Ansel Adams Heirs Challenge Garage-Sale Negatives

Ten years ago, Fresno commercial painter Rick Norsigian bought 65 old negatives at a garage sale for $45. He now claims they've been authenticated as the work of Ansel Adams and are worth $200 million. A representative of Adams disputes this, saying the value of his work was produced in the darkroom. Michele Norris talks to Andy Grundberg, chair of photography at The Corcoran College of Art and Design, and former director of the Ansel Adams Center for Photography.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It's the dream of every flea-market fanatic, or anyone who watches "Antiques Road Show": to pay peanuts for genuine treasure.

Rick Norsigian spent $45 at a garage sale to buy a series of glass negatives of photographs, photographs he now believes were taken by the renowned artist Ansel Adams and now, are allegedly worth $200 million. But there's a hitch. The grandson of Ansel Adams strongly doubts the authenticity of the negatives, and labels the $200 million figure a fantasy.

Andy Grundberg is the chair of photography department at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, here in Washington, D.C. He used to be the director of the Ansel Adams Center for Photography in San Francisco. He joins me here in the studio. Mr. Grundberg, welcome to the program.

Mr. ANDY GRUNDBERG (Chair of Photography, The Corcoran College of Art and Design): Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: So Mr. Norsigian's lawyer hired a panel of experts to evaluate whether the photographs were actually taken by Ansel Adams. They concluded that they were, and let's assume for the moment that they're right. Could a few dozen negatives fetch that much money, $200 million?

Mr. GRUNDBERG: I think it'll be worth $200 million in about 200 years, perhaps.

NORRIS: So you, too, question that figure?

Mr. GRUNDBERG: Well, the photography market is based on selling prints, and the negatives are a kind of way station on the way to producing a print.

NORRIS: So help us understand something. If the negative is not the work of art - if you think in your mind of an Ansel Adams photograph, they're black-and-white photographs. They have a certain mood and tone, and deep shadings to those photographs. What about that process helped him achieve that effect?

Mr. GRUNDBERG: Well, Ansel Adams is probably the master craftsman of photography in the 20th century. He wrote textbooks about how to make photographs look like - the way you want them to look. And that extended from how you expose the negative to how you develop the negative to how you make the print.

And like every photographer, he spent time in the dark room adjusting the way the negative values were onto the print. So the final print, it's not a figment of his imagination, but it's a device. It's a reflection of how he wants that picture to look.

Ansel had a great line, which was the negative is the score, and then making the print is really the performance of the score.

NORRIS: And how did that performance for him change over time? I understand that some of his photographs changed in the way that he printed them over time. "Moonrise, Hernandez," for instance, looked very different.

Mr. GRUNDBERG: Right. "Moonrise" is the classic example of an Ansel Adams print that changed drastically over the course of his career. He took it soon after he made it, in the 1940s, and then he continued to print it into the '70s. And the initial prints have clouds in the sky; the contrast between light and the shadows is rather soft; and it looks kind of moody and intimate.

And then increasingly, as he printed it over and over again, it becomes this much more dramatic rendition of this scene, and it takes on the quality of a metaphor. There's a graveyard in the foreground with light striking the crosses. And in the later prints, the crosses just kind of glow out of this dark background. So he really spent a lot of time interpreting that print and over time, changing his mind about how it should look.

NORRIS: To your mind, what should Mr. Norsigian do with these negatives?

Mr. GRUNDBERG: I think because they have such fascinating scholarly value, that he would be well off to donate them to the Center for Creative Photography, which has the archive of every other known Ansel Adams negative in the world, and let academic art historians - that really know the field - study them and argue about them.

NORRIS: Andy Grundberg, thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. GRUNDBERG: You're welcome.

NORRIS: Andy Grundberg is the chair of the photography department at the Corcoran College of Art. He used to be the director of the Ansel Adams Center for Photography in San Francisco.

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