The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in San Francisco by The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, seeks to stop Rick Norsigian and consulting firm PRS Media Partners from using Adams' name, likeness and trademark in their efforts to sell prints and posters not authorized or endorsed by the Trust.
The suit alleges trademark infringement, false advertising, trademark dilution, unfair competition and other claims. It does not specify damages but asks the court to order the defendants to pay restitution of their profits from any sales, as well as award any other monetary relief.
Norsigian's lawyer, Arnold Peter, said the lawsuit has no merit and is designed to harass his client and "silence this debate."
"We are disappointed that the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust has decided to resort to the courts in order to resolve what, in our view, is a debate that should be resolved by art and forensic experts," Peter said in a statement.
Norsigian says he bought the negatives 10 years ago at a Fresno garage sale for $45. He noticed they resembled Adams' famed photographs of Yosemite National Park.
For years, he tried to get them officially verified, taking them to experts at the Smithsonian Institution, the Getty Center and others, but no one would venture to authenticate them.
Adams' grandson, Matthew Adams, who heads the Ansel Adams Gallery in San Francisco, said he reviewed Norsigian's authentications last fall and thinks they're stretches. Many photographers took pictures of the same places Adams did in that era, he said.
"There is no real hard evidence," he said. "I'm skeptical."
A documentary on Norsigian's his quest to have the negatives authenticated is in the works, as well as a touring exhibition that will debut at Fresno State University in October.
So Norsigian hired Peter to assemble a team of experts to authenticate them.
Last month, Peter announced that his team studied the 65 negatives for six months and concluded "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the photos were Adams' early work, believed to have been destroyed in a 1937 fire at his Yosemite studio.
Norsigian has set up a website to sell prints made from some of the negatives, from $45 for a poster to $7,500 for a darkroom print with a certificate of authenticity. A Beverly Hills art gallery owned by David W. Streets plans to hold a public viewing of part of the collection next month.
Adams' representatives have never bought the claim, calling it a fraud. The lawsuit is the latest action to stop what they believe is a scam.
"I'm sure Ansel never would've imagined a scam on this scale," said Bill Turnage, the Trust's managing director. "I never thought it would come to this, but we have to try to do our duty to protect his work and reputation."
The suit also says there is "substantial evidence" suggesting the negatives were created by another photographer, Earl Brooks, whose niece came forward just days after Peter's announcement to say she had a photo of her uncle's that looked identical to one of the negatives.
The lawsuit further says that even if they were Adams' negatives, the prints and posters being created from them aren't the photographer's works, "but are derivative works at best."
"Mr. Adams was fond of likening a negative to a composer's score and the prints to its performance - each performance differs in subtle ways," the lawsuit said. "The photographic prints and posters offered for sale by defendants ... are not an Ansel Adams 'performance.' "
The suit says the defendants are improperly and unlawfully trading on Adams trademark and deliberately confusing consumers.
Adams established the Trust in 1976 to protect the integrity of his work and preserve his artistic legacy.
Adams' black-and-white photographs, primarily of the American West, are widely reproduced on calendars and posters and in coffee-table books, while his prints are coveted by collectors. His print "Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park" brought $722,500 at auction this summer in New York, a record for 20th century photography.
Adams photos were produced with darkroom techniques that heightened shadows and contrasts to create mood-filled landscape portraits. He died in 1984 at 82.