Ansel Adams Shoots “Moonrise” (1941)

The most famous landscape photograph in history, taken by the greatest landscape photographer in history, was shot in the early evening of November 1, 1941.  Both the photograph and the effort to date its creation are remarkable stories.

The life of Ansel Adams is chronicled on his birthday, February 20 (learn more about Adams here), but this day is special for the photographic event that occurred then.  Ansel Adams was 39 years old and photographing in the countryside north of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  He’d spent a disappointing day in the Chama Valley area on the state border with Colorado, unable to get the right combination of subject matter and light to satisfy his demanding standards.  As the light began to fade, he, his son and assistants climbed into his well-used Pontiac station wagon and headed for home.

Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico by Ansel Adams

Adams drove fast—always—but he knew the roads well on the way back to Santa Fe.  As he drove south on U.S. 84, he would have been watching the sky, the clouds and the light, perhaps picturing in his mind the possibilities for a photograph.  Then, as he rounded a bend in the road, he saw the small village of Hernandez to the west.  The moon had risen and was illuminated by the setting sun over his left shoulder.  Below the moon lay banks of white clouds along the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and below the mountains lay Hernandez.  In the foreground, the white crosses of a cemetery glowed brightly from the reflected sunshine.

Adams slammed on the brakes, swerved to the shoulder and, in a storm of gravel and dust, jumped from the driver’s seat.  He began throwing equipment from the car, ordering his assistants to bring the camera, tripod, film and light meter.  Knowing that the light might disappear at any second, Adams rushed to assemble the equipment—but the light meter could not be found.  Remembering that the moon reflected 250 foot-candles of light, he estimated the right setting for the shot—a one-second exposure at an aperture of f/32.

He took the shot.  He prepared to take another shot—but stopped.  In the seconds required to reverse the film, the light had disappeared.  He’d had just one chance to expose the film.

But one exposure was all that was needed.  He had captured Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico for all time.  If there is such a thing, Moonrise is the perfect environmental photograph.  The broad expanse of sky, mountains and land demonstrate the overpowering strength of nature.  The village in the foreground illustrates the essential interaction between humans and nature, which provides the resources needed for life.  And the white crosses remind us that the life of the individual is fleeting, but the population and species continues.

And, of course, the photograph is a masterpiece of composition, beauty and technical skill.  Over his life, Adams made about 1300 prints of Moonrise.  Today a print can bring more than $500,000 at auction.  One estimate puts the total value of Moonrise prints at $25 million.

A photograph of such beauty, fame and value begged another question:  When was it taken? Ansel Adams, who had frequently frustrated his publishers by not recording or remembering when he had taken a photo, could only shrug.  During the fall in the early 1940s, he guessed.

The photograph, however, offered many clues to its birthdate, given the right expertise and equipment to interpret the data.  The definitive answer came from a 1980 analysis by a solar physicist at the High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, Colorado.  Based on the position of the moon, lighting of various mountain peaks and other clues from topographic maps and surveyor’s instruments, all filtered through a computer, he pinpointed the exact date and time:  4:03 PM on October 31, 1941.  Adams, who was still alive at the time, was delighted to have the mystery solved. “Yippee!” he wrote to the scientist.

Only one problem—he was wrong.  When an amateur astronomer, Dennis di Cicco, grew interested in the dating process, he tried to reproduce the results—and failed.  Upon further analysis, it seems the computer used in the original analysis had distorted the image.  The scientist was embarrassed and admitted the error.  Dennis di Cicco stayed on the trail, and eventually corrected for the distortion.

The real birthday of the photograph was about a day later, exactly 4:49:20 PM on November 1, 1941.

References:

Ansel Adams Gallery.  Ansel Anecdotes.  Available at:  http://anseladams.com/ansel-adams-anecdotes/.  Accessed October 31, 2017.

Grant, Daniel.  2011.  The Market for Ansel Adams and Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.  Artnet.  Available at:  http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/grant/ansel-adams-moonrise-hernandez-8-31-11.asp.  Accessed October 31, 2017.

Haederle, Mike.  1991.  It is Ansel Adams’ single most popular picture.  And no one, not even the photographer, was sure when it was made.  Until now. ‘Moonrise’ Mystery.  Los Angeles Times, October 31, 1991.  Available at:  http://articles.latimes.com/1991-10-31/news/vw-757_1_ansel-adams.  Accessed October 31, 2017.

Phaidon.  2014 Photos that change the world” #3 Moonrise.  Available at:  http://www.phaidon.com/agenda/photography/articles/2014/september/22/photos-that-changed-the-world-3-moonrise/.  Accessed October 31, 2017.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
Spencer Fullerton Baird, First U.S. Fish Commissioner, Born (1823)
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Ugalde, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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