A Turnaround in Ansel Adams Photo Dispute
By REYHAN HARMANCI
Published: August 30, 2010
A leading member of the expert team that declared that a box of negatives bought at a California garage sale were the lost work of Ansel Adams has changed his mind.
This photo was taken by an amateur photographer, Earl Brooks, his niece says. She challenges the other photo’s attribution to Ansel Adams.
Robert C. Moeller III, a former curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and one of the experts hired by Rick Norsigian, a California man, to evaluate his find, said that after further review he had decided that at least some of the images Mr. Norsigian purchased were taken by an unheralded photographer, Earl Brooks.
“I made a mistake,” said Mr. Moeller, a former curator of European decorative arts and sculpture at the Boston museum, who was part of the team that in July announced the discovery of what it called Adams’s “lost negatives.”
Mr. Moeller said that his reversal last week came after examining four pictures owned by Marian Walton, of Oakland, Calif., a niece of Mr. Brooks’s. Ms. Walton has said that her uncle took at least one of the photos that Mr. Norsigian and his team have represented as the work of Adams. When Mr. Moeller reviewed additional high-resolution images of Mr. Brooks’s images, all landscape shots of Yosemite National Park thought to be taken in the 1920s, he agreed.
“It didn’t take me long to say they were same camera, same time, same man,” Mr. Moeller said in an interview. “My report, which said there was a high probability that Ansel Adams took the photos, has got to change.”
No other members of the panel of experts have come forward to second-guess the panel’s findings. When told of Mr. Moeller’s revised opinion, a lawyer for Mr. Norsigian, Arnold Peter, said that he agreed that the two sets of images looked similar, but “without possession of the negative of the negative, there is no evidence that Earl Brooks created the negative from which the prints were made.”
“It is very likely,” Mr. Peter said, “that Ansel Adams made the negative and created the Brooks prints.” Among the evidence assembled by the Norsigian team to buttress Adams as the creator was a finding by two independent handwriting experts that the writing on the sleeve of the negatives came from Virginia Adams, Adams’s wife. A meteorologist also said the weather pattern on the negatives indicated that they were produced on the same day as other photographs definitely attributed to Adams.
Mr. Moeller said that, as part of Mr. Norsigian’s expert team, he had been paid $1,000 a month plus expenses for six months last year to pore over the 61 glass-plate negatives that Mr. Norsigian bought for $45 at a garage sale in Fresno, Calif., 10 years ago. (The art dealer now marketing prints from the Norsigian negatives put the value of the find at $200 million.) Mr. Moeller said that his work included traveling twice to the Center for Creative Photography, in Tucson, Ariz., the site of Adams’s archives; doing fieldwork in Yosemite; and consulting photographers.
Mr. Moeller said in late August that he examined Ms. Walton’s photos through the help of Scott Nichols, a San Francisco gallery owner who borrowed them from Ms. Walton. Mr. Moeller found three of her images to be exact matches with the negatives held by Mr. Norsigian, he said.
Patrick Alt, a photographer who was a consultant for Mr. Norsigian alongside Mr. Moeller, has also said he found that the images matched, but said he was not sure that Mr. Brooks, rather than Adams, was the photographer.
Mr. Brooks’s relatives said that he was an accomplished photographer. Ms. Walton, 87, inherited the four prints from her father, Mr. Brooks’s brother, and she said she remembered him as “a bohemian type of person.” In a statement, Marge Bloomer, Mr. Brooks’s stepdaughter, said that Mr. Brooks was born in 1897 in California but moved to an artists’ colony in Delaware, where he ran a successful photo portrait studio.
Mr. Moeller took on the consulting job regarding the negatives in June 2009, he said, because he wanted to “solve a puzzle.” During his investigation he found that the quality of some of Mr. Norsigian’s negatives approached that of Adams’s work, but not all.
“The lowest level of quality of Ansel Adams is well above the lowest level of Norsigian’s images,” Mr. Moeller said.
So why did he issue such a definitive statement that Adams was the photographer? “Maybe I kind of wanted them to be Ansel Adams,” he said.
The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, led by the managing trustee William A. Turnage, has filed a lawsuit in federal district court in San Francisco to stop the sale of the Norsigian prints on the grounds of trademark infringement.
The first public viewing of the images is scheduled for Sept. 25 at the David W. Streets gallery in Beverly Hills, where they will be on sale for $1,500 and $7,500, depending on the print’s quality. They are also being sold by Mr. Norsigian online, where a disclaimer says that the Adams trust has not “endorsed, condoned, sponsored, participated or otherwise approved” the sale. The site says that “the entire risk as to the quality and authenticity of the print described above is with the buyer.”
Mr. Moeller said he came forward to educate the public in making decisions about the worth of the pictures. “I have one of the Norsigian pictures on my iPhone, so I look at it all the time,” he said. “It’s really nice — a 20th-century American photo of Yosemite. It has value, although the value might be $25.”
Reyhan Harmanci is a staff writer at The Bay Citizen, which produces a twice-weekly local section in Bay Area editions of The New York Times.