Return to Hernandez: Sixty Years On

A Short Essay on Moonrise, Hernandez by Ansel Adams

I bought Ansel Adams’ book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs wanting to know more about this master photographer and artist who has inspired and influenced my photography, and I read the description of the making of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941. This story is the stuff of legend, of course, since most people have heard of Adams’ inability to find his exposure meter, but got the shot anyway by remembering the luminosity of the moon. It suddenly dawned on me that not only was I living near Hernandez (and in fact had driven past the site many times wondering where and when Adams scrambled to make that most memorable of images), but the date of the image was close at hand! On page 43, Adams writes:

“Because of my unfortunate disregard for the dates of my negatives I have caused considerable dismay among photographic 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.  Using data from a visit to the site, analysis of the moon’s position in the photograph, and lunar azimuth tables, he determined the exposure was made at approximately 4:05 p.m. on October 31, 1941.  That is now the official date.”

In late 2001, then, I arranged to make a pilgrimage to the site, and attempt to remake the photograph at the place and time specified by Ansel Adams, but with the passage of 60 years.

Certainly a bold idea, I hear you say! It is audacious, no doubt, especially when I intended to achieve this with a small early-model digital camera with fixed lens (Canon G1). Adams says, in the same description as quoted above, page 41: “The making of this photograph–it is certainly my most popular single image–combined serendipity and immediate technical recall.” Early prints of this photograph sell at auction for $20,000 to over $50,000, and later prints still command prices in the tens of thousands. The number of posters sold and hung of this image must near the millions.

And of course, I am not the first person to have this thought, even though on the day, I appear to have been the only person who thought of it in terms of years, days and hours. I packed my wife and youngest daughter into the car, along with exposure meter, tripod and a few cameras and made the journey from Albuquerque, through Santa Fe to Hernandez. A stop at a local convenience store in fact confirmed the uniqueness of my mission–people always stop by to ask for the location of the Church in the photo, but no one did so this day. A coup! There are many copies of the original available to view on the internet for comparison. But here’s what it looks like 60 years later, to the minute, hour, and day:

Hernandez, NM, October 2001

So different it might be easier to argue I was in the wrong place. Below I will provide evidence I am actually standing within 10 feet of where Adams must have made his photograph (and slightly to the left of his position thanks to not wishing to actually stand in the road with moving vehicles), and this image was made within 10 minutes of the time he made the original. This image has been slightly manipulated–but no where near as heavily as the original image was in the many prints Adams made from his negative. And being made with what is now a primitive digital camera, it has no where near the resolution and clarity of the original 8×10 inch negative, or those wonderful 16×20 inch prints he made from it. But it suffers the computer monitor well, and I have not sharpened the image so as to preserve some of the more subtle tonal qualities of the digital original.

Below I offer a copy of the image with comments identifying some of the changes that have taken place at the site over 60 years, made obvious by a comparison of images, and reinforced by a tour of the site by foot.

Many things are obvious: the moon is not present (but that was not one of my expectations, since the moon does not follow our calendar) , and the storm clouds in 2001 dominate the upper two-thirds of the image, as the dark black sky did in Adams’ image 60 years before. But the tree growing in the middle ground to the right is a visual nightmare! (I’d pay someone a lot of money to chop it down.) It almost completely obscures the graveyard and stones, one of the wondrous elements of the original image. And what of the Church? It has seen much modification in 60 years–a pitched roof of metal has been added, and the front of the Church (pointing eastward away from the viewer) has been added to in several different stages. The rear of the Church is now partially obscured by the building at left–what appears to be a shop for repairing trucks. A closer inspection shows that the graveyard has changed considerably, with additional stones, and loss of some that appeared in Adams’ image. The shining white head stone that appears in Adams’ image at the bottom right is that of a man standing on a pedestal. It is still there, and I point to it in the image above to the right of, and almost obscured by, that ugly tree.

Below is an overlay of my newer image and the original Moonrise image (copied from a website.)

I have aligned the peak in the center of the mountain range, and surprisingly the entire horizon matches very well. The overlay is a 50/50 blend, so you can see the moon from the original, and the tree from the new image. Careful examination of this image reveals the accuracy with which I was able to locate the spot where Adams set up his tripod and view camera.

So, there you have it. Perhaps the best that can be said for the new image is that it stands as a testament to the changing face of the world in which we live. Ansel Adams’ photograph is now a truly unique slice of place and time, never to be recreated. The mountains, plains and arroyos have changed little in the those 60 years, but that which man has created is ever changing.

Philip T. Ganderton

Post Script: I returned to the site of this photograph, earlier in 2004, only to find that a house has been built on the vacant lot in the foreground, obscuring much of the church from the roadside.