Proof Prints

We at The Ansel Adams Gallery have recently fielded a number of inquiries about Ansel Adams photographs stamped “Proof / Not To Be Used For / Reproduction or Display”. There are variations of the stamp, with a consistency of labeling as “Proof”, and a consistency of intent.

First of all, “Proof” Print is not the same as “Artist Proof”, which is a finished work reserved by the Artist over and above a numbered edition. “Proof Print”, as Ansel used the term and stamped the photographs, were work prints. For a number of reasons elaborated below, we do not believe “Proof Prints” can or should be considered, marketed, or sold as fine art prints.

The Ansel Adams Gallery does not and will not offer “Proof Prints” for sale.

It may make more sense, using today’s lexicon, to think of them as “Work Prints”. We use Ansel’s term here for historical accuracy.

Ansel Adams and/or his assistants made “Proof Prints” for a variety of reasons:

  • in process work prints, a rough draft of the positive to identify tones, composition, potential. A basic working print to see what information exists and composition can be created;
  • a rough draft of an image to decide whether or how to proceed or include in a publication, either artistic, commercial, or documentary;
  • an early stage piece of commercial work, provided to a client to see what direction that client preferred to go, followed up by either a reproduction print or other commercial purpose work;
  • a photograph against which to compare to while on press.

In general, the purpose was to grasp what the image could be without spending the lengthy amount of time to create a fine finished exhibition print when it wasn’t needed. After all, in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, you had to create a photograph on paper and could not email or “Dropbox” a digital photo file.

What is clear, as evident through his procedure of stamping, is that for whatever reason, he did not consider the example to be an exhibition print and did not intend for it to be representative of his body of work as an artist.

WHO MADE IT?
Ansel had assistants printing his negatives for various purposes from the mid 1930s to when he passed in 1984. One of those purposes would have been creating proofs for various reasons. It is possible that Ansel created any specific “Proof Print”, but it is just as possible that it was created by an assistant.

QUALITATIVE DIFFERENCES
Below are examples of Proof and Exhibition Prints of the same image. The qualitative differences are evident, although muted in these scans relative to the tangible photographs.

Scan of proof print of Lone Pine Peak

Scan of original print of Lone Pine Peak

OWNERSHIP

We don’t think about it much now, but Ansel made his livelihood as a commercial photographer, and proof prints were an important part of his work. Not as aesthetic objects, but as an amount of paper, chemicals, and, most importantly, time: costs that could not be regained. Unless the proof was a part of “work for hire”, the physical object belonged to him, was supposed to be returned to him, and when he passed away, title transferred to his archive at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP). A small percentage of clients over a lifetime were not very good about returning them, and while he made a strong effort to get them back, he was not always successful. Each one that was not returned represented yet another cost to the artist. It is not a profession that can generally afford many extra costs, even for someone as famous as Ansel Adams.

t is therefore our belief that legal title for “Proof Prints”, unless shown otherwise, should be assumed to be held by his archive at the CCP. He didn’t sell them, and to the best of our (inclusive of Ansel’s family, employees, assistants, and associates) knowledge, he didn’t give them away.

HISTORIC VALUE

It is our position that any value in Proof Prints is limited to historic or educational value. Some collectors have an interest and appreciation for the creative work that went into the fine art photograph, and view work prints as an interesting step in that process. We recognize that and applaud it. We unfortunately don’t have the ability [at least legally] to discriminate to whom or for what purpose we sell certain works.

ART MARKET

As demonstrated and discussed above, the intrinsic artistic value of “Proof Prints” is non-existent:

  1. The purpose is specifically unknown, but known not to be an exhibition print.
  2. The printer is unknown, whether it was Ansel or an assistant.
  3. The ownership is presumed to be held by Ansel’s archive at the CCP.
  4. Historic value exists, but there is no pure historic market upon which to base prices, nor pure historic market for collectors of that purpose.

The fact of their existence in the fine art market creates a perception of value when none exists. It is antithetical to Ansel’s intent, and it serves only to confuse market participants. The end result of confusion is dissatisfaction, initially with the sellers, but eventually with the artist.

It is, therefore, our policy not to offer these types of work. We encourage all parties who respect Ansel Adams’ work and legacy to take the same position. We may be the voice crying in the desert, but we remain true to Ansel’s intent and creative fine art.

Do I Have an Original?

Print Condition Definitions

Print Conditions Definitions

Condition is always difficult to assess and somewhat subjective. Our rating system is an effort to make a meaningful distinction between the found condition of photographs that are, in 2017, between 35 and 85 years old. There are no standards in the industry or bright lines between ratings. Each rating can contain a range of conditions and items, and those ranges get progressively wider as conditions deteriorate. We attempt to be detailed, clear, and consistent in our assessment of the condition of photographs, but cannot guarantee that sharper eyes will not find things we miss. Our condition reports note EVERYTHING we see under a VERY rigorous examination by TRAINED experts, and we are known among our peers to be excessively detailed. These reports, on the face of it, can be disconcerting, even when the condition is rated as “Excellent”. Our rating depends on how visible damage is. Therefore it is possible that a number of items that are barely visible in glaring light can look more severe on a written condition report than would a single issue visible 3 feet away, whereas in person, the viewer might not even note the multiple items. Also, some types of surface damage could only or are most likely to have happened, intentionally or otherwise, in the artist’s studio. A small wrinkle in the emulsion layer, or etching a dark spot in a light sky are two examples. When this occurs we note it, but if it was acceptable to Ansel to release, we do not degrade the condition rating based on that. Our stance is that if it was good enough for him, who are we to negatively judge the condition.

