ANSEL ADAMS RICK NORSIGIAN BOUGHT NEGATIVES AT A GARAGE SALE. THERE'S A GOOD BET THEY ARE THE WORKS OF LEGENDARY PHOTOGRAPHER.
The photographs are hauntingly familiar,
reminiscent of the stunning black-and-white images of Yosemite's Bridalveil Fall and Mirror Lake shot by Ansel Adams.
The nature scenes, printed from about 60 glass negatives unearthed at a Fresno garage sale, may, in fact, be early works of the legendary California photographer. Or they may simply be beautiful landscapes, taken by an unknown photographer with a keen eye for light and composition.
An announcement is expected later this month, after a team of authentication experts working in Burbank completes its extensive review.
"Of course I'm not sleeping well because we're at the last leg of this," said Rick Norsigian, a painting contractor and amateur antiques collector who purchased the negatives for $45 back in 2000.
"I thought I've been to the last leg a few times. But I want to prove once and for all that I knew what I was talking about."
Norsigian has retained Culver City attorney Arnold Peter who, in turn, has enlisted the help of Lowry Digital in Burbank. The image-enhancement and restoration company magnified the images and experts began comparing details of the mystery photos with Adams' known works.
Patrick Alt, a large-format photography expert who has admired Adams for decades, was called in to help authenticate the work.
"My conclusion is unequivocal: Yes, these are Ansel Adams photographs. There is no question in my mind," Alt said.
"When I saw the proofs ... his style was so distinct, you could just feel him in the room."
Peter is confident enough in Norsigian's find to have drafted a plan for a nationwide tour and online gallery.
"We're hoping everything we worked for and everything we believed in will be proven," Peter said. "We're also very confident about it.
"We don't want to put them in a museum or a library that very few people would frequent," Peter said. "We want to make them available to the public and to use technology to do it. We think Ansel would have approved of this."
Peter said several collectors have already approached him with multimillion-dollar offers for the negatives, which have been safely stored in a vault.
Norsigian happened upon the box at a Fresno garage sale, where he'd gone in search of a vintage barber chair to add to his antiques collection.
The chair was in bad shape, so he began browsing through the other items. He discovered a box of glass negatives with images he recognized from years earlier, when he worked as a painting contractor at Yosemite National Park.
He bought the negatives for $45 and added them to his antiques collection, which includes old clocks, gas pumps, coffee grinders, telephone switchboards and even an airplane propeller.
From time to time, he'd pull out the negatives and show them to family and friends, who remarked on the coincidence of the geographical locations and their similarity to Adams' work.
"They said, 'Hey, maybe this could be Ansel Adams,"' Norsigian said. "And, of course, we all got a chuckle out of that."
That enthusiasm eventually prompted Norsigian to delve into the possibility that the garage sale discovery could be authentic.
He reached out to the Ansel Adams Gallery, which connected him to a relative of the famed photographer. Norsigian said he was asked to drop off the images at the relative's home so she could study them, but he declined out of concerns that he may not get them back.
So he went through other routes, starting with the certification of a court-qualified document examiner that the handwriting on the manila folders holding the negatives was that of Virginia Adams, Ansel Adams' wife, Norsigian said.
Another key piece of evidence came from a meteorological expert who compared an Adams photo of Sentinel Dome, the second-highest point in Yosemite Valley, with one found in Norsigian's collection. Based on the snow drift, cloud formation and shadow of the sun, the expert concluded the photos were taken at the same location on the same day within minutes of each other, Peter said.
"Does that prove that maybe somebody else didn't take it?" Peter asked. "No, but it's certainly a very, very strong piece of evidence."
Another sign the plates are authentic, according to Alt, is that one of the images on Norsigian's plates is on display at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, which houses Ansel Adams' archives.
Still, many in the photo world are skeptical.
Chief among them is Matthew Adams, the photographer's grandson and president of the Ansel Adams Gallery. In a recent interview with The Sacramento Bee, he said there's no proof the photos in Norsigian's collection were shot by his grandfather, who died in 1984.
"Mr. Norsigian has been claiming these negatives were made by Ansel Adams for many years," he said. "I am unaware of anyone knowledgeable agreeing with him."
About eight times a year, the Ansel Adams Gallery hears from people wondering if an image in their possession could be a long-lost piece of Adams' artwork, said Dustin Nelson, staff photographer at the Yosemite National Park gallery.
"Now and again we receive phone calls from people who say, 'I found a print in a yard sale for $10 - that kind of thing," Nelson said.
"Negatives would be less frequent, because he (Adams) had a tighter rein on them."
In fact, what makes the find particularly interesting is that most of Adams' earlier work - some 5,000 negatives - were destroyed in a 1937 fire. Alt said when he examined Norsigian's slides, he detected fire damage and he is almost certain they were probably rescued from the same fire.
"This is a totally unique find in the history of photography," Alt said.
"This illuminates a very important part of his evolution as an artist because this is the work that he did in his 20s. He had images that didn't fit in anywhere, that show he is trying to discover his voice, to fully realized Ansel Adams masterpieces."
Elizabeth Ames, an appraiser and owner of the North Hills-based J.C. Ames Auctioneer Inc., said an expert on Adams' works would look at the age of the glass negatives as one way to determine their authenticity.
"It's very possible he found a diamond in a box of rocks," said Ames. "But percentage wise, he might have just found a rock in a box of rocks."
Anxiously awaiting the expert report, Norsigian said he feels confident that the works belong to Adams. He has compared the images with those of other photographers from that era but nothing comes close.
"I'm 100 percent - if not more than 100 percent - positive that these are the works of early Ansel Adams, because I tried to prove myself wrong," Norsigian said.
"I tried to find another photographer close to that kind of quality, and I couldn't do it."
Staff Writer John Miller contributed to this report.
(1 -- 3) This photo of Mirror Lake in Yosemite National Park was printed from one of the negatives that collector Rick Norsigian, top, purchased for $45. A Burbank firm is trying to prove whether Ansel Adams shot the negatives.