Masters on the Market: Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico”

James Ardis
Published on
Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico by Ansel Adams. Photo by Sotheby’s.
Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico by Ansel Adams. Photo by Sotheby’s.

Ansel Adams knew he couldn’t control fate, but he tried anyway. He used his knowledge of landscapes and how they look in each season to try for a lucky shot more often than other photographers. “He would often PLAN to be in the right place at the right time,” remembers Adams’ assistant, Alan Ross. These calculations made it all the more humbling when Adams came up short, as he had on Halloween, 1941, in New Mexico.

Defeated, Adams drove down U.S. 84 in his Pontiac with his son and technical assistant. It was only then, as they circled toward Hernandez, that Adams realized the potential shot he had as the sun set and the moon rose. Adams swerved into the highway’s gravel shoulder and quickly gathered his equipment. 

Even then, the odds were stacked against him. He could not find his light meter, which would be necessary for most photographers to get a usable exposure. But Adams once again outmaneuvered luck by calculating the best exposure in his head. He managed to take one shot before sunset.

Adams returned to Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico for the rest of his life, and many critics consider it to be a foundational work in photography. This December, Sotheby’s will offer the earliest print of the photograph ever to reach auction. It is one of over 100 Adams photographs on offer from the collection of David H. Arrington.

Ansel Adams with camera and light meter. Photo courtesy of Phaidon.
Ansel Adams with camera and light meter. Photo courtesy of Phaidon.

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, still resonates with viewers over 70 years after the artist first captured it. In the picture, the moon, clouds, mountaintops, and crosses from Hernandez’s cemetery share a brightness. This light connects the natural world, humanity, and the eternal. 

Yet the photograph was not an instant success for Adams. After returning to his studio, Adams found the negative almost impossible to work with. “The exposure wasn’t exactly right, the contrast level was off. It was a huge amount of hand work…” says Sotheby’s senior specialist, Christopher Mahoney. But after the photograph appeared in an industry magazine, the demand for prints encouraged Adams to continue.

Adams made over 1,300 prints of Moonrise in his lifetime. The lot coming to auction with Sotheby’s this December is among the early examples. Some, like the artist’s grandson, Matthew Adams, view these first productions as comparatively flatter. They do not have the same dramatic contrast between the moon and the sky as later prints. 

Other experts, like Sotheby’s head of photographs, Emily Bierman, believe the first prints were saved from overediting. “The earlier that a print was made, close to the time when the photographer made the negative, is generally what the photographer had in mind for how it should look,” says Bierman.

Early example vs. late example of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico by Ansel Adams. Photo by PetaPixel.
Early example vs. late example of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico by Ansel Adams. Photo by PetaPixel.

The demand for Moonrise began to accelerate in 1971. That was the year art dealer Harry Lynn discovered the picture. “This was an extraordinarily graphic, marvellous image,” Lynn remarked two decades after first seeing Moonrise. At Lynn’s gallery, prints sold for USD 150 apiece ($964 when adjusted for inflation). Ten years later, a print sold for $71,000 at auction, setting a new bar for Moonrise.

Sotheby’s has placed an estimate of $700,000 to $1,000,000 on the Moonrise print they’ll offer in December. If it reaches even the low end of that estimate, this example will beat the piece’s current auction record. 

The most expensive example ever sold at auction crossed the block in 2006 for $609,600, also at Sotheby’s. The print was another early production and was gifted to the seller by Adams himself. At the time, Sotheby’s noted that these early prints are unique for their “subtlety of tone and high level of detail in the sky.”

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico will be featured in Sotheby’s A Grand Vision live auction. Those interested can register to bid on the auction house’s website