On this Day:

In 1941, Ansel Adams shot ‘Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico’, one of his most famous photographs.

Ansel Easton Adams (February 20, 1902 – April 22, 1984) was an American landscape photographer and environmentalist known for his black-and-white images of the American West. He helped found Group f/64, an association of photographers advocating “pure” photography which favored sharp focus and the use of the full tonal range of a photograph. He and Fred Archer developed an exacting system of image-making called the Zone System, a method of achieving a desired final print through a deeply technical understanding of how tonal range is recorded and developed during exposure, negative development, and printing. The resulting clarity and depth of such images characterized his photography.

Adams was a life-long advocate for environmental conservation, and his photographic practice was deeply entwined with this advocacy. At age 12, he was given his first camera during his first visit to Yosemite National Park. He developed his early photographic work as a member of the Sierra Club. He was later contracted with the United States Department of the Interior to make photographs of national parks. For his work and his persistent advocacy, which helped expand the National Park system, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.

Adams was a key advisor in establishing the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, an important landmark in securing photography’s institutional legitimacy. He helped to stage that department’s first photography exhibition, helped found the photography magazine Aperture, and co-founded the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.

Adams was born in the Fillmore District of San Francisco, the only child of Charles Hitchcock Adams and Olive Bray. He was named after his uncle, Ansel Easton. His mother’s family came from Baltimore, where his maternal grandfather had a successful freight-hauling business but lost his wealth investing in failed mining and real estate ventures in Nevada. The Adams family came from New England, having migrated from Northern Ireland during the early 18th century. His paternal grandfather founded a prosperous lumber business which his father later managed. Later in life, Adams condemned the industry his grandfather worked in for cutting down many of the great redwood forests.

Adams first visited Yosemite National Park in 1916 with his family. He wrote of his first view of the valley: “the splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious…. One wonder after another descended upon us…. There was light everywhere…. A new era began for me.” His father gave him his first camera during that stay, an Eastman Kodak Brownie box camera, and he took his first photographs with his “usual hyperactive enthusiasm”. He returned to Yosemite on his own the next year with better cameras and a tripod. During the winters of 1917 and 1918, he learned basic darkroom technique while working part-time for a San Francisco photograph finisher.

Adams’s first photographs were published in 1921, and Best’s Studio began selling his Yosemite prints the next year. His early photos already showed careful composition and sensitivity to tonal balance. In letters and cards to family, he wrote of having dared to climb to the best viewpoints and to brave the worst elements.

During the mid-1920s, the fashion in photography was pictorialism, which strove to imitate paintings with soft focus, diffused light, and other techniques. Adams experimented with such techniques, as well as the bromoil process, which involved brushing an oily ink onto the paper. An example is Lodgepole Pines, Lyell Fork of the Merced River, Yosemite National Park (originally named Tamarack Pine), taken in 1921. Adams used a soft-focus lens, “capturing a glowing luminosity that captured the mood of a magical summer afternoon”.

For a short time Adams used hand-coloring, but declared in 1923 that he would do this no longer. By 1925 he had rejected pictorialism altogether for a more realistic approach that relied on sharp focus, heightened contrast, precise exposure, and darkroom craftsmanship.

In 1927, Adams began working with Albert M. Bender, a San Francisco insurance magnate and arts patron. Bender helped Adams produce his first portfolio in his new style, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, which included his famous image Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, which was taken with his Korona view camera, using glass plates and a dark red filter (to heighten the tonal contrasts). On that excursion, he had only one plate left, and he “visualized” the effect of the blackened sky before risking the last image. He later said, “I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print.” One biographer calls Monolith Adams’s most significant photograph because the “extreme manipulation of tonal values” was a departure from all previous photography. Adams’s concept of visualization, which he first defined in print in 1934, became a core principle in his photography.

Adams’s first portfolio was a success, earning nearly $3,900 with the sponsorship and promotion of Bender. Soon he received commercial assignments to photograph the wealthy patrons who bought his portfolio. He also began to understand how important it was that his carefully crafted photos were reproduced to best effect. At Bender’s invitation, he joined the Roxburghe Club, an association devoted to fine printing and high standards in book arts. He learned much about printing techniques, inks, design, and layout, which he later applied to other projects.

Adams married Virginia Best in 1928, after a pause from 1925 to 1926 during which he had brief relationships with various women. The newlyweds moved in with his parents to save expenses. The following year, they had a home built next door and connected it to the older house by a hallway.

Pure photography

Between 1929 and 1942, Adams’s work matured, and he became more established. The 1930s were a particularly experimental and productive time for him. He expanded the technical range of his works, emphasizing detailed close-ups as well as large forms, from mountains to factories.

