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Ansel Adams controversy: Will Fresno State's art gallery show disputed photos?

August 3, 2010 |  6:39 am

Norsigian_Collection045-7_22 Did Ansel Adams take this picture?

And if the answer is in doubt, under what conditions should it and others like it be the subject of an exhibition in a university art gallery?

The question of whether the photos are by Adams has been unanswered since 2000, when Rick Norsigian found a trove of old-fashioned glass-plate negatives of nature scenes from Yosemite and coastal California at a garage sale in Fresno. Then Norsigian started trying to prove that they were lost Adams images from the 1920s or 1930s.

The dispute heated up last week after Norsigian presented what he and his lawyer, Arnold Peter, presented as conclusive proof at a gallery in Beverly Hills – only to have Adams’ heirs and the trustee in charge of the photographer’s copyrights challenge the expertise of Norsigian’s experts and pointedly deny their conclusions.

The back-and-forth continues. On Monday, Peter issued a “response” to some of the Adams side’s attempts to punch holes in the authentication.  Adams’ grandson, Matthew Adams, has noted that handwritten labels on the sleeves holding the negatives, attributed by Norsigian’s handwriting experts to the photographer’s wife, Virginia, included misspellings of prominent Yosemite place names that she never would have made.

Peter now has marshaled evidence that Bridal Veil Falls (the correct spelling) and Bridal Vail Falls (the handwritten spelling) were used interchangeably by one of Ansel Adams’ colleagues, A.C. Pillsbury, and that “Vail” was the dominant spelling in the 1800s and early 1900s. But Matthew Adams also has cited “Washborn Point,” “Glaciar Point” and “Happy Iles” (rather than the correct “Washburn,” “Glacier” and “Isles”) as problematic spelling errors on the labels.

But a new wrinkle interests Culture Monster at the moment -- the dance going on behind the scenes at Cal State Fresno, where the Norsigian team has announced that an exhibition of the photographs will begin Oct. 14 at the campus’ Phebe Conley Gallery, as a prelude, they hope, to a national tour.

What seems odd is that the gallery is under the aegis of the school’s Department of Art and Design, and apparently nobody on that faculty has had a say yet as to whether Cal State Fresno should give its imprimatur to artworks whose attribution and provenance is, to say the least, unresolved.

RickNorsigianLawrenceKHo“I think it would be an embarrassment for Fresno State," said William Turnage,  Adams’ former business manager and now managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing  Rights Trust

"I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing for them to be putting them up and saying they are [by] Ansel Adams, when many experts think they are not.”

The point man, thus far, in making arrangements for the show is Kent Karsevar, director of development for Cal State Fresno’s School of Social Sciences. Karsevar describes himself as “a family friend” of Norsigian and notes that Peter, the attorney whose firm is helping Norsigian finish a documentary on his find and market prints and posters of the disputed photographs, is “a friend of the university.” Peter earned a 1999 master’s degree in criminology from Cal State Fresno, and last year he was the College of Social Sciences’ alumni recipient of the Top Dog Award, an honor the Fresno State alumni association confers each year at a gala event.

Karsevar said Monday that, due to the established connection, Peter approached the social sciences school with the idea of having the photographs shown at the campus art gallery. “We’re still in talks to solidify the venue,” he said. The uncertainty “does not have anything to do with any cold feet” caused by the dispute over whether the works Cal State Fresno would be showing are in fact by Ansel Adams, Karsevar added. Instead, the issue is purely logistical: whether prior commitments for other art shows might leave insufficient room in the gallery to hang Norsigian’s trove.

The only discussions with the art department so far, Karsevar said, have been with Edward Lund III, whose title is gallery technician.  “We haven’t gone into the subject of [the photos’] legitimacy or anything like that. We’ve been talking about nuts-and-bolts topics – scheduling, how much wall space is available.”

The art faculty is expected to be back on campus in time for the Aug. 23 resumption of classes, Karsevar said. Then they can address such questions as whether there’s an educational or art-historical purpose for mounting the show – and if so, what sort of curatorial input the art department should have. Neither Lund nor department chairman Martin R. Valencia nor photography professor Julia Bradshaw could be reached for comment Monday. 

Also potentially an issue is the fact that the exhibition would be provided by a single owner – Norsigian – who stands to reap financial rewards from the exposure. He recently began selling limited-edition prints of 17 of the pictures for $7,500 or $1,500 each, and posters for $45. New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art came in for pointed questions about its independence last year when it announced an exhibition entirely of works from the private collection of one of its trustees, Greek business magnate Dakis Joannou. The issue wasn’t whether the art was authentic, but whether the museum was improperly allowing itself to be a particularly high-class showroom for pieces Joannou might subsequently turn around and sell.

The Assn. of Art Museum Directors’ nonbinding code of professional practices in art museums says that “the artistic and intellectual integrity of exhibitions is paramount,” and that “ideas and information conveyed to the public must be based on the principles of sound scholarship.”

Of course, the crux of the debate over the Norsigian cache is whether the team he hired, the methods they used and the report they issued amounts to “sound scholarship” -- or something less.

-- Mike Boehm


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Upper photo: An image of a waterfall in Yosemite that Rick Norsigian attributes to Ansel Adams. Credit: Rick Norsigian Collection

Lower photo: Norsigian showing images during a news conference last week in Beverly Hills. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times