The Story Behind Ansel Adams’ Iconic ‘Moonrise, Hernandez’

The Ansel Adams Gallery made this 4-minute video about Ansel Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez, a photo the gallery calls Adams’ “most famous and iconic image.” Sales director Brittany Moorefield shares the story behind the photo while presenting an ultra-rare mural-sized print from the early 1970s.

Adams shot the photo while returning to Santa Fe from northern New Mexico on November 1st, 1941.

“I observed a fantastic scene as we approached the village Hernandez,” Adams says. “The moon was about two days before full, and the buildings and crosses were illuminated by a gentle, diffuse sunlight coming through the clouds of a clearing storm.”

As he rushed to make the photo before the light faded away from the landscape, Adams was unable to find his light meter. Here’s his account of what happened as told in his 1983 book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs:

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 … I suddenly realized that I knew the luminance of the Moon – 250 cd/ft2. Using the Exposure Formula, I placed this value on Zone VII … Realizing as I released the shutter that I had an unusual photograph which deserved a duplicate negative, I quickly reversed the film holder, but as I pulled the darkslide, the sunlight passed from the white crosses; I was a few seconds too late! The lone negative suddenly became precious.

Back in his studio, Adams worked to bring out the extreme contrasts in the image, which was extremely difficult to print, particularly at larger sizes. Over time, Adams reinterpreted the photo by printing it with a darker and darker sky, bringing out both the moon in the background and the crosses in the foreground.

An early print (left) versus a later print (right).

Adams went on to make over 1,300 prints of the photo himself over the course of his career, and the photo made a splash in the art world when it sold for a then-unheard-of price of $71,500 at auction in 1971. The same print hit the auction block again in 2006 and ended up selling for $609,600.