I have had the great fortune of growing up in the family of Ansel Adams, and been exposed to his work all my life. This has formed my belief in Ansel’s comment that “Art has to do with beauty”, its purpose to uplift the soul. Beyond this regular exposure, I have been working closely with his fine art pieces for the past 25 years. I have seen a lot of original photographs, in Ansel’s studio, in the family collections, coming through The Ansel Adams Gallery, at museum exhibitions, and in photography auctions. I think it is possible, sometimes, to forget how special something is when you see it every day, but Ansel’s work has a staying power that few others’ have.
Ansel’s works are examples of human genius, demonstrated in terms of both the object – the physical presence and unique characteristics of a print – and the concept – the image composition, subject, and development that are roughly common to all examples of that image. I think it is quite fair to say that Ansel was an artist of a caliber of Rodin, Matisse, Picasso, Michelangelo. Not every work is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but every once in a while, you come across an example that quite simply confirms Ansel’s stature.
Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico is an image that Ansel recognized as important from the moment he first made it. He even wanted to make a duplicate exposure, but in the 20 seconds it took to insert the negative slide, pull the carrier, flip it over and reinsert it into the camera, pull the slide and cock the shutter, the light was gone. It was that close from never happening. But having a negative and being able to produce something with it are two different things. It is an extremely thin negative and was very difficult for him to print. As an example, according to John Sexton, his assistant in the 1980s, when Ansel was burning in the sky, he had to open up the aperture of the enlarger by 4 stops and give it up to 70 additional seconds, all while holding the exposure on the moon constant. This is after intensifying the negative in 1948 to make it easier to print. Ansel was able to print the negative prior to 1948, but it was even more difficult and there are very few examples extant. The commonly held belief is that there are possibly as few as 10 that were made prior to the intensification.
This vintage photograph has a known history from the early to mid 1950s, but was definitively made prior to 1948, perhaps as early as 1942. The print traces back to Carl Wheat, whose family believes he acquired it from Ansel or a 3rd party in the early 1950s. There is a letter from Ansel to Wheat dated 1956 referencing a Moonrise, however the date and suggestion of a gift is at odds with both his family’s recollection and physical evidence. From him it passed to his grandsons, and through two collectors to today. Until the research conducted this past Spring, the letter was considered to refer to the time the print was made. This research is definitive that the print was made prior to 1948, and possibly as early as 1942.
Most people are familiar with the dramatic, high contrast prints Ansel made late in his career. There seems to be a linear progression of how Ansel printed the sky over time, from light to dark, early to late. This print is on the extreme end of the lightness, and the softer contrast helps to create a photograph that has an overall luminosity that is rarely matched. The photographic paper gives it a patina unlike most of the pre-intensification prints I have seen, only the 1943 US Camera print at the Museum of Modern Art is similar.
The condition of the photograph is remarkable, particularly given that it was made approximately 70 years ago. The label on the reverse, typewritten with the title and date, appears to have been applied with too much moisture, which swelled the mount board and created a slight raised area in the print. Otherwise there are only minor areas where Ansel or an assistant etched the emulsion to remove dark spots from light areas.
The proof of creation date is interesting and incontrovertible, which is that the print shows the extent of retouching the negative, and the research shows the negative was retouched over time. Dust or lint on the negative at the time of exposure creates a clear spot in the emulsion, which shows as black on the print. In an area that is already dark on the print, there is no problem and it might not even be visible. In a light area, however, it shows up readily and can be distracting. One technique that Ansel used on this negative is called “needling”, which is to rough up the surface of the gelatin above the emulsion layer with a fine needle. This changes the angle of refraction, and reduces the amount of light going through the clear spot in the emulsion, making the dark spot on the print smaller and lighter. When the spot is away from the center of the image, there is a good chance of a halo effect, caused by the slightly different angle of light between the top and bottom of the negative. The needling is irreversible, and will show on all prints going forward. If the negative is worked on again later, it will change the halo permanently. The combination of working on different areas and working on the same area over time allows us to establish a time line of prints. The print in question here shows less work than prints produced in 1948 and similar amounts of work as prints in 1943 and 1942. That does not tell us exactly that the print was produced in 1942 or 1943, only that Ansel worked on the negative again at some point between 1942 and 1948, and this print was made prior to that time.
Wheat 194x McAlpin 1942 Waters 1948
Other evidence is suggestive of an early date, but not definitive:
- The label on the reverse is typewritten with the year date of 1941. Ansel was notoriously bad with negative dates, and even by 1946 was misdating the negative as 1942. Several experts have commented that it must be early if Ansel got the date right.
- During the course of research, I found very few prints with a similar mount in terms of weight, tooth, and an absence of a core. There were two smaller prints of different images from the Lane Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston that had a similar mount, both considered vintage but undated.
- The label is identified as in use from about 1940 to about 1953 (Haas/Senf 2005). Having the label show through to the front because of too much moisture could indicate that at the time of application, it had not been used very often with this particular mount board.
- As mentioned previously, there seems to be a linear progression of the sky being printed darker and darker over time. Again, this is a generality, but this print is on the light end of the scale of compared prints, even when considering only prints prior to intensification in 1948
All of the physical evidence is indicative of a range of dates from the negative date in late 1941 to a date prior to the intensification in 1948. There are several facts that suggest that it was printed around 1942 or 43. Moonrise, Hernandez has been researched extensively, and there are about 10 photographs known or suspected printed prior to intensification, including this photograph. The scarcity of these early examples of Moonrise contributes significantly to their value.
Even so, when we put so much emphasis on the print date, it is sometimes easy to forget the bigger picture, the work of art itself. And that this photograph is easily, in my opinion, the most beautiful example of Moonrise that I have ever seen. As Ansel said, Art is about Beauty. If any single photograph could immortalize an artist, this is it.
It is thus with great pleasure that I am able to announce this once in a lifetime opportunity to acquire a most spectacular example of Ansel Adams’ most critically acclaimed photograph.
- Unearthing the Enigma of Moonrise Over Hernandez
- Ansel’s Anecdotes – The Making of Moonrise, Hernandez
Last Updated on May 2, 2022