Recent reports about the claims of one Rick Norsigian regarding the provenance and value of a cache of glass plate negatives, purportedly made by Ansel Adams during the 1920's and early 1930's, which he acquired at a private garage sale about 10 years ago, open a number of interesting issues. Authenticating artifacts is crucial to the art business--the museum and collecting fields--since the potentially high value of paintings, sculpture and photographs, etc., can spawn imitations and fakes, designed to fool buyers and institutions. The fake art market can be big-time crime, involving millions of dollars. Some people in the authentication business believe that some of the "masterpieces" now in public and private collections are really very clever copies, which may never be questioned. When a copy rises to the level of accuracy and finish that challenges our best efforts to verify its authenticity, it may be that our conception of "originating" value gets a little extreme. If the level of craft necessary to the production of any recognized work of genius, falls below the level at which authentication is based on unique abilities, we may have good reason to question the meaning of that craft as a measure of the value of the artifact. If some new, unknown, "drip" paintings were to show up, how would any curator or "expert" be able to say whether or not they had been made by Jackson Pollack? A Rembrandt can be dated scientifically, but to produce a fair likeness of the original painting, takes extraordinary skill and ingenuity.
Unlike art objects in the traditional sense, photographic prints are the product of a projection or imprint process, in which the image is derived from an original "negative." In the pre-digital era, manipulation of the image was mostly limited to the tonal intensities projected through the negative--certain kinds of tricks were possible, but nothing like what is now routinely done with Photoshop@ and other proprietary software programs. Thus, each print made by a photographic technician from a negative, was unique, even when every attempt might be made to duplicate, or make consistently identical copies from the same negative.
Traditional photographic prints, made from either glass negatives, or synthetic clear surface plastic sheets, are the final product. Photographic prints are where the value in photography inheres. A photographic negative is a crucial part of the material of the photographic process, but it's only a template of the final print. Traditionally, photographic negatives haven't been treated as artifacts in themselves. Even the photographic archives of great, renowned photographers aren't worth much, except as evidence of the process. Before the advent of the digital age, a negative could serve as the basis for new original prints, after a photographer had died, since the only other way to duplicate an original print was to re-photographic it, and then replicate the process over again. Today, of course, an original print can be scanned, and digital reproductions can be made which rival the clarity and density of the originals. Silver gelatin prints, of the kind that Adams used to print his black and white images during his life-time, are still used today, though digital printing is rapidly supplanting silver processes.
The value of original photographic prints by recognized artists has risen steeply in the last half century. For a long time, the "reproducibility" of the print was thought to undermine the uniqueness of the artifact, subtracting from its value. Though that misconception has faded somewhat, the value of photographic negatives is still regarded as insignificant. Even the negative archive of a great photographer, like Adams, or Weston, is of itself of little real inherent worth. After Edward Weston died, his son Cole Weston made a little franchise, making photographic prints from his father's negatives, using the printing instructions written by Edward. These prints had a certain value, but the negatives themselves, except as a facilitation of these "copies," have no specific worth.
The question of the value of negatives--plate or plastic backed--has traditionally revolved around their potential for production as prints. A negative by itself might be regarded as revealing the particular character of a photographer's darkroom technique, or of the particulars of his materials, but that's its only use, aside from historical curiosity. Photographic archives of individual artists may have an initial value upon acquisition--but making prints from a dead artist's negatives has never been a generator of capital.
But the Norsigian affair opens other questions. The provenance of the glass negatives Norsigian obtained is clouded. It's clear that there is no certain way to authenticate them as having been the product of Ansel Adams's hand, during the period in which he was using glass plates (1919-early 1930's). Evidence is sketchy. The images resemble those Adams made during his active career, but such views are hardly unique--many photographers made such images during this period. The plates appear to have been scorched, suggesting that they may have survived a fire which damaged much of Adams's archive of negatives. But scorching doesn't prove these are Adams's. Writing on the negative envelopes appears to resemble the handwriting of Virginia Adams, Adams's wife, but there is disagreement about the handwriting--misspellings, for instance, suggest she couldn't have been the author.
