*[Updated] Ansel Adams, Earl Brooks share top billing in show on Yosemite photography since the 1860s
It’s questionable whether Rick Norsigian ever will achieve his goal of convincing the photography world that 65 old-fashioned glass-plate negatives of Yosemite and coastal California that he found at a Fresno garage sale 10 years ago constitute the “lost” works of Ansel Adams.
But the controversy, which has landed Norsigian and his advisors in court against the trust that administers Adams’ copyrights, does have one clear winner: “Uncle Earl” Brooks, who, to the extent he was known at all as a photographer, was remembered only in Delaware for running a portrait photography studio of some local note.
Now Brooks (pictured at right in a page from a recently disclosed memoir he wrote in the 1970s) has co-billing with Ansel Adams in “An Illustrated View of Yosemite,” a show opening Thursday at the Scott Nichols Gallery in San Francisco. Nichols, a leading dealer in Adams’ prints, has championed Brooks as the actual photographer behind the Norsigian trove, and has made “featuring photographs by Ansel Adams & Earl Brooks” the subtitle of the exhibition, a survey of views of Yosemite dating from the 1860s to the present, taken by more than 15 photographers.
Others represented include Adams’ well-known predecessors, William Henry Jackson, Eadweard Muybridge and Carleton Watkins, his famed contemporary Edward Weston, and Alan Ross and John Sexton, photographic assistants to Adams in the years before his death in 1984. Ross and Sexton have worked to undermine Norsigian’s claim and advance the Uncle Earl theory.
The rise of Earl Brooks began in July when his niece, Marian Walton of Oakland, saw TV coverage of the Beverly Hills news conference that the Norsigian team held to unveil its findings. Walton alerted the station –- and soon Nichols –- that one of the pictures looked just like the one hanging in her bathroom. That picture of Yosemite's Jeffrey Pine (pictured beside a corresponding image made from one of Norsigian's negatives) will be part of the Scott Nichols Gallery show, along with three other Yosemite photos Walton said her father had told her were taken by his brother, Earl Brooks.
Ross and Sexton have opined that one of Walton’s pictures exactly matches one of Norsigian’s images, while the Jeffrey Pine and a third picture are very similar to Norsigian shots, and could have been taken in the same sequence. If they do match, counters Norsigian’s attorney, Arnold Peter, it only shows that Earl Brooks somehow managed to acquire unsigned prints that Ansel Adams had created from negatives he himself had shot, and which Norsigian now owns.
Since the “Uncle Earl” theory began making headlines, additional branches of his family in Canada, Delaware and Atlanta have come forward. One of Brooks' heirs possessed a 390-page unpublished memoir Brooks wrote a few years before his death at 80 in 1978 -- including additional photographs of Yosemite.
William Turnage, managing partner of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, said the family sent him a digital copy of the memoir, entitled “The Story of Earl Brooks and His Time, or 73 Years into the 20th Century by Earl Brooks Himself.” The pictures and text offer “no smoking guns” that would conclusively establish Brooks as the creator of the Norsigian negatives, Turnage said. Curiously for a professional photographer, he added, Brooks “says very little about how he made his photographs, [and] nothing about individual photographs.” But Turnage said Brooks does write about photographing in Yosemite and working with glass plates. In a research report of its own early last month, the Norsigian team argued that a key drawback to the “Uncle Earl” theory was a lack of evidence that Brooks had used glass-plate negatives.
The key physical evidence for Norsigian’s claim has been handwritten labels on paper sleeves that he says held each negative. Two experts he hired found that it was the writing of Adams’ wife, Virginia –- although the couple’s grandson, Matthew Adams, has said she never would have misspelled prominent Yosemite place names, as the labels do.
Brooke Delarco, Earl Brooks’ step-granddaughter who lives in Delaware, said Tuesday that she checked known samples of her grandfather's handwriting against images of four of the Norsigian labels that are shown in the authentication report at ricknorsigian.com. The result: no match. The Norsigian sleeves' writing "doesn’t look to me to be at all similar to Earl’s handwriting," Delarco said, adding that she continues to believe that the Norsigian find is not a trove of lost Ansel Adams pictures, but of lost Earl Brookses.
Through its website, the Norsigian team continues to sell limited edition prints of 17 pictures for $7,500 or $1,500 each. They’re being sold on an “as-is” basis, noting that the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust “has not authenticated” nor endorsed the pictures.
The Adams trust sued in August to shut sales down. A bid by Norsigian and his marketing partners to dismiss the case is set to be heard Nov. 12 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The Adams trust contends that the Norsigian team’s marketing of the prints violates its trademark on commercial use of the name “Ansel Adams.”
In court papers, attorney Peter argues that Adams' artistic stature makes the controversy “a matter of great public concern” that deserves "a robust debate." Therefore, he contends, the Norsigian team is not merely a commercial enterprise, but a participant in an ongoing debate over a public issue, giving it a right to use Adams' name while trying to prove its theory.
For its part, the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust argues that the Norsigian team is not primarily interested in advancing a theory about the photographer’s career, but in exploiting Adams’ name to sell pricey photographic prints and posters. In a legal memo in the court file, the trust disputes that Norsigian and PRS Media Partners, an adjunct of Peter's law firm, have a 1st Amendment right to use Adams’ name, because their aim is not primarily research or debate, but selling photographic prints.
The authentication evidence the Norsigian team announced in July, along with an estimate that the negatives were worth $200 million, has not persuaded the art-photography world, but some credulous early news reports, especially a one-sided CNN exclusive posted several hours before the Beverly Hills news conference, helped give the story legs.
Few experts in Adams' work had heard of Norsigian’s two main authenticators, Robert C. Moeller III, an art historian and advisor to private collectors who had no photography expertise, and Patrick Alt, a Culver City photographer with hands-on experience in large-format photography but no academic credentials beyond a master's degree in art and photography from UC Irvine. Moeller has since changed his opinion and endorsed the "Uncle Earl" theory; Alt has wavered, saying in a long post last month on a photography blog that he is inclined to defer to Sexton, the former Adams assistant who supports Brooks’ authorship. But Alt said in a recent interview that he remains 80% convinced that the negatives were shot by Adams during the 1920s, and document a period when America’s greatest landscape photographer was still learning and had not yet achieved his mature style.
Lamenting “what a train wreck this has become,” Alt called for further authentication to be done, including “extensive forensic evaluations” of Norsigian’s negatives -- something the Norsigian team neglected to do in its original authentication bid. Peter said Monday that the Norsigian team is eager to enlist other experts to take up that work, but “the trust’s lawsuit has had a ... chilling effect” on researchers' willingness to get involved.
-- Mike Boehm
*[Updated Nov. 2, 5:35 p.m.]: Brooke Delarco called Culture Monster after this post appeared and said that, on further reflection, she no longer thinks that the handwriting samples she has from her step-grandfather, Earl Brooks, are different from the photo labels that Rick Norsigian has published on his website, with the writing attributed to Ansel Adams’ wife, Virginia. Delarco said her initial impression that there was no match was based on a comparison with handwritten notes in Brooks’ typed memoirs. She said that the writing in another document from Brooks, a diary, appears similar to the Norsigian labels. In any case, said Delarco, a sound and video engineer, she has no expertise in handwriting analysis.
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Photos: Jeffrey Pine (top); Earl Brooks in Yosemite in 1914; Yosemite view; Earl Brooks portrait. Credits: Marian Walton (Jeffrey Pine, left); Rick Norsigian Collection (Jeffrey Pine, right); Brooke Delarco (Earl Brooks in Yosemite); Marian Walton (Yosemite view); Carolynn Bloomer (Earl Brooks portrait).