Monday, September 13, 2021


Some of you may remember that there was a thing back around 2010 where some random dude had some glass plates that were maybe Ansel Adams lost negatives, etc etc. This story, by way of A.D. Coleman, picks up where that left off. Let us return to that heady time, briefly.

In broad strokes what happened was some dude named Rick Norsigian acquired a bunch of glass plate negatives some years before 2010. They were scenes from Yosemite, so naturally he figured they were probably Ansel Adams pictures, and spent quite a bit of effort finding someone who would back him up on this. This effort was hampered by the fact that the negatives are pretty definitely not Ansel Adams negatives, that worthy being pretty careful about not losing track of his things.

At some point, around 2010, Norsigian found a credible-sounding band of know-nothings willing to back his play, which band included some pretty sketchy characters, but whatever. There was a big News Thing. Are they? Aren't they? Because, of course, right? These column inches practically write themselves! Are they maybe done by some guy named Brooks, instead? Brooks's descendants have some prints of similar pictures! OMG! So fun!

A.D. covered this with evident delight as it unfolded, excoriating everyone involved including various Ansel Adams-aligned groups.

Among the many things Coleman notes: If these negatives had been verified as Adams's work, then the negatives, but not the pictures, would belong to Norsigian, substantially reducing that latter's upside. At the same time, though, no Adams negative has ever been sold, they're all in an archive someplace, so the negatives themselves would probably have some real value as, essentially, museum-collectible novelties. Finally, if they had been verified as Adams' work, they would even then simply not be important; we have tons of Adams work from all eras, and these pictures were never selected by the artist as part of his offical ouevre, etc.

So, in a way, there was never any way this wasn't going to be a nothing-burger, but it was very exciting to watch, and we certainly got to enjoy a lot of bad behavior all around.

The industry of trying to turn uninteresting piles of old negatives into money existed before this, and carries on today.

Ok, so there's that.

As this was going on a nobody named Melinda Pillsbury-Foster (MPF) attempted, without much luck, to stick her oar in. Her grandfather owned one of several photography concessions in Yosemite Park in the early 1900s, and his studio burned down in 1927. Before that, though, he'd taken lots of pictures, and sold postcards and whatnot in the park. MPF has a web site about grandpa which is a bit of a maze. She has presented some not unconvincing evidence that the negatives are in fact Pillsbury negatives.

Now, the "Brooks shot these" theory is based on some prints that the Brooks family has, that they attribute to Mr. Brooks. There has been some difficulty in establishing whether or not Brooks was in the park shooting with a glass plate camera, but of course 100 years down time anything is possible.

However, it is known (I think) that Pillsbury sold prints, and it certainly seems to me possible that Brooks simply bought a couple Pillsburies, and that his grandchildren have, for whatever reason, come to the conclusion that their grandpa shot them.

It is known that Pillsbury worked extensively in Yosemite with an appropriate camera, it is at least well argued that some of the negatives are his, it is known that Pillsbury sold prints. The "Brooks bought the prints" theory is at least plausible.

Ok, so Norsigians plates are maybe Pillsbury's pictures, saved from the fire somehow. Given that Pillsbury's archive, such as it is, is definitely not as well-provenanced as Adams's archive, it's certainly more credible that this is a box "mysteriously saved" from Pillsbury's studio than from "mysteriously saved" from the other fire (so many fires, eh?) that burned Adams's studio.

Maybe you think this is the bonkers part. Oh, sweet naive child. No, the bonkers part is this:

MPF is now accusing Adams of burning Pillsbury's studio, at the behest of, or at least with the co-operation of, the National Park Service, and having run off with Pillsbury's archive, and passed off much of the work as his own.

Adams is well known to have been capable of real viciousness, but mainly in the form of the written word. Certainly a relentless self-promoter. Also, recall his flirtation with maybe taking up the libertine lifestyle like his friend Edward Weston (scotched when Virginia told him he couldn't.) Adams was not a nice fellow, and was certainly an opportunist.

I find it difficult to believe he'd set a fire, though. He seems more of a "write a stern letter" fellow than a "let's take this outside" fellow, and I have to say MPF presents (as far as I can see) no evidence whatsoever beyond 2nd and 3rd-hand testimonies. To be honest, her writing does not inspire one to much confidence in her mental state. Unhinged might be a bit much, but, you know...

It is not even quite clear what the shape of the conspiracy MPF thinks she has uncovered even is. There seems to be some notion that Stephen Mather, the then director of the National Park Service, had a plan to turn the park system into a profitable thing, and that he conspired with the people who would later become the modern Curry Company to consolidate the concessions in Yosemite by various means, including a little judicious arson. Adams, we are to presume, was some bush league yahoo who had a pack of matches, the eye of Virginia Best (the Best Studio become the Adams studio after Virginia married Ansel), and a camera.

I mean, Mather was an early 20th century industrialist, and the fire did help with that consolidation, and the Curry Company, as well as the Ansel Adams Studio, did indeed come to pass as the gloriously successful survivors, and some stuff did burn down. There were definitely winners and losers, there were arguments and conflicts. You can definitely thumbtack a lot of shit to a wall and connect it all with red yard, down in your Bat Cave.

Regardless, I love this story. How fantastically salacious! How glorious! What fun!

It's a perfect epilogue to the Norsigian saga, which is no doubt why AD included it in his most recent piece.


  1. After a cursory read of the Coleman and Pillsbury-Foster posts, I think you're being a little unfair here. Her writing doesn't strike me as at all strange, assuming that what she claims as facts and evidence are not fantasies.

    Personally, I would love to believe that Ansel Adams was an arsonist, an opportunistic fraud, and probably also a white supremacist child-murdering cannibal, too. I've never like his stuff... Now I have good reason not to!


    1. Actually, after a little more reading of the MPF stuff, it is a *little* strange, but the writings of those nursing a grievance often tend towards tinfoil-hat territory.

      Adams was still probably a cannibal, though. The evidence has just been covered up.


    2. It kinda creeps up on you, doesn't it? "This is somewhat repetitive, tends to wander a bit, and I feel like some of this is not very likely...'

      "Adams totally burned my grandfather's studio down at the behest of Mather who was still mad about the wildflowers (link to wildflowers) ..." and you're like, wait, wildflowers?

      I mean, it's not full on flat-earth madness by any means. She's lucid, and makes a moderately coherent case based on the evidence she has. It's just the evidence isn't very good.

      There *do* seem to have been rather a lot of fires in Yosemite, and I consider it a near certainty that many of the dealings in 1920s Yosemite were shady as hell. There are evidently several 1000 pounds of records on the concessionaires and whatnot in Yosemite, and someone with more patience than I might find something interesting in there.

      Even today the National Park concessions feel kind of grifty.

  2. If I become a cannibal and burn stuff down, will people see my pictures too?

    Asking for a friend.

    1. "Behind every great photographer, there is a great trail of gnawed bones", or something like that.