Prints of some of the negatives have been made, which I copied from the internet. They have the same picturesquely bland quality which characterizes much of Adams's landscape work. The vantages and straightforward approach to subject are generic, and not unusual.
The only value one could place on these fairly tame images is the association they may possess as examples of a famous artist's early, immature vision. If indeed the plates belonged to Adams, and somehow got away from his control, the only value (or copyright) which could be legitimately assigned to them would be to prints which Adams himself may have made from them. No such known prints, so far, have been discovered. The descendent of another photographer has suggested that she possesses a print, made by her relative, that matches a recent print made from one of Norsigian's negatives.
If prints made from these questionable negatives are sold as previously unknown or unavailable Ansel Adams prints, there may well be copyright issues. If it cannot be conclusively determined that the plates belonged to Adams, what right would Norsigian, and his gallery cohorts, have to sell them as Adams prints? Even if all the other kinds of copyright issues can be laid to rest, the use of the Ansel Adams name--which is controlled by the Ansel Adams Publishing Trust, administered by William Turnage--is certain to generate legal challenges. The Trust itself, of course, has a vested interest in maintaining control of its exclusive rights on the art market.
Enforcing copyright can be expensive, and difficult. And in the new Digital Age, authenticating original photographic prints, which can now be generated from highly sophisticated technology, similar to that which is used to make prints for reproduction in books and posters, may become economically unfeasible except in the case of truly rare and valuable artifacts.
But the valuation being claimed for these "lost Ansel Adams" plates--$200,000,000 by report--sounds excessive beyond anyone's wildest dreams. An example of one of Adams's most famous images--Clearing Winter Storm--sold recently for three quarters of a million dollars at auction. But there should on no account be any confusion between the value of an original full-scale print, done by Adams at the height of his career, by his own hand, with the unrealized negative images he may have made during his early "apprentice" years, before he had actually chosen to become a professional photographer. Even if Norsigian is able to authenticate these plates--which seems a stretch, given what has so far been reported in the press about his "evidence"--and he were able to get over the copyright hurdles associated with the use of Adam's name on the art market, the value of prints made by contemporary printers would not be significant. Since the negative plates themselves appear not to have great formal or aesthetic quality or distinction, what patron or customer would pay high prices for them? If their only value is as documentation of the early period of Adams's work, the public would be unlikely to pay high art prices for them. Reportedly, the gallery handling these ersatz "Adams prints" is scheduled to begin marketing them in the $1750-5000 apiece range.
Art patrons and institutions beware. Anyone purchasing one of these prints before the authentication dispute is resolved, and/or before the copyright issues regarding use of the Adams name are litigated or settled, could end up holding what would be, in effect, useless curios, or "stolen property." Even if the plates are authenticated, and the prints are cleared for sale, the proliferation of ersatz Adams prints could only have a dampening effect on the potential market. Cheap "legal fakes" (as prints from other hands are regarded in the field) have very low desirability on the scale. And these images--at least those that have been circulated--are not interesting as things-in-themselves.
Perhaps most tellingly, critical opinion regarding the value of Adams's work has not changed much since he died. Adams's big-shot landscape photographs are not very interesting aesthetically. As poster-images for environmental romance, or as studies in highly refined printing technique, they're always going to be popular. But Adams was not an erudite thinker, or a pioneer of new ways of seeing photographically. Among his contemporaries, he was primarily regarded as a gifted technician, and as an effective promoter of photography as a pastime. Alfred Stieglitz's early generous recognition of Adams aside, nearly the whole body of Ansel Adams's oeuvre is pictorial and dry, and doesn't stand up to intellectual scrutiny.
There is nothing about this (possibly bogus) cache of unknown work that is likely to change anyone's opinion about Adams's importance as an artistic photographer. It looks just as dull and unimaginative with these early images, as it did before. I think Mr. Norsigian is destined for obscurity--a footnote at best, to the Adams legend.