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Ansel Adams: Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico

Photo Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

714549.jpg (1024×787)

 From Ansel Adams; to Edwin Land, Co-Founder of the Polaroid Corporation; to Edward Mills Purcell (winner of the Nobel Prize, 1952); by descent to Dennis and Rosamond Purcell. 

Ansel Adams' position in the pantheon of master photographers is assured by his magisterial landscape studies, of which Moonrise, Hernandez is his most famous and revered photograph. This photographic print was apparently created during the 1950s, the decade in which it was gifted by Adams to Land. To date, it is the only known print from the 1950s to be offered at a public auction.

The subject matter of the picture is rich and symbolic, conveying the sense of awe Adams associated with the natural landscape. And, this particular print also apparently demonstrates Adams' earliest "re-interpretation" of the negative, which he reprocessed in 1948--the same year he began working for Edwin Land (1909-1991), and a year after Land introduced an instant camera. In later years, Land encouraged Adams to make mural-size enlargements from his Polaroid negatives, providing further evidence of the quality of the film. 

In 1948 Adams intensified the lower portion of the image area to increase contrast. (Adams had remarked that it was difficult to craft photographs from the original negative, which is why vintage prints are so scarce.) After he reprocessed the negative, increasing details in the foreground, the composition of the image had greater aesthetic dimension and emotional resonance. In this iteration of Moonrise, the dark sky sets off a luminous foreground, in which the crosses seem to glow from within. The serene, waxing moon has resulted in a scene that was said ". . . punctuates the meeting of heaven and earth." 

The picture was shot on October 31, 1941, Halloween day, at 4:05 PM, in the 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.) However, Adams proudly recalled the story associated with the picture, which 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 8x10-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 set his large-format view camera on a tripod on top of his car. Having pre-visualized the image, he managed to take a single negative before the sun set and light irrevocably shifted. 

In the previous decade, the 1930s, Adams developed the Zone System, a set of principles used to determine the correct exposure for the negative and the widest possible range of tonality for a print. A consummate technician, once the negative had been reprocessed Adams developed new ways of interpreting the poetic scene. For example, prints from the 1960s depict a scene with deeper contrast, in which the sky appears darker. In his prints from the 1970s, Adams darkened the sky even more dramatically; the result was a picture that appears to have been shot at night. 

The scientist Edward Purcell (1912-1997) developed a close friendship with Edwin H. Land, whom he met in 1950. They both served on the Science Advisory Committee that began under President Eisenhower in response to the Soviet Sputnik revelations. There, Purcell chaired the subcommittee on space; he and Land wrote, with the participation of Frank Bello, formerly of Fortune magazine, a pamphlet sometimes called the 'Space Primer' to educate people about the possibilities of space exploration. Purcell and Adams met at about this same time and enjoyed an active friendship as members of a Supper Club, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

The image has been reproduced in: 

Ansel Adams: Classic Images, p. 32. 

Photography in America, p. 130-31. 

Photography from 1839 to Today, p. 643. 

Masterworks of American Photography: The Amon Carter Museum Collection, p. 125. 

Ansel Adams in the Lane Collection, p. 37. 

Ansel Adams (1972), p. 63. 

Ansel Adams at 100, p. 96. 

Ansel Adams: The Grand Canyon and the Southwest,frontispiece. 

Price Realized (with Buyer's Premium) $221,000

Ansel Adams' iconic Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico was the top lot in last week's photographs auction Art & Storytelling. The mural-size photographic print has a remarkable association and provenance: it was originally gifted by Adams to Edwin Land, founder of the Polaroid Corporation, who subsequently gave the artwork to his friend and colleague, Cambridge-based scientist Edward Purcell, who won the Nobel Prize in 1952.
For more on the story of Moonrise, Hernandez, watch this video.
The sale also resulted in new auction records for photographers William Saunders($65,000), and Wilson A. Bentley ($52,000).
*As always, Passed Time would like to thank Swann Auction Galleries for this information, the photograph and the updates!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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