Ansel Adams at the site of the Moonrise photo.

Is Moonrise the greatest pic of all time?

Riley Riley

My editor once told me it’s not so much what you put in a photo, but what you leave out — that can make or break a pic.

Loney, who was also a shooter, was old school, from a time before digital cameras and memory cards, a time when every shot counted and you had to get it right — the first time.

Speaking of great photographs, this shot taken back in the 1940s is regarded as one of the best pictures of all time.

Called Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, it is a black and white photograph taken by Ansel Adams, late in the afternoon of November 1, 1941 from the shoulder of highway US 84 / US 285 in Hernandez, New Mexico.

There’s some discussion about the actual date and location, but the approximate location is thought to have been these coordinates: 36.057186°N 106.116974°W.

The photograph shows the Moon rising in a dominating black sky above a collection of modest dwellings, a church and a cross-filled graveyard, with snow-covered mountains in the background.

Adams captured a single image, with the dying seconds of sunset lighting the white crosses and buildings.

It’s certainly a nice shot, but that’s as far as I’d go, and I once got to pick which shots would be run in newspapers.

On occasion I even sent a shooter or two back if they had failed to get what I wanted — you can imagine how popular I was?

If you caught the 2020 World Press Photo Exhibition at the State Library in Sydney, you would have seen some really great pics.

Art historian H. W. Janson describes Moonrise as “a perfect marriage of straight and pure photography”.

The photo became so popular that Adams personally made more than 1300 prints of it during his long career.

Fame of the photograph grew when a 1948 print sold at auction in 1971 for the then unheard of sum of $71,500 (almost $100,000 in Aussie dollars).

In 2006, the same print sold for $609,600 ($840,000).

Adams took the shot as part of a six-month contract to photograph lands under the jurisdiction of the US Department of the Interior that could be used as mural-sized prints.

He was accompanied by his young son Michael and best friend Cedric Wright.

They came upon the scene while travelling through the Chama River valley towards Española in the late afternoon of November 1.

Moonrise was first published at the end of 1942, with a two-page spread in U.S. Camera Annual 1943, after it was selected by “photo judge” Edward Steichen.

Adams remembered the photograph was taken in autumn, but he variously gave the year as 1940, 1941, 1942.

Some may consider this photograph a “tour de force” but I think of it as a rather normal photograph of a typical New Mexican landscape. Twilight photography is unfortunately neglected; what may be drab and uninteresting by daylight may assume a magnificent quality in the half-light between sunset and dark, Adams said.

Photographer, curator and friend, Beaumont Newhall, was curious that Adams did not know the date of the photograph.

He wondered if astronomical information in the photograph could provide the answer, so he approached High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, Colorado.

Focusing on the autumn months of 1941 through 1944, the Observatory’s David Elmore found 36 plausible dates for the image.

He was also able to determine a probable location and direction for the camera alongside the highway.

Using that location, he then plotted the Moon’s apparent position on his computer screen for those dates to find a match.

Elmore concluded that Moonrise was taken on October 31, 1941, at 4:03 p.m.

Another astronomer, Dennis di Cicco of Sky & Telescope magazine tried to verifying the results.

Over a 10-year period, including a visit to the location, Di Cicco concluded in 1991 “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”.

However, he calculated that the image was taken at 4:49:20 p.m. on November 1, 1941.

He reviewed his calculations with Elmore, who agreed with Di Cicco’s result.

Nothing like a good mystery . . .

Adams died on April 22, 1984, aged 82, in Monterey, California.

He went on to take lots of other good pics.


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