Arthur C. Pillsbury Foundation

Protecting and Preserving All Life -- By Extending Human Vision

Richard Norsigian
The Norsigian Inquiry
or, the Envelopes, Please!

In 2002 Melinda Pillsbury-Foster received a call from a man who identified himself as Rick Norsigian.  Norsigian explained he had been advised to get in touch with her to ascertain the photographer who took took the images on glass plates and nitrate film which he purchased at a garage sale in Fresno, where he lived.  

Melinda was scheduled to visit Yosemite in a few weeks and so agreed to stop by Mr. Norsigian's home in Fresno to look at the images.  On the appointed day she was greeted by Mr. Norsigian and his wife and, as she walked into the livingroom, noticed glass negatives resting on the table and elsewhere around the room.  

At Norsigian's request she examined the photographs, which were very similar to 
those taken by her Grandfather, Arthur C. Pillsbury.  All of the images she examined were production photos, taken for use in the Pillsbury Studio as photos to be framed, used as postcards, reduced in size and sold in packets to tourists who preferred to use professionally, for various internal publications, for illustrations in books, on contract from the author or publisher, or for newspapers.  However, there were also a number of envelopes which, Norsigian said, had held nitrate negatives when he had purchased them.  ENVELOPES  Norsigian had disposed of the negatives in the erroneous belief they could explode and hurt him. 

The numbers on these envelopes are:   
                                                                                       8033 – Sea Gull
                                                                                       8052 – Yosemite from Camp Ahwahnee
                                                                                       8057 – Yosemite Fall from river
                                                                                       8066 – Three Brothers morning
                                                                                       8067 – Overhanding Rock & half dome scapes
                                                                                       8072 – Yosemite from Meadow
                                                                                       8087 – Toluomne Canyon from Glacier Point
                                                                                       8103 – Valley View Yos
                                                                                       8104 – Gates of the Valley
                                                                                       8108 – Happy Illes
                                                                                       8121 - Monterey Point

Over the last nearly 30 years Melinda has recorded information on her grandfather's images  surfacing from helpful visitors to the ACP site which were numbered and titled.  Most of these were post cards.  Here is the Pillsbury Picture Company Catalogue, numbers 7001 up. LINK  The last number for which we have a number and title is 71,199.  But we know there were over 100,000 in the collection at the time the fire was set in 1927.  

Melinda explained the many purposes to which photos were put to Norsigian. 

Photos as art, now an upscale perception of the images generated, tended to dominate public consciousness to a degree not warranted by their share of the entire market. Photography was a technology which changed the world because of its potential to convey information in ways which are more accurate than words.  Photography impacted how we know and what we know., applied to multiple areas, including microscopic films, underwater films, panorama stills, and more, have changed our world.  This was not a concept which Norsigian appeared able to encompass, unfortunately.  

Realizing these insights, and others, were falling on deaf ears, Melinda began asking questions about the origin of the photographs Norsigian had purchased.   Later, she researched the issue further and talked to the woman, Lesa Schwartz, who actually sold the box of photographic materials to Rich Norsigian.  

According to Lesa Schwartz, the box of photos had been purchased in Los Angeles at a warehouse.  She did not know the location of the building.  

According to Leroy Radonovich, who functioned as the official photographer for Yosemite in the last part of the 20th Century, only two Yosemite photographers used a numeric system.  One had a catalogue of fewer than 1,000 images.  As you can see above, the second photographer must have taken the photos represented by the numbers and titles on the envelopes.  That photographer was Arthur C. Pillsbury.  

Having compiled thousands of numbers for rebuilding the collection I knew the numbering system was chronologicial.  I was able to trace Grandfather's progress through San Francisco during the day of the Earthquake and Fire in 1906.  His location coincided with the numbers on the envelopes in Norsigian's possession when cross-references with other photos.  Other factors also clarified questions I had about his system.  Grandfather took multiple photos because he had a steady stream of clients for photos for newspapers, books, and other needs.  Each of these needed to be different.  He made sure they were.  But each had to be perfect with no glare or other imperfection.  Grandfather kept these.   His workshop students were allowed to practice on these.  

All of the negatives Norsigian had were imperfect, with glare or another issue.  

Grandfather's background in photography began professionally, by which I mean he was selling his photos, by 1905, and likely earlier, at this photographic studio which was located on the circle outside the Stanford Gate.  He had purchased his first movie camera at the time he began Stanford University in 1902.  He ran two shops simultaneously while attending Stanford.  One was photograpy; the other bicycles.  He built some of these himself.  

Now, where did these photos come from which Norsigian bought from the Schwartzs?  How did they escape the fire?  Did someone remove the  the tens of thousands of negatives, by far the most valuable asset Grandfather had, from their repository before starting the fire?  Everett (Tommy) Tompkins, the studio manager,  saw the janitor leaving the studio through the back door while standing in the front.  It was early in the morning, before the opened.  The janitor was carrying a heavy box.  He was still clearly in view when Tompkins and another employee smelled smoke and cried, "fire!  The janitor stopped walking and began running toward the trees.  

Since the entire Pillsbury collection was presumed lost in the fire in the Yosemite Studio in Nove  mber 1927,  these facts raise interesting questions regarding where the negatives went.   According to witnesses, including Tompkins and the employee who attempted to put out the fire, and failed,  nothing stored in the highly secured room where all of the negatives were stored remained. 

Norsigian and Melinda talked occasionally after he lost his lawsuit until early summer of 2017.  

There is much more to this story.  Norsigian had a lot to say about the Adams Family, who visited him after he apprised them of his find. 
                                                                                      The Adams Family Visits Norsigian

    Norisigan unburdened himself to me not long after a visit from Michael Adams, Ansel's son and then head of the Adams operation.  I took notes later that same day but hope Rick will decide to come forward and tell the story himself.  It is very revealing of the 'Adams Family' culture and values.