Do I Have an Original?Collecting Photography
Please read this article first before contacting us with a possible Ansel Adams Photograph.
We get many, many requests about whether an artwork that someone has acquired through a yard sale, inheritance, or other method is an original photograph by Ansel Adams. We are all optimistic by nature, so we try to look for things that would clearly identify it as something other than an original.
Looking at the Front (of the photograph)
Question #1 – Is it an Ansel Adams image?
Ansel made many, many negatives, and published over 1500. Less than 100 are well known to most individuals. That said, most Ansel Adams photographs are of images that were published at one time or another, there simply was very little way for a collector to know a print otherwise. Good resources for determining whether a print is an Adams image are the books “400 Photographs”, “In the National Parks”, and “Portfolios of Ansel Adams”. There are over 40 books of Adams images published during his life and posthumously, most likely your image will be in one of them.
If you are unable to determine that it is an Adams print based on one of these books, it is highly unlikely that it is an Adams. If it doesn’t have certain other characteristics, it will be difficult or impossible to prove, and even more difficult or impossible to sell.
Question #2 – Is the name of Ansel Adams typeset on the image or paper?
If so, then it is a reproduction of some sort, not an Original Photograph. If you see “Photography by Ansel Adams” in print form on your print, it is a reproduction.
Question #3 – Is the title typeset on the image or paper?
The only original photographs that Ansel did this with were the Parmelian Print Portfolio of 1927. The paper is a thin vellum, which by this time has aged to a pale cream to definite yellow. They were sometimes signed, sometimes not. Not all of the images are well known, but you can email us the title and we can tell you whether it is one of the images or not.
Question #4 – If you look at the print with a magnifying glass, do you see a dot structure?
If so, it is a reproduction of some sort. If not, it might be a gelatin silver print, or it might be a very good reproduction (such as our Modern Replica).
Question #5 – Is there a signature?
Unfortunately, the presence or absence of a signature is not that revealing. But it is a good data point. Having a signature does not mean it is an original, but assuming it is a real signature, it gets us closer. Not having a signature on the front also doesn’t mean that it is a reproduction, but most Adams original photographs have signatures.
Question #6 – What size is the image?
This doesn’t tell us anything really about whether it is original or not, but is something that we will want to know if you decide to contact us further. If it is larger than 20×24, some of these rules don’t apply.
Things to Look For on the Back (of the mount)
You will have to take the piece out of the frame to check these.
Question #7 – Is the photograph affixed to a mount board?
Many early photographs were loose, meaning not affixed to a mount. Almost all later prints were dry-mounted to a mount board. If loose, and not determined to be a reproduction based on questions 2-5, then it will probably need to be inspected by someone knowledgeable.
Question #8 – Is there a stamp or label on the back stating that it is a photograph by Ansel Adams?
Almost all original photographs printed later than 1930 will have a stamp or label on the back of the mount. Not 100%, but close. If not, and not determined to be a reproduction based on questions 2-5, then it will probably need to be inspected by someone knowledgeable. If it is not certain to be an Adams image (question 1) and does not have a stamp or signature, it is highly unlikely to be an Adams.
Question #9 – What does the stamp or label say?
There are a lot of different stamps and labels, the best compilation is in an out of print book published by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, authored by Karen Haas and Becky Senf. As of right now, we have not received permission to reprint those pages here.
If the stamp includes the words “Special Edition,” it is a forerunner to the current Yosemite Special Edition Photographs or similar, and is NOT considered an original photograph. If it is signed, it may have a value ranging from $0 (poor condition) to $6-8,000 (depending on the image in excellent condition).
If the stamp includes the words “Photograph by Ansel Adams,” then it most likely is an original. If there is a stamp reading something along the lines of “For Reproduction Only” or “Proof Print”, then it will be a photograph of uncertain make, but will not have much value in the open market. Reproduction prints should have been returned to Ansel, and are considered to be the rightful property of the Ansel Adams Archive, owned by and housed at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. See What Is It – Proof Prints in Detail [www.anseladams.com/proof-print-detail]
This set of questions will not absolutely determine whether a particular print is original or not, authentic or not, but helps to narrow the field considerably. If you haven’t ruled out the likelihood of it being an original, we may be able to help further without seeing it, but would probably have to see it to be certain.
The information we will need in order to respond is:
- Image title
- Print size
- Mount size
- And pictures of the image, any and all stamps on the back, and the signature.
If you feel that your print will meet this criteria
If you feel that your print meets this criteria, please include the above information and digital photographs of your print to email@example.com (if the print does not meet the criteria, these emails may not receive a reply – sorry, we get a lot sent to us).
NOTE: Ansel Adams was one of many talented photographers in Yosemite, California and the American West during the 20th Century. An old picture of a natural scene does not make it an Ansel Adams original photograph.
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Last Updated on February 16, 2021