Icons of photography Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico

Ansel Adams photograph, hurriedly made from a roadside near Santa Fe in the US, became his most celebrated image. David Clark tells the story behind it

ANSEL Adams once famously stated: The negative is comparable to the composers score and the print to its performance. Although he was a prominent advocate of pure or straight photography, and rejected the painterly styles that dominated the medium in the early part of the century, he nevertheless aimed to create what he called an austere and blazing poetry of the real Adams finest work was always based around clear and detailed representations of natural subjects, but it often required great skill in the darkroom for him to create the final photographs. One of the best examples of this aspect of his work is also his most famous photograph: Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.

In the autumn of 1941, Adams was a few months short of his 40th birthday and one of the most prominent landscape photographers of his age. Yet even he still mainly earned his living by doing commercial work. At this time he was travelling around Arizona and New Mexico while shooting images for the US Department of the Interior and the US Potash Company.

He was accompanied on his travels by his good friend Cedric Wright, also a photographer, and Adams eight - year - old son Michael. At the end of one particular day in Chama Valley, they were travelling back along Highway 84 towards their hotel.

It had not been a successful days photography. Adams later recalled that he had made only a few passable negatives and had several exasperating trials with subjects that would not bend to visualisation.

However, around 30 miles from Santa Fe he glanced out of the window and saw a scene that made him bring the car to an abrupt halt. To the side of the road he could see a small church and graveyard, illuminated by the last rays of sunlight, while the landscape beyond stretched to the distant Truchas Mountains with the rising moon above.

It was, Adams later recalled in Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, an extraordinary situation - an inevitable photograph! I almost ditched the car and rushed to set up my 8x10 camera He quickly realised that the light on the foreground, which was crucial to the image, was fading fast.

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, he continued. I had a clear visualisation of the image I wanted, but when the Wratten No 15 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

Adams, famously fastidious about correct exposure, was temporarily at a loss without his light meter. Then an obscure piece of knowledge came to mind: he remembered that the luminance of the moon is 250 candles per square foot. With that information he was able to calculate an exposure of 1/20sec at f/8 with the orange filter attached.

Realising as I released the shutter that I had an unusual photograph that deserved a duplicate negative, Adams continued, I swiftly reversed the film holder, but as I pulled the dark slide the sunlight passed from the white crosses; I was a few seconds too late!

Adams returned back to his San Francisco darkroom with the single exposed 10x8in negative of the scene and developed it with great care. As can be seen from the straight print, he had recorded most of the details on the negative, but there was still much work to be done. The straight print shows a rather bland - looking scene with a mid - grey sky streaked with high cirrus clouds, which Adams later burned in extensively.

The biggest problem was that, despite Adams inspired guesswork, the foreground was underexposed. The only way to improve it was to go back and alter the original negative. Several years later I decided to intensify the foreground to increase contrast, he wrote in his book Examples.

I first re - fixed and washed the negative, then treated the lower section of the image with a dilute solution of Kodak IN - 5 intensifier. I immersed the area below the horizon with an in - and - out motion for about one minute, then rinsed it in water, and repeated about 12 times until I achieved what appeared to be optimum density. Printing was a bit easier thereafter, although it remains a challenge.

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico was first published in US Camera, 1943 and Adams immediately acknowledged it as one of best images. The photographs epic scale, the bold composition with black sky covering more than half the image, the poignant foreground crosses in the isolated churchyard and the almost magical appearance of the moon led to it being interpreted as a profound comment on the human condition.

The huge popularity of the photograph

led Adams to return repeatedly to it over the following decades. He produced more than 1,300 prints of this one photograph, with one print selling at Sothebys in New York in 2006 for over $609,000. In his later prints, made in the 1960s and 70s, he preferred a more dramatic interpretation of the image with increased contrast, a brighter foreground and a darker sky Adams assistant and later biographer, Mary Street Almder, has pointed out that his final print is not how the scene looked in reality, but rather how it felt to him emotionally In this image, Adams artistic vision, combined with his great technical skill in the darkroom, arguably found its greatest expression.


Books: Ansel Adams own description of this photograph can be read in Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. For more information on Adams life, see Ansel Adams: An Autobagraphy, co - written by Adams and Mary Street Alinder.

Websites: Adams official website is www anseladams.com. A detailed examination of the photograph can be found on www. notesonphotographs.org.

A one - hour BBC interview with Adams can be seen on www.youtube.com.

Events of 1941

20 January

Franklin D Roosevelt is sworn in for his third term as President of the United States

6 April

The German army invades Yugoslavia and Greece. Both countries are under German control within weeks 24 May

In the North Atlantic, the German battleship Bismarck sinks British battle cruiser HMS Hood, killing all but three of the 1,418 crew members 22 June

Germany invades the Soviet Union in a military invasion codenamed Operation Barbarossa, with around 4.5 million Axis Powers troops 2July

Japan calls up one million men for military service

8 September

German forces begin the Siege of Leningrad. The blockade lasts until 1944 and results in the deaths of more than 300,000 Soviet troops, and of an estimated 1 million civilians through starvation 2 October

Germany launches an all - out offensive against Moscow in the battle codenamed Operation Typhoon in an attempt to capture the strategically important city, causing huge losses on both sides

13 November

British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal is hit by German U - boat U - 81 while on a journey to Gibraltar. It capsizes and sinks the following day

7 December

The Imperial Japanese Navy launches a attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The following day, the US declares war on Japan and enters the Second World War

8 December

The US, the UK, China and the Netherlands officially declare war on the Empire of Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy declare war on the US

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