Many issues noted here can be effectively treated with proper and qualified conservation. The cost of such treatments are generally not insignificant, and can take a considerable amount of time due to multiple passes or subsequent steps. Conservation work or evidence thereof is not a negative factor in assessing the condition or value of a print. We evaluate the current condition, not what it may have been or what it may become.

Print Condition Ratings

Pristine  Absolutely no damage to the print surface
Studio Quality  Only minor flaws or imperfections that would have occurred in the Artist’s studio and print was deemed acceptable to offer by the Artist
Excellent  Minor flaws or damage to print surface, visible ONLY under close inspection in specular or raking light
Very Good  Minor flaws or damage to print surface, visible upon inspection under standard gallery lighting conditions
Good  Flaws or damage that draws the eye under normal viewing conditions once known or seen
Fair  Flaws or damage immediately apparent under normal viewing conditions
Poor  Shipping with broken glass, folded, oil rags…

Mount Condition

Mount condition is generally not noted. If there are notable issues of damage (tape, glue, dings, foxing) or discoloration, this condition will be noted on the condition report but does not impact the condition rating of the print in general.

Viewing Conditions

Normal Viewing Conditions  Standard gallery lighting conditions, lighting at 25-55 degree angle from print surface, on wall and under glazing, viewing straight on from 2 feet or more from print
Inspection  Standard gallery lighting conditions, lighting at 25-55 degree angle from print surface, on wall and under glazing, viewing straight on or at angle from 24″ or less distance from print.
Close inspection  Out of frame and handling, viewing in specular and raking light, normally 6-24″ distance
Examination Out of frame and handling, viewing in specular and raking light, 1-6″ distance with magnification lenses

Specular light  Glare of reflected light, best light for locating and identifying surface condition issues
Raking light  Light close to parallel to print surface, good for identifying texture and changes in topography of print surface
Normal viewing light  No glare, bright for viewing image and tonality

Print Layers

Print Surface  Top of emulsion layer. often collects dust, outgassing, films of extremely fine deposits, very fine scratches and marks that may be professionally cleaned by a conservator
Emulsion Layer  Image layer, consisting of silver particals in a gelatin binder. Very thin. Delicate during processing, although much more durable after selenium toning
Support Layer  Fiber paper layer that supports emulsion layer
Mount tissue  Tissue that, when heated, adheres the photograph to the mount
Mount  Layer of material to support and protect the photographic print

Common Condition Terms

Spotting  Deposit of ink, intentionally done, to darken an area on the print. Can be a result of dust on the negative or paper during printing, or similar light blocking anomolies
Etch & Spot  Intentional removal of emulsion layer and subsequent coloring of substrate, performed in Artist’s studio to remove dark spots in light areas
Wet Paper Crease / Crimp  Crescent shaped variation in surface topography, typically a result of handling a print prior to drying or mounting
Wet Paper Wrinkle  Wrinkle in emulsion layer, happens during print processing. Extremely rare with Adams prints
Grit under mount  Crescent shaped variation in surface topography, typically a result of handling a print prior to drying or mounting

Wipe Marks  Multiple linear blemishes, very fine, running parallel, as from a dusting cloth.
Thumbnail Scrape  Shallow, wide, light impression on surface, as from the flat edge of a fingernail. More often a change in texture and reflectivity rather than change in topography
Indentation  Point or linear mark of varying intensity, soft edged, with no break in the emulsion layer
Scratch  Point or linear mark of varying intensity, hard edged, with no break in the emulsion layer
Cut  Point or linear mark of varying intensity, hard edged, with break in emulsion layer
Rolling Grit  Multiple point indentations in a line. Typically caused by grit between print surface and surface above rolling when surfaces shift relative to each other

Compression Mark / Area  Change in general thickness of paper and or mount, with defined but not necessarily sharp linear edge
Accretion/Deposit/Deposition  Foreign substance on surface of print. Typically can be removed, although how easily is not easy to determine

Polishing / Burnishing  Area of significantly smoother surface with greater reflectivity
Rubbing  Area of surface texture difference, lower reflectivity due to roughing top emulsion layer
Abrasion  Area of surface texture and topography difference, may include scratches and scuffs, but no emulsion loss or break in emulsion
Scouring  Area of surface texture and topography difference, may include cuts and scrapes, with some loss of or break in emulsion

Emulsion Loss  Absence of emulsion layer, exposed substrate. By definition variation in surface topography.
Edge Chip  Loss of emulsion at the edge of print, exposes substrate
Edge Bang  Lifting or compression of emulsion, possibly with substrate, along edge of print
Corner Bang  Lifting of emulsion from substrate in corner of print. Sometimes includes loss of emulsion

Tissue Release  Area of print lifting from mount, commonly near the edge.
Tunneling  Areas of print lifting from mount, typically not near the edge. Creates large bubbling effect.

