The Full Story Behind Ansel Adams' Most Iconic Photograph

Behind every good picture, there is usually an equally interesting story to go with it. This world-famous shot by Ansel Adams is no exception and may just change how you think about landscape photography.

The Ansel Adams Gallery has just released a video telling the wonderful story of how American landscape photographer Ansel Adams came to create one of his most famous and iconic images: "Moonrise Hernandez, New Mexico." The video shows how Adams changed the printing style and interpretation of the negative of this image over the years. Gravitating towards a much more dramatic and darker version later on. Adams claims this more contrasty direction was closer to how he originally visualized the scene at the time of making the image.

Another interesting fact about the making of this iconic image was that Adams was unable to find his exposure meter at the time so had to take an educated guess on what exposure to use. If that wasn't enough, Adams made just one exposure of the scene as the light changed before he had the chance to make a second.

While many of you are probably familiar with the image in this video you may not have known the back story or the evolution of its style. For me personally, it's videos like this that make me want to grab my camera and head outdoors. It also makes me appreciate how much harder our photography forefathers had it when it came to making pictures.

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Ken Savage's picture

Seeing his prints in person will likely change your perception of Ansel Adams

Ken Savage's picture

There is so much more to the actual prints than you ever see in books or online, certainly more than I expected. I had viewed him as a technical master but the artistic came through in the prints.

Worth searching out if you local museum has any on display.

Tim Ericsson's picture

Oh I’ve seen his prints in person many times, and they are indeed extraordinary. Wasn’t sure if you felt seeing them in person would positively or negatively change ones perception on him. Now I understand!

Deleted Account's picture

Ansel was a really good photographer, but he was a truly great printmaker.

Paul Parker's picture

Totally agree with you on that. You don't always get both skills in the same person...

Paul Parker's picture

Oh wow, thanks for the info. Always thought that would be the case but you have inspired me to hunt his work down this weekend. Many thanks!

amplighter's picture

Not only should it change you perception of Ansel Adams, but it should change how you take pictures from now on.

Paul Parker's picture

Beautifully said

Mike Schrengohst's picture

Why oh why did I not buy original Ansel prints when I had the chance?

Kirk Darling's picture

You wuz stoopid.

Don' feel like the Lone Ranger.

We is all stoopid sometimes.

Deleted Account's picture

I was offered a 16x20 print of 'Moonrise' in 1969 for $120. I was a sophomore in college and rarely had more than $20 in my pocket at any time.

Mike Schrengohst's picture

I wanted to buy an original Half-Dome for $800. I was 18 and had the money. My Dad said no - he said to spend $800 on a photo was a waste of money. Years later my Dad convinced me to buy $1000 worth of silver - years later I unloaded it for $500. My Dad was never the best for financial advice. LOL

Paul Parker's picture

It's easy in hindsight, TBH I would have gone with the silver back then too. I wonder how much that Half-Dome would be worth now...

Kirk Darling's picture

Reminds me of my f/64 days. Yes, and seeing those images in person is breathtaking and humbling.

Although I think the word "iconic" is grossly overused, except when applied to Ansel Adams.

Deleted Account's picture

Ever see Brett Weston's original prints? How about Irving Penn, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

All iconic.

Kirk Darling's picture

I considered including them in my comment, but this article was about Adams.

If "iconic" were limited to such luminaries, it would not be overused.

But you'll see that everything gets called "iconic" these days, once you start noticing it.

Paul Parker's picture

Totally agree with you Kirk, "awesome", "epic", "legend" are words used too easily now. Had no problem using the word iconic in this article though. : )

Ed Sanford's picture

I have read this story many times and I have seen the print in person. What really strikes me is that photography as we know it was still under development. He constantly changed chemicals and papers while he developed his printing style. How did he know that he should use several water baths of development? Think about it; he took this picture in the 1940s and didn't achieve a satisfactory print until the 1970s. In fact, in Adams later years, he spent more time in the dark room working on his old negatives than he did in the field. The big thing is that he got the exposure correct in the camera because of his knowledge of sensitometry. Today, we have all of these well developed tools that were not available to photographers in that era. They actually had to learn the nuances of the craft in order to make a print. Then, they labored for hours and even years in the darkroom to perfect the image. To me it is humbling.

Paul Parker's picture

So humbling Ed, well said. The fact he was still working on the image 30 years later was not lost on me. That dedication is really inspiring to me.

Muhammad Iqbal's picture

this guy doing amazing Black and White photo :)

Tim Ericsson's picture

He died over 30 years ago, but yes, he was a master of black and white photography!

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

My favourite of all his photos. Have always loved thinking about the rush he must have been in to set up. That moment when it all disappears and you're left with the hope you captured it. Also makes me think of his conversation with BBC about the actual idea of what a moment is, perhaps its a millennia if you're a mountain, but just a flash if you're a person.

Paul Parker's picture

Indeed Mark, so great this image is still generating so many interesting comments on the topic...

Stacey Bellis's picture

For anyone interested in seeing an outstanding collection of Ansel Adams original photographs juxtaposed with several contemporary photographers - mark your calendars and try and visit this upcoming exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts -
December 14, 2018 - through February 24, 2019

Paul Parker's picture

Great tip thanks for the info!

Lance Bachelder's picture

Great story! The one photo I saw in my teens that immediately made me want to be a photographer... magical.

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