After a seven-month legal dispute, the Ansel Adams Publishing Trust reached a settlement on Monday with Fresno, Calif., resident Rick Norsigian. While Norsigian is legally permitted to continue selling prints and posters through his website, which he calls “The Lost Negatives,” he is now officially forbidden to use Ansel Adams’s name or likeness. Norsigian is required to post a disclaimer prepared by the Adams Trust stating, “Merchandise sold through this website, including but not limited to darkroom/digital prints or posters, is sold as is with no representation or warranty of authenticity as a work of Ansel Adams.”
The trust sued Norsigian last August, taking action against his claims that a batch of 65 glass-plate negatives—purchased 10 years ago for $45 at a garage sale—were shot by the famed nature photographer. Through his website, Norsigian had begun capitalizing on the Adams name by selling prints (priced at $1,500–7,500) made from the negatives. On Dec. 28, 2010, Norsigian and PRS Media Partners filed a counterclaim against the Adams Trust.
While disputing Norsigian’s claims, the Adams Trust had little counterevidence until July 29, 2010, when Oakland resident Mariam Walton saw Norsigian on TV attributing a print to Adams that she recognized as nearly identical to one by her uncle, photographer Earl Brooks. Like Adams, Brooks worked in Yosemite and on the California coast in the 1920s and ’30s. The Earl Brooks theory bred further doubt about the origins of the negatives.
Those familiar with Adams’s work have long questioned Norsigian’s assertion, leading him to hire experts to “affirm” their authenticity. At one point his team estimated the collection’s value at $200 million. The specialists Norsigian consulted included a handwriting expert and a former FBI agent, but no historians or scholars of photography.
Ansel’s grandson Matthew Adams, along with Adams’s former business manager, William Turnage, took issue with the proclaimed worth of the glass plates. The L.A. Times reported last summer that because the original artist printed just 1,500 photographs total, his grandson and Turnage say the value of the work lies in signed vintage prints. Furthermore, the Adams archive at the Center for Creative Photography in Arizona has almost 45,000 glass plate negatives, so the discovery of 65 isn’t ground-breaking, regardless of their authenticity.