Key expert jumps ship, says garage sale pictures aren't by Ansel Adams after all
An art expert whose opinion backed Rick Norsigian's claim that he owns a "lost" trove of pictures by Ansel Adams now says they aren’t Adams’ work after all.
What’s more, Robert C. Moeller III, one of just two Norsigian experts who identified the old-fashioned negatives as the work of the great nature photographer, said he trusts the judgment of former associates of Adams who had disputed or even ridiculed Moeller’s original finding that “all of the images in the [Norsigian] collection were most probably created by Ansel Adams.”
Moeller said he informed Norsigian’s attorney, Arnold Peter, on Wednesday that he no longer wants any contact with “Team Norsigian,” the term adopted by the Fresno wall-painter and his allies who are helping him market prints of the negatives from his garage-sale find for $7,500 or $1,500 each.
“I take full responsibility for having made the first decision, and I take full responsibility for having changed my mind,” said Moeller, who acknowledges he is not a photography expert; as a museum curator in North Carolina and Boston from 1967 to 1980, his specialties were medieval and European art; he since has been a consultant to collectors. With Moeller's retraction, Patrick Alt, a Culver City photographer, remains as the lone art or photographic expert in the Norsigian team's report who thinks the negatives are previously unknown works by Ansel Adams.
Moeller said that he changed his mind about two weeks ago when he had the chance to look at Yosemite pictures attributed to “Uncle Earl" Brooks, the previously unknown photographer who a group of highly-placed opponents of Norsigian’s claim points to as the one who shot the garage-sale negatives.
With three of the four pictures, Moeller said in an Aug. 23 e-mail to Peter, “I am convinced that, without any doubt…the Uncle Earl set and those depicted in the Norsigian set are virtually identical....I feel that it is entirely possible that Uncle Earl…produced all of the Norsigian images which I had attributed to Ansel Adams.”
Brooks’ niece, 87-year-old Marian Walton of Oakland, brought her “Uncle Earl” pictures forward after seeing a television news report on the Norsigian find. But Peter has said Walton’s pictures don’t amount to proof that they were taken by Earl Brooks rather than Ansel Adams. He has theorized that Brooks could have bought the unsigned prints, or gotten them as a gift from Adams; on Wednesday he issued a statement reiterating that the Uncle Earl prints "[leave] intact the distinct possibility that Ansel Adams created the negatives from which the prints were made, and then acquired by Mr. Brooks."
Moeller doesn’t buy it. “There’s no foundation for that. It’s not going to stand. I don’t want to go there. This is why I’ve pulled back completely from [Team Norsigian]. I’m not interested in the next step they are taking.”
“I’m very fond of Rick Norsigian,” Moeller added. “He’s a guy who at least ought to be praised for stick-to-it-iveness. I think his drive is not principally about money, but his conviction that what he has is [by] Ansel Adams. The team organizer is Arnold Peter, and Rick is the fellow who will probably die with the belief that these are by Ansel Adams.”
Moeller said that a photographer in Jackson Hole, Wyo. -– someone he’d shared the Norsigian images with last year and who had said then that they didn’t look like Ansel Adams photos -- helped him get copies of the Uncle Earl pictures to compare them to the Norsigian ones. He said he has since talked to William Turnage, the former Ansel Adams business manager who has been Team Norsigian’s most vociferous critic, and to Alan Ross, one of two former Adams photographic assistants who had criticized the Norsigian claim, then subsequently examined the Uncle Earl prints and said that three of the four are either identical or near-matches for pictures from the Norsigian find.
“They know Ansel Adams 10 times better than I do. These guys have lived with the images. I have one [Norsigian photo] on my cellphone screen, because I really love the picture, but now I see that it is highly questionable whether Ansel Adams would have framed that view that way.”
Turnage heads the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, which last week sued Norsigian and PRS Media Partners, a consulting firm connected with Peter’s Beverly Hills firm. The allegation: using Adams’ name to advertise and sell the Norsigian prints violates the trust’s trademark rights.
“Thank God for Uncle Earl,” Turnage said this week. “In terms of the public debate, that may have been the most convincing thing.” As for the impact of Moeller’s change of mind, he said, “It clearly knocked the pins out from under them.”
Scott Nichols, the San Francisco photography dealer who has been examining the “Uncle Earl” pictures while putting them in safekeeping for Marian Walton, said Tuesday that he recently heard from another branch of Earl Brooks’ family that she had not been aware of. He was contacted by an elderly step-granddaughter and step-grandson of Brooks who now live near Montreal; Nichols says they told him that Brooks moved from the Visalia area to Delaware in the early 1930s. There, he remarried and became a successful portrait photographer. He was in his early 80s when he died in 1978; Walton, who inherited the Yosemite scenes from her father, had believed that Brooks died young.
Nichols said that while it’s unlikely additional Yosemite photos by Brooks can be found, he hopes that samples of Uncle Earl’s handwriting might turn up. The only physical evidence so far linking Norsigian’s negatives directly to Ansel Adams is the handwritten labeling on the sleeves that contained them. Two experts have attributed it to Adams’ wife, Virginia, but the photographer’s grandson, Matthew Adams, says misspellings of common Yosemite place names on the sleeves are errors she could never have made. If Earl Brooks’ writing matches what’s on the sleeves, Nichols said, it would prove conclusively that the Norsigian find isn’t the “lost” Ansel Adams trove, but the lost Earl Brooks trove.
-- Mike Boehm
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Photos: At top, images of Yosemite's Jeffrey pine -- a print owned by the niece of "Uncle Earl" Brooks print at left and a print made from a negative that Rick Norsigian attributes to Ansel Adams at right; Bottom: Yosemite image owned by Earl Brooks' niece. Credits: Top: Courtesy of Marian Walton (left), Rick Norsigian Collection (right); bottom: Courtesy of Marian Walton.