Ansel Adams captured many an American landscape as no photographer had before or has since, but in his large catalog you’ll find few pictures as immediately striking as — and none more famous than — Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. Originally taken from the shoulder of a highway passing through the community of Hernandez in 1941, the shot captures the moon rising above a cluster of houses, a church with a graveyard, and a mountain range in the background. All of those might seem like pretty standard elements of a remote part of America in that era, but the sheer visual impact Adams draws from them shows what separates a road-trip snapshot from the work of a dedicated photographer.
Few photographers in the history of the medium have been quite as dedicated as Adams, whose techniques we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture. But as much as his deliberateness and patience have become the stuff of photographic legend, Moonrise was very much a seat-of-the-pants achievement.
Adams was driving around the west with his son Michael and friend Cedric Wright at the behest of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who had commissioned Adams to produce large-format photographs for the Department of the Interior’s new museum. Toward the end of one not particularly productive day on the job came the big moment. As Adams himself tells it in Examples: The Making of Forty Photographs:
We were sailing southward along the highway not far from Espanola when I glanced to the left and saw an extraordinary situation — an inevitable photograph! I almost ditched the car and rushed to set up my 8×10 camera. I was yelling to my companions to bring me things from the car as I struggled to change components on my Cooke Triple-Convertible lens. I had a clear visualization of the image I wanted, but when the Wratten No. 15 (G) filter and the film holder were in place, I could not find my Weston exposure meter! The situation was desperate: the low sun was trailing the edge of the clouds in the west, and shadow would soon dim the white crosses.
While an experienced photographer today probably won’t have used the same gear as Adams, they’ll certainly recognize the dreadful feeling of being about to lose a precious image. What came to the rescue of Moonrise wasn’t any piece of Adams’ equipment — he never did find that light meter — but the fact that he’d already spent so much time immersed so deeply in the practice of photography that he could set up and load his camera as if by pure instinct. Then, when he remembered that he knew the luminosity of the moon (250 foot candles, for the record), he could calculate the proper exposure for the image he’d already visualized in his head: one with a bright moon and just enough light on the ground to make the crosses in the churchyard glow.
You can learn more about the making and nature of Adams’ best-known photograph, prints of which command high prices at auction to this day, in the three videos here: first Adams’ own description of his process making it, then a short by the Ansel Adams Gallery examining a rare “mural-sized” print from the early 1970s, then a look into the picture’s backstory by Swann Auction Galleries. The tale of the picture’s taking, dramatic though it is, doesn’t quite convey the full extent of the photographic work it took to create the image known to everyone familiar with Adams’ work (and many who aren’t familiar with it): he also had to go through quite a bit of trial and error in the development process to imbue the sky with just the right darkness. If any photographer could produce Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, Ansel Adams could. But we might reflect on the fact that even a master like Ansel Adams only had one Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico in his career — and even he almost missed it.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.