FRESNO, Calif. - Rick Norsigian discovered the object of his obsession one sunny Saturday seven years ago at a garage sale.
A painter for the Fresno school district by day and antique buff the rest of his waking hours, Norsigian was combing through suburban castoffs when he came across a time-weathered wooden box. The crate was heavy with old glass-plate photographic negatives.
Frozen in early 20th century black and white were sharply detailed shots of Yosemite landmarks, the San Francisco waterfront, Carmel's historic mission and scenic Point Lobos.
Norsigian bought the five dozen negatives for about 75 cents apiece. They were a nice bit of memorabilia, he figured, nothing more.
Still, over the months that followed, when he pulled the delicate plates out of faded manila envelopes to show friends and relatives, nearly everyone said the same thing: These old glass negatives look like the work of Ansel Adams.
A notion slowly took hold of Norsigian: Perhaps this was a misplaced collection of the American photographic legend's early work. Maybe he had turned up a lost treasure.
Antiques always had been Norsigian's fixation. He spent a lifetime carting home an oddball collection of old stuff from auctions and estate sales around his Central Valley hometown.
But nothing amid the home's antique sprawl ever hooked him like the glass-plate negatives.
At first, he knew little of Adams, who died in 1984. Norsigian, 60, had never been to a photography exhibit. Now, suddenly, he was boning up on all things Ansel, poring over a dozen Adams biographies and photo books. Page after page yielded coincidences.
Adams, who was born in San Francisco in 1902, worked early in his career with 61Ú2-by-81Ú2-inch glass-plate negatives just like the ones Norsigian had found. During the 1920s he shot mostly in Yosemite and the Sierra but also at San Francisco's Baker Beach near his family home and in Carmel, spots featured in Norsigian's negatives.
In the photo books, Norsigian found several Adams prints resembling his garage-sale negatives.
Norsigian's most tantalizing biographical discovery was the 1937 blaze that engulfed Adams' Yosemite darkroom, destroying a third of his work. Some of the Fresno glass plates, he noticed, seemed scorched at the edges.
The man who sold Norsigian the plates in 2000 had told him they came from an abandoned warehouse in Los Angeles. Norsigian learned in his reading that Adams had moved briefly to Los Angeles in late 1942 to teach.
Sketching a timeline in his mind, he became increasingly convinced the negatives had been salvaged after the fire, carted to Southern California and then somehow left behind.
"It took me awhile to figure it out - all the pictures I have, they're trying to tell a story," Norsigian said. "These are early Ansel Adams, before he became famous."
Itching for proof, he took a day off from work on a fine spring morning in 2001 and headed up the winding road from Fresno to the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley.
Glenn Crosby, the gallery curator, invited Norsigian into a back room.
On a big table they spread a dozen photographs printed from the glass plates. Crosby didn't give an opinion, but he asked his guest: Would you like to talk to Adams' heirs?
That afternoon, Norsigian drove home excited, sure that the question meant that Crosby had seen the same thing he had.
For months, Norsigian waited. Finally, late that summer, he received a phone call from Jeanne Adams, wife of Ansel's son, Michael. They wanted to come see the negatives.
The couple gazed at each shot, not saying much. Norsigian remembers Michael Adams suggesting that the quality seemed similar to Ansel's. Norsigian showed them the wooden box, pulled out a few glass negatives.
Then the couple asked to see the fraying manila envelopes the plates had been stored in, each one marked with distinctive handwriting. They looked at the writing, then at each other. Nothing was said. Finally, Jeanne Adams turned to face Norsigian.
This isn't Ansel's handwriting, she told him.
It didn't hit Norsigian until late that night - his hunt might be over, his treasure fool's gold. It might be time to give up.
But Norsigian needed a second opinion. There were other experts out there.
Norsigian sent his prints to Mary Street Alinder, Adams' biographer and assistant in the final years before his death. Alinder's book had become his Adams bible. He had read it seven times, all 500 pages. If anyone had answers, Norsigian figured, she would.
Alinder wrote back in April 2002 to say she was baffled. The size and apparent fire damage "seem to indicate they might be Ansel's," Alinder wrote. Although some of the images looked like the work of Adams, "some do not," Alinder said. "The handwriting just complicates matters." She thought the writing on the envelopes might belong to Virginia Adams, Ansel's wife, but conceded she was no handwriting expert.
The possibility was enough to keep Norsigian going. His hunt was becoming everything to him.
He kept searching for an Adams expert with a different point of view - and eventually found one.
Jonathan Spaulding, yet another Adams biographer, was at the time an associate curator with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. In September 2003, Norsigian took more time off from work and drove to Southern California.
Spaulding said the print of a park ranger standing atop Diving Board Rock at Glacier Point looked like Ansel Hall, a pioneering Yosemite naturalist who befriended Adams in the early 1920s. Spaulding said the car pictured in front of the Carmel mission in another of the shots might be the 1926 Buick owned by Albert Bender, an Adams benefactor known to take road trips with the photographer.
None of the negatives approached Adams' best work, Spaulding said, but in the early 1920s the photographer still had not developed the mature style of decades to come.
Searching the Internet, Norsigian learned that Hall, the ranger he suspected was in the photo, had a daughter living in Colorado. He rang her up.
Merrie Winkler and her husband, William, recalled that Hall, who died in 1962, had vivid memories of the young Adams from the early 1920s as a pesky budding photographer who eventually won him over.
After the photo arrived in the mail, the couple peered through a magnifying lens at the ranger on the rock. They wrote back in December 2003.
There was no doubt, they said. It was Hall.
With that, any uncertainty left in Norsigian evaporated.
But he needed an expert on his side. So he asked Alinder to vouch for his negatives. But repeated e-mails went unanswered.
More recently, Norsigian's negatives found the lap of an aging aide-de-camp of Adams.
Rondal Partridge, still spry at 89, has a long and storied career of his own - son of photo pioneer Imogen Cunningham, apprentice to the legendary Dorothea Lange, late-1930s lab assistant to Adams.
Partridge was there in 1937 when Adams' Yosemite darkroom went up in flames.
They had just returned from an outing with Edward Weston, a co-founder with Adams of the legendary photo collective Group f/64, when fire belched out the darkroom's windows.
"I don't remember any glass negatives, but there might have been," Partridge said.
Adams in those days was "a bit of a genius and a bit of a nut," Partridge said, up at 6 a.m., fueled in part by Irish whiskey. But nobody, he said, "has ever reached the level of photographic technique that Ansel did."
Norsigian's negatives don't begin to approach that skill, Partridge said as he flipped through the prints in his Berkeley hills home.
"These are not compositions Ansel would have made," he concluded. "I'm 99 percent certain." He shrugged. "This is a real mystery."