Ansel Adams' Masterpiece, 'Moonrise over Hernandez'

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Ansel Adams' Masterpiece, 'Moonrise over Hernandez'
Ansel Adams, 'Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico', 1941
Ansel Adams' Masterpiece, 'Moonrise over Hernandez'

Late in the afternoon on 1 November 1941, Ansel Adams was driving through the Chama River valley back to Santa Fe along Highway 84 after a disappointing day photographing the landscape of New Mexico. The U.S. Department of the Interior had commissioned Adams to produce a series of large-scale photographs, or ‘murals’ as he called them, of lands under the jurisdiction of the department for its offices in Washington, D.C. Accompanied by his eight-year-old son, Michael, and his close friend, Cedric Wright, Adams was undertaking a road trip in a large Pontiac station wagon around the American West.The moon was rising over the Sangre de Christo mountains and as the light faded the town of Hernandez became illuminated against a line of clouds along the horizon.The quickly fading light fell across a cemetery of small white crosses. Entranced by the harmony of the scene in front of him and eager to make up for his poor day of work, Adams brought the car to a swift halt on a hard shoulder. He rushed to ready his tripod, exposure meter and 8 x 10 inch camera, yelling at Michael and Cedric to help him.

Adams’ photographic technique was based on his use of a Weston exposure meter to measure the degree of luminance but in his rush to capture the scene he was unable to find the meter amongst the mass of camping and camera equipment in the car. He knew that the luminance of the moon in a clear sky was 50 cd/ft2, equivalent to 250 foot candles, and used his exposure formula to work out the values at which to set his camera. Worried that the brightness range of the image might be too extreme, he made a note to process in the negative with a diluted ‘water bath’ method to make sure the detail in the dark areas of foreground were visible. Knowing that he had taken a photograph of significance and wanting to produce another negative, he quickly reversed the film holder to take another shot but the sun had moved and the scene had changed. ‘The long negative suddenly became precious,’ Adams would say later, as he told the story of the photograph’s making. He recounted the story in both the journal, US Camera, in 1943 and in his book, Examples (1989), playing up the drama of the moment and championing the potential of photographing at twilight.

Adams printed Moonrise, Hernandez repeatedly through the course of his career with variations to the contrast between his light and dark tones. When he returned to his San Francisco studio after the road trip he found it difficult to print the photograph as he wanted it and spent a long time burning and dodging to achieve a balance that he liked. In early prints the sky is a mid grey tone with clouds visible towards to top of the frame but in later years he printed the image with increased exposure to the sky so that it appears a deep black. The resulting print shows the moon rising above the small village with the snow-covered mountains in the background, set against the huge expanse of the black sky. Adams was never entirely satisfied with his prints of the photograph and frequently worked on the image in his darkroom. He said,‘it is safe to say that no two prints are precisely the same’.

Moonrise, Hernandez is exemplary of Adam’s technical mastery at all stages of the photographic process as well as his ability to create photographs of rare visual power. Technically innovative, a decade before Adams would not have been able to measure the strength of light and take the photograph which such accuracy. Art historian, H.W. Janson, described the photograph as ‘a perfect marriage of straight and pure photography’. A harmony between nature and man is conveyed through the formal simplicity of the scene, idealising the landscape of the American West. Photographs like this, showing the glory of nature to the American public, made Adams a figurehead for environmental campaigners.

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