Ansel Adams’s ‘Moonrise’ at Auction December 2009

Ansel Adams’s position in the pantheon of master photographers is assured by his magisterial studies of the American landscape. Swann is pleased to offer Moonrise Over Hernandez in two iterations—a vintage and a 1960s print—in our December 8th Photographic Literature & Fine Photographs sale.

The beautiful print offered as lot 350, in which Adams rendered the clouds and sky subtly, in a range of gray tones, was created in 1948. It is believed that fewer than 10 photographs with this delicate tonal quality were produced, three of which are now in museum collections.

The photograph is mounted, signed and inscribed to Valentino Sarra, a photographer and WPA poster designer, who was a friend of Adams. Sarra apparently ordered the picture after seeing it in Camera Annual.

The subject matter of the picture, a cemetery with white crosses that seem to be lit from within, is richly symbolic. A serene and waxing moon, the presumed source of the glowing light, appears in the background.

There has been debate surrounding the actual day on which Adams took this photograph. The picture was actually shot on October 31, 1941, Halloween day, at 4:05 PM, the late afternoon. Interestingly, Adams could not recall when he actually made the photograph, claiming it was sometime between 1941-44. A scientist at the High Altitude Observatory, Boulder, Colorado, determined the date and time based on the moon’s position in the sky.The story associated with the picture is the stuff of legend. After a discouraging day in the field with his son and an assistant, Adams was driving home, when he “saw an extraordinary situation–an inevitable photograph! I almost ditched the car and rushed to set up my 8×10-inch view camera . . . but I could not find my exposure meter! The situation was desperate: the low sun was trailing the edge of clouds in the west, and shadow would seem to dim the white crosses.” Adams had pre-visualized the image, managing to capture the picture before the sun set and light irrevocably shifted.

Adams remarked that it was difficult to craft photographs from the original negative, which is why prints from this period are uncommon. In December 1948, he reprocessed the negative, increasing the density in the foreground. Later prints, from the 1960s-1970s, including lot 366, depict a scene with greater contrast, in which the sky appears dramatically darker.