Cult Of Personality
July 29th, 2010

The Tetons and the Snake River

Ansel Adams - The Tetons and the Snake River

Ten years ago, Rick Norsigian bought a collection of several dozen glass plates created by photographic icon Ansel Adams for $45 at a garage sale. Or maybe he didn’t.

Matthew Adams, Ansel Adams’ grandson who runs the Ansel Adams Gallery, doesn’t believe that they’re authentic.

Are they or aren’t they? Obviously, I don’t know, but it is apparently a $200 million question. This means, of course, that if you look at these images and don’t attribute them to Ansel Adams, then they’re worth approximately $45. However, if you look at the exact same images and attribute them to Ansel Adams, then they’re apparently worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The difference, of course, is the name. I think that I have a problem with that. The photographs, regardless of who created them, should stand on their own merits. They are either great photographs (which is very subjective) and worthy of a collector’s riches. Or they are not.

Is a photograph automatically great just because Ansel Adams created it? I hope not. I suspect (perhaps presumptuously) that Ansel Adams would agree with me. In fact, if they are his photographs, and he chose not to distribute them publicly, then there might be a reason. Maybe he didn’t consider them good enough. Perhaps he even hated them.

I think that it’s important for us to ask ourselves if a photograph truly is great or whether we’re just caught up in a cult of personality.  All work from a great photographer will not be great. Likewise great photographs can be created by unknown photographers. Adams himself said, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”

Perhaps these are not Ansel Adams’ glass plates. Or perhaps they are but were not considered to be part of “a good crop”. What we should do, in my humble opinion, is look at photographs for what they are and not for who created them. We can use Adam’s own words as our guide…

“A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.”

Perhaps we need to look at the photographs, judge them on our reactions and debate less about who might have created them. We may never know the answer to “who?”, but we can still explore “why?” and “how?”, and aren’t those more interesting questions?

14 Responses to “Cult Of Personality”

  1. If they are Ansel Adams’ work, I suppose the scarcity makes them valuable, but you’re right, we should judge them on their own merits.

  2. Jeffrey Chapman says:

    I can’t hang scarcity on my wall and admire it as scarcity. Isn’t scarcity just a marketing ploy?

  3. Aaron Moller says:

    I feel like this is a prevalent attitude in the art world in general. It’s also hard to justify the value of prints that weren’t made by Ansel himself.

  4. nevada wier says:

    Excellent post Jeffrey. However, it is important to know whether or not they are Ansel Adam’s glass plates. Not because of the images, but if they are part of the history (and perhaps evolution) of a great photographer. Nevada

  5. Jeffrey Chapman says:

    I completely agree from a historical perspective. However, I wouldn’t want people snooping through the trash on my hard drives (which is perhaps an additional reason to support your willingness to purge!).

    My biggest issue is that I keep hearing about the supposed value and nothing about the images themselves. I think that mentality belittles our beautiful craft. The news outlets want controversy, and I don’t want them to win that battle without being a small gnat pushing back. I’d rather they gave us beauty, inspiration, thought, etc. They won’t, but we don’t have to be OK with that.

  6. Ed says:

    Really thought provoking post Jeffrey. All a name means is that you have a certain guarantee that their work might be better than someone else. That is because that person spent time and effort honing their skills to get them to a consistent level of quality where they are judged to be good. However, you are absolutely right that just because they may have the Ansel Adams’ name it doesn’t automatically make them amazing photographs. Scarcity doesn’t make them valuable either, quality does.

    To use an analogy I see this problem in peer-review all the time in science. Scientific papers are reviewed without the reviewer being blinded to who the authors are. That leads to a certain amount of bias with respect your personal/professional/competitive relationship with the authors, familiarity with their past body of work and it’s quality. Often a great piece of work from a relatively unknown lab is criticized more than the same body of work would be from a more established “name” lab. And vice-versa can be true too where a sub-standard body of work from a “name” lab can get by simply because of the authors “name”. I wish peer-review was completely blind. To me it doesn’t matter what the scientists have done before unless the latest submission is up to standard.

    Therefore, all it really comes down in terms of the photographs value is are they good? And only then should the fact that Ansel Adams created them matter. Like you said, maybe there’s a reason that they didn’t see the light of day and they are being billed as “going to show the world the evolution of his eye, of his talent, of his skill, his gift, but also his legacy,” possibly marketing speak that may mean these aren’t his best work but hey, they are Ansel Adams images.

  7. I like your post and comments. I think though the high price tag is not just due to scarcity if they are Ansel Adams work, but that he was a pioneer and genius in his art and there will be “no more” from his keen eye. If they are not his, all you ask are good questions and very much should be explored. I agree with Nevada, it would be good to know, if that is possible.

  8. nellleo says:

    The whole thing sounded from the beginning like someone just trying to cash in on the name. the fact that he’s an “artist” that went after experts and estimates before even thinking of providing a perspective on the artwork itself is just odd.
    The website sprung up immediately after the story broke, and he’s not even trying to sell his own artwork and capitalize off the publicity generated.
    And why wait 10 years? that long to find willing experts?

    Fishy all around.

  9. Jeffrey Chapman says:

    I think I’d like us to be obsessed with whether or not these images move us and not with whether or not they are “authentic”, which quite frankly insults the original artist if they do move us and aren’t Ansel Adams’.

  10. Jeffrey, I agree: we should judge photographs on our reactions and debate less about who might have created them. In competitions it is a good practice that the authors name is hidden to the jury. This is a wise practice.

  11. ian Furniss says:

    Great post Jeffrey and I agree totally. I’m not an Ansel Adams fan (in terms of music i’d probably like one of his singles but not buy the album) so it’s nice to hear someone say this as I was beginning to write my own thoughts off as bias.

    Leaving aside the ‘who’ and i’d question whether any photograph is worth an average $3m a pop but then, I guess as with anything, it’s worth whatever someone will pay.

  12. So, would you pay $3 million for a photograph from “Uncle Earl”?

  13. Chris Ward says:

    I’ve never understood why some people like every painting or picture from a particular artist. I would doubt any accomplished photographer would think every picture they took was outstanding.

    It would be nice experiment to put several of Adams lesser known works, and these images in a room and have the “experts” pick the best ones, and the ones they thought were actually his.

  14. Matt Welsh says:

    One thing worth pointing out is that what he bought were negatives, not prints, and part of what made Adams photographs his own was his attention to the printing process. This of course means that these will never be Adams prints since he’s not here to make any from the negatives.

    Notwithstanding, I completely agree that any prints made from these should be judged on their artistic merits alone and that should determine their value, and the fact that these may be Adams should not automatically make them valuable.

    A very thought provoking post Jeffrey…

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