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How 'Moonrise, Hernandez' Came to Be One of the Iconic Photographs of the 20th Century

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Driving back to Santa Fe, New Mexico on October 31, 1941, after what had been a disappointing day for picture-taking, photographer Ansel Adams (1902-84) brought his car to an abrupt stop, yelling to his companions to bring him his tripod, exposure meter and other photographic equipment so that he could take what would become one of the most famous images in fine art photography, "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico."

The picture has three separate elements: the town of Hernandez in the foreground, a rim of clouds illuminated on the horizon by the setting sun and the glowing moon alone in the dark sky above.

Adams knew it was a great picture, but "he was never completely satisfied with the prints he was making," according to his grandson Matthew Adams, and so the photographer tinkered with them in the darkroom, producing more than 900 prints over the course of 40 years. "In 1948, he bathed part of the negative in a chemical intensifier in order to create more contrast in the foreground and to make the moon brighter. Before that, things had looked a little flatter." Over the years, the prints also became larger, moving from 16" x 20" or smaller up to 40" x 60". Ansel Adams himself said that, with all that tinkering and various alterations, "it is safe to say that no two prints are precisely the same."

Still, with hundreds of "Moonrise, Hernandez" prints out in the world -- often produced by Adams whenever an order for a copy came in, most of them done in the 1960s and '70s (Adams kept no records on what he did when, and no one knows just how many "Moonrise, Hernandez" prints were made) -- one would presume there is some way of measuring how much they might cost. By the year in which they were printed. By the square inch. Whether or not they are signed. With 900-plus prints out there, one can't claim rarity, right? Nothing is that easy. Christie's auction house has one in its April 3 photography sale in New York (titled "The Range of Light: Photographs by Ansel Adams"), printed in 1973 and estimated at $50,000-70,000.

That print is 16" x 20," the most common size in which that image was printed, mounted on a larger board and signed by Adams somewhere on the mount. There is a more rare group of prints at the "mural size" (Adams' term) of 30" x 40," which often were made for specific projects, such as Polaroid wanting a "Moonrise, Hernandez" for one of its corporate offices. The mural sized prints were "flush-mounted" onto wood, masonite or on a type of fiberboard called Homosote, and Adams made his own thin wood frames for them.

The mural-sized prints were also unsigned, because there was no mount on which to put a signature. However, Adams would sign these prints if asked.

While the Christie's "Moonrise, Hernandez" is not likely to break $100,000, half a million dollars wouldn't be a record price for the work. A smaller (14" x 19") 1948 version earned $609,600 (estimate $150,000-250,000) at Sotheby's in 2006, and a 1950 mural sized print (39" x 56") from Polaroid's collection went for $518,500 (estimate $300,000-500,000) at Sotheby's in 2010. Yet other top public sale prices for "Moonrise, Hernandez" prints are $360,000 (a 1948 13" x 17"), $157,000 (a mid-1970s 18" x 23"), $120,000 (a 1960s 19" x 25"), $88,000 (a 1960s 15" x 19") and $66,000 (a c.1975 15" x 19").

Traditionally, black-and-white photography is valued in large part by whether or not a particular print is "vintage" -- meaning that it was created within a year or two or three (there are many definitions for what constitutes "vintage" among photography purists) of when the picture was taken. Adams did produce a couple of prints of "Moonrise, Hernandez" after returning to his studio in San Francisco, "but he found getting the image he wanted was incredibly difficult," Christopher Mahoney, senior vice-president in Sotheby's photographs department, said. "The exposure wasn't exactly right, the contrast level was off. It was a huge amount of hand work, burning and dodging to getting things looking right," and he might have given up completely. However, Adams sent "Moonrise, Hernandez" to a photography magazine in 1942, which published it, leading to numerous requests from, first, subscribers and later others who saw the photograph to buy a print. By 1948, Adams went back to the negative and began reprocessing it, "and we think of the modern era of the printing of 'Moonrise' beginning then."

The early prints of "Moonrise, Hernandez" showed what Adams actually saw that late afternoon in 1941, with the moon becoming visible in the sky while the sun was just sinking below the horizon; the moon was dim, while the sky was gray and open. In time, the photographer added more contrast, making the image far more dramatic, by brightening the moon while darkening the sky. Through repeated printings, Adams brought out the mystical vision that he spotted from his car years before.

Perhaps, part of the allure of this image is that Adams worked on getting this image just right for so much of his career. "This image encapsulates his career," Mahoney said, "and we can see in it his changing ideas and aesthetic style."