Unearthing the Enigma of Moonrise

Original Mural of “Moonrise, Hernandez”

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941). It is the image that almost didn’t occur. For fifty years, the dating of this fateful image remained in question.

It was approaching twilight on an autumn day in 1941. Ansel Adams and his companions were traveling by car, after an uneventful outing in the Chama Valley. The stormy skies had cleared over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with a ghostly gibbous moon rising above an old adobe church and graveyard in the approaching distance.

“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 x 10 camera. I had a clear visualization of the image I wanted, but I could not find my Weston exposure meter! The situation was desperate: the low sun was trailing the edge of clouds in the west, and shadow would soon dim the white crosses.”

Mural-sized enlargement of “Moonrise, Hernandez” next to the negative

Ansel Adams knew intuitively that “Moonrise, Hernandez” was an unusual photograph, but he had no idea that it would become his most popular single image. Original 16×20” gelatin silver prints that sold for $500 during his lifetime, now sell for over $50,000. Although he could remember some of the most minute details, Ansel admittedly neglected to record when his negatives were exposed, and this iconic and timeless image was often incorrectly dated.

“Because of my unfortunate disregard for the dates of my negatives I have caused considerable dismay among historians, students, and museums – to say nothing of the trouble it has caused me. Moonrise is a prime example of my anti-date complex. It has been listed as 1940, 1941, 1942 and even 1944. At the suggestion of Beaumont Newhall, Dr. David Elmore of the High Altitude Observatory at Boulder, Colorado, put a computer to work on the problem.”

Ansel Adams in front of his most famous image, “Moonrise, Hernandez”

In 1981, solar physicist David Elmore calculated the exposure day and time for “Moonrise, Hernandez” based on the position of the moon and the surrounding landscape. He concluded that it had been made on Halloween Day, October 31st, 1941 at 4:03 pm.  Although a harrowing effort, Elmore’s calculations were off by a day. His computer screen distorted the height to width ratio, and his location coordinates for the town of Hernandez were off.

Dennis di Cicco, an astronomer and former writer for Sky and Telescope magazine, pursued the enigma for ten years until he came up with a new date: November 1st, 1941 at exactly 4:49:20 pm Mountain Standard Time. Di Cicco discovered that “Adams had been at the edge of the old roadbed, about 50 feet west of the spot on the modern highway that Elmore had identified”. Visits to the site and modern computing software would aid in his calculation in 1991, fifty years after the making of Ansel’s historic photograph.  

Whether you’ve seen his photographs reproduced in a magazine or on exhibition at a museum, the images of Ansel Adams are so powerful, so perfect and true, that in our minds they supersede reality.”  – Joan Mondale

Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez” stands as one of the most famous and iconic photographic images in history. Ansel was a perfectionist in the creation of each individually hand-produced gelatin silver photograph, and his darkroom techniques were unparalleled in terms of skill and adeptness. Today, his original prints are as powerful and poignant as ever, and utterly Timeless.  

If you are interested in this image as an original 16 x 20″ print or an extremely rare mural-sized photograph, please contact us by email at originals@anseladams.com.  

Moonrise, Hernandez: Mysterious, Timeless and Iconic from The Ansel Adams Gallery on Vimeo.