Foxing  Growth of mildew on surface of print. Typically round, can often be removed with conservation, sometimes leaves a mark. Foxing on mount commonly yellow brown
Silvering  Ageing and oxidation. Dark areas develop reflective “silver” sheen, often accompanied by a sepia colored staining. Sheen can typically be removed, staining more difficult
Patina  Discoloration, normally sepia in tone, due to oxidiation, age, or extended contact with acidic surfaces. Sometimes a remnant of silvering. Can vary in both intensity and coverage.

Common Variations in Intensity

Point Conditions

Point blemish  Point mark on surface layer, affecting surface texture, but no noticeable change in surface topography. Generally ranges in size from pin point to pencil lead
Point Impression  Point mark in emulsion layer, with noticeable variation in surface topography. Possibly deeper than emulsion layer, but no loss or break in emulsion
Indentation  Point indentation, noticeably deeper than emulsion layer, with no loss of emulsion or break in emulsion surface
Nick  Point indentation, shallow, with loss of emulsion or break in surface
Pit  Point indentation, well into support layer, with loss of emulsion or break in surface

Linear Conditions

Linear blemish  Continuous point blemish on surface layer, very fine, affecting surface texture, but no noticeable change in surface topography
Indentation  Linear indentation in emulsion layer, with noticeable variation in surface topography. Soft edge, with no loss or break in emulsion. Generally shallow
Gradations of indentations The eye can see a much finer variation than can reasonably be measured, therefore our use of common analogies rather than actual measurements

  • Very fine  Extremely narrow, barely visible under close inspection is specular light, as from dust on a non-abrasive surface
  • Hairline  Human hair thickness, also similar to a fine grain of sand
  • Moderate  Similar in thickness to copy paper
  • Hard  Similar in thickness to standard business cards
  • Gouging  Ball point pen thickness or wider

Scratch  Linear indentation in emulsion layer, with noticeable variation in surface topography. Hard edge, with no loss or break in emulsion
Gradations of scratches  The eye can see a much finer variation than can reasonably be measured, therefore our use of common analogies rather than actual measurements

  • Fine  Very narrow, readily visible under close inspection in specular light, as from the very tip of a razor blade
  • Hairline  Human hair thickness
  • Moderate  Similar in thickness to copy paper
  • Hard  Similar in thickness to standard business cards
  • Gouging  Lifting cuts as from broken glass

Area Conditions

Scuff  Linear mark on surface, with width. No noticeable variation in surface topography in raking light. Typically changes reflectivity of surface
Scrape  Linear mark on surface, with width. Noticeable variation in surface topography, but does not break emulsion surface
Impression  Area of irregular indentation on surface, typically deeper than emulsion layer, but does not break emulsion surface
Graze  Area of irregular indentation on surface, shallow, including loss of emulsion or break in surface
Gouge  Area of irregular indentation on surface, including loss of emulsion or break in emulsion surface.

Ageing Mount  Discoloration, from cream to manila to butter to orange and all points in between

  • Light  Cream colored or similar
  • Moderate  Manila colored or similar
  • Severe  Butter colored or similar
Re-use Allowed with Attribution – You are welcome to re-use this reference chart, please attribute The Ansel Adams Gallery (www.anseladams.com) if republishing.

Condition Assessment

Understanding the Market

Consigning and Selling Original Photographs

Many collectors find many reasons to sell part or all of their photographic collections. Taxes, home remodels and purchases, inheritances, college tuition, refocusing the collection, and cashing out an investment are the more common reasons we see. And while nobody likes to see a dear friend go, there are times when it simply makes sense.

The Ansel Adams Gallery will buy or consign original Ansel Adams photographs in excellent or pristine condition only. We will on occasion buy or consign signed or initialed Yosemite Special Edition Photographs. If you are interested in selling or consigning your photograph, please contact originals@anseladams.com. Following is a brief discussion of the process.

A transaction price will be based on a percentage of the estimated retail price. We will provide an estimated range of sale prices that serves as the basis for our offer. The percentage varies by condition, sale-ability / desirability of the image, and whether it is a consignment transaction or a sale transaction. A sale transaction will provide a lower return to the collector than a consignment transaction, but immediate payment.

Prior to shipping or delivering the photograph(s), we recommend the collector make a cursory inspection and provide us with the following information:

  • Image title;
  • Print size and mount size;
  • Signature pencil or ink and location;
  • Stamp, label, or writing on reverse of mount;
  • Noticeable scratches, stains, dents, or damage;
  • Print history / provenance.

You may need to de-frame the photograph, and if you are not comfortable doing this yourself, we recommend that you make an appointment with a local framer to take the photograph out of the frame. Please take care, as condition has a significant impact on the value of your photograph, even potentially devaluing it to zero.

Special Services from The Ansel Adams Gallery

We can assist you with building a collection, value statements, and auction consulting. We also work with interior designers and assist with corporate gifting.