The Captivating Story Behind the Making of Ansel Adams’ Most Famous Photograph, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico

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.

via Petapix­el

Relat­ed Con­tent:

226 Ansel Adams Pho­tographs of Great Amer­i­can Nation­al Parks Are Now Online

How to Take Pho­tographs Like Ansel Adams: The Mas­ter Explains The Art of “Visu­al­iza­tion”

200 Ansel Adams Pho­tographs Expose the Rig­ors of Life in Japan­ese Intern­ment Camps Dur­ing WW II

Ansel Adams, Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: 1958 Doc­u­men­tary Cap­tures the Cre­ative Process of the Icon­ic Amer­i­can Pho­tog­ra­ph­er

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.

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  • Barbara Dabroski says:


    I have authen­tic let­ters dat­ed about 1976 rep­re­sent­ing a sci­en­tif­ic exchange between Ansel Adams and a color/photographer expert for sale. Would you, or any­one you know, be inter­est­ed?

    Thank you
    Bar­bara Dabros­ki
    Fort Myers, FL

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