This one really is an Ansel Adams. Print, Half Dome from Glacier Point Hotel, 1929, by Ansel Adams, Museum of the American West Collection, The Autry
This one really is an Ansel Adams. Print, Half Dome from Glacier Point Hotel, 1929, by Ansel Adams, Museum of the American West Collection, The Autry

What Makes a Picture Worth $200 Million?

The dustup last week over whether Fresno resident Rick Norsigian’s glass black-​and-​white negatives really are the early work of famed photographer Ansel Adams got me thinking: What exactly makes a photograph (or a negative) artistically significant?

In the case of many 20th Century fine art photographers like Adams (1902–1984), the darkroom has a lot to do with it.

“I thought the whole discussion was really fascinating because it calls into question what is the value of a photograph,” said Jonathan Spaulding, chief curator for the Autry who wrote the book Ansel Adams and the American Landscape (University of California Press, 1995). “The estimates are wildly inflated for the value of this collection because, for photographers like Ansel Adams, the value resides in the print. That is the final expression of his artistic vision. The negative is just a step on the way.”

This one really is an Ansel Adams photograph. Print, Half Dome from Glacier Point Hotel, 1929, by Ansel Adams, Museum of the American West Collection, The Autry

Amy Scott, the Autry’s Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross curator of visual art, agrees.

“It’s the moment that the shutter is clicked, of course,” Scott said. “But there’s also the moment in the darkroom, the development of the print, and the way the negative gets made into a print.”

The Autry this year acquired the archives of another important photographer, Theo Westenberger (1951–2008), whose hand-​tinted images of Southern California places, flora and architecture became classics. Scott is helping to research and curate that archive.

The controversy over Norsigian’s negatives began last Tuesday, when the 64-​year-​old wall painter announced with his lawyer that about 60 plates he purchased for $45 at a yard sale in 2000 had been authenticated by a team of experts as the work of the iconic photographer and appraised at $200 million. There was no indication of how the negatives ended up in the yard sale.

However, Adams’ heirs, including grandson Matthew, who is president of the Ansel Adams

Hand-​tinted print by Theo Westenberger

Gallery, disagreed, pointing to, among other things, misspelled location labels on the negative sleeves purportedly written by Adams’ wife. She was too familiar with the places, they said, to have made such mistakes.

The story got complicated as others opined, a scheduled exhibition of the negatives at Cal State Fresno’s Phebe Conley Gallery was thrown in doubt, and Norsigian began selling digital and darkroom prints made off the negatives for from $1,500 to $7,500 apiece on his website.

“The idea that not just anybody can pull a print off of a negative and have it be that artist’s work is, I think, central right now,” Scott said. “Especially in the digital age, in which everything is so easy to reproduce and circulate so freely.”

Spauding said Norsigian approached him many years ago to authenticate the negatives, but he could not give the man a definitive answer.

“When I looked at the negatives, I thought they might be Ansel Adams’. They fit the development of his skill at that time, in the 1920s. He was young then,” Spaulding said. “But there was nothing to me that definitively could identify them as Ansel Adams’.”

For Scott, many factors go into the appraisal of photography as art, including the degree to which a photographer is involved with processing an image after he or she captures it — recognizing that not all photographers are intimately involved with the reproduction of their images. For some who work commercially, the client may have much more say in the finished image and the medium that displays it.

“Especially in the digital age in which everything is so easy to reproduce and circulate so freely and so rapidly, the idea that it has to have the artist’s touch… that there has to be a direct connection, is something that I think is increasingly up for debate,” Scott said.

But because photographers like Adams and Westenberger came of age before digital photography, they were evidently hands-​on about processing, he working with light and dark, she with hand tinting of prints. Those who work with their legacy have to respect that.

“Adams considered himself a darkroom practitioner and a darkroom technician,” Scott said. “You have to think about what the artist considers his role to be in the process.”

If the negatives prove authentic — Scott is not a photo historian and has no opinion on whether they are — their sketchy provenance might give a clue to what the photographer himself thought of them.

“Their provenance and their history… suggests that he saw them as sort of working, teaching prints anyway,” Scott said. “Evidence seems to suggest that he himself placed less importance on them by the ways in which he used them and the fact that they eventually left his control.”

Even so, the negatives are by no means worthless.

“What is interesting is whether they have value in and of themselves whether or not Ansel Adams made them,” Spaulding said. “People lose sight of what’s really a very interesting trove of early 1920s imagery of Yosemite. I suggested when Mr. Norsigian approached me that these negatives belong in a museum or archive where people can view them and share them as valued documents of Yosemite.”

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About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.