negates any vestige of neutrality which is the cornerstone of objective news reporting.

I don't know if they're by Ansell Adams or not, but what I really find fascinating is people's willingness to wish a truth into existence because the story is so good. If you believe these are Adams's negatives, you can keep believing YOU are going to find a copy of the Declaration of Independence at a yard sale ... and not just an old electric percolator, a rusty penguin ice bucket, and a stack of Reader's Digest condensed books.

What I find most disturbing is the correction at the end of the story. Rush to journalism, with no fact checking. This writer isn't doing either the Adams estate or the Earl Brooks family and is adding confusion to the entire story.

Others have mentioned the background, but notice also the snow patches on the range (Clark? Cathedral?) on the horizon which should be unique to a year and approximate day.

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