Bender took Adams on visits to Taos, New Mexico, where Adams met and made friends with the poet Robinson Jeffers, artists John Marin and Georgia O’Keeffe, and photographer Paul Strand. His talkative, high-spirited nature combined with his excellent piano playing made him popular among his artist friends. His first book, Taos Pueblo, was published in 1930 with text by writer Mary Hunter Austin.
Strand proved especially influential. Adams was impressed by the simplicity and detail of Strand’s negatives, which showed a style that ran counter to the soft-focus, impressionistic pictorialism still popular at the time. Strand shared secrets of his technique with Adams and convinced him to pursue photography fully. One of Strand’s suggestions that Adams adopted was to use glossy paper to intensify tonal values.

Adams put on his first solo museum exhibition, Pictorial Photographs of the Sierra Nevada Mountains by Ansel Adams, at the Smithsonian Institution in 1931; it featured 60 prints taken in the High Sierra and the Canadian Rockies. He received a favorable review from the Washington Post: “His photographs are like portraits of the giant peaks, which seem to be inhabited by mythical gods.”
Despite his success, Adams felt that he was not yet up to the standards of Strand. He decided to broaden his subject matter to include still life and close-up photos and to achieve higher quality by “visualizing” each image before taking it. He emphasized the use of small apertures and long exposures in natural light, which created sharp details with a wide range of distances in focus, as demonstrated in Rose and Driftwood (1933), one of his finest still-life photographs.

In 1932, Adams had a group show at the M. H. de Young Museum with Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston, and they soon formed Group f/64 which espoused “pure or straight photography” over pictorialism (f/64 being a very small aperture setting that gives great depth of field). The group’s manifesto stated: “Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form.”

Imitating the example of photographer Alfred Stieglitz, Adams opened his own art and photography gallery in San Francisco in 1933. He also began to publish essays in photography magazines and wrote his first instructional book, Making a Photograph, in 1935.
Sierra Nevada

During the summers, Adams often participated in Sierra Club High Trips outings, as a paid photographer for the group; and the rest of the year a core group of Club members socialized regularly in San Francisco and Berkeley. In 1933, his first child Michael was born, followed by Anne two years later.

During the 1930s, Adams began to deploy his photographs in the cause of wilderness preservation. He was inspired partly by the increasing incursion into Yosemite Valley of commercial development, including a pool hall, bowling alley, golf course, shops, and automobile traffic. He created the limited-edition book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail in 1938, as part of the Sierra Club’s efforts to secure the designation of Kings Canyon as a national park. This book and his testimony before Congress played a vital role in the success of that effort, and Congress designated Kings Canyon as a national park in 1940.

In 1935, Adams created many new photographs of the Sierra Nevada; and one of his most famous, Clearing Winter Storm, depicted the entire Yosemite Valley, just as a winter storm abated, leaving a fresh coat of snow. He gathered his recent work and had a solo show at Stieglitz’s “An American Place” gallery in New York in 1936. The exhibition proved successful with both the critics and the buying public, and earned Adams strong praise from the revered Stieglitz. The following year, the negative for Clearing Winter Storm was almost destroyed when the darkroom in Yosemite caught fire. With the help of Edward Weston and Charis Wilson (Weston’s future wife), Adams put out the fire, but thousands of negatives, including hundreds that had never been printed, were lost.
Desert Southwest

In 1937, Adams, O’Keeffe, and friends organized a month-long camping trip in Arizona, with Orville Cox, the head wrangler at Ghost Ranch, as their guide. Both artists created new work during this trip. Adams made a candid portrait of O’Keeffe with Cox on the rim of Canyon de Chelly. Adams once remarked, “Some of my best photographs have been made in and on the rim of [that] canyon.” Their works set in the desert Southwest are often published and exhibited together.
During the rest of the 1930s, Adams took on many commercial assignments to supplement the income from the struggling Best’s Studio. He depended on such assignments financially until the 1970s. Some of his clients included Kodak, Fortunemagazine, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, AT&T, and the American Trust Company.  He photographed Timothy L. Pflueger’s new Patent Leather Bar for the St. Francis Hotel in 1939. The same year, he was named an editor of U.S. Camera & Travel, the most popular photography magazine at that time.

In 1940, Adams created A Pageant of Photography, the largest and most important photography show in the West to date, attended by millions of visitors. With his wife, Adams completed a children’s book and the very successful Illustrated Guide to Yosemite Valley during 1940 and 1941. He also taught photography by giving workshops in Detroit. Adams also began his first serious stint of teaching, which included the training of military photographers, in 1941 at the Art Center School of Los Angeles, now known as the Art Center College of Design.

Mural Project

In 1941, Adams contracted with the National Park Service to make photographs of National Parks, Indian reservations, and other locations managed by the department, for use as mural-sized prints to decorate the department’s new building. The contract was for 180 days. Adams set off on a road trip with his friend Cedric and his son Michael, intending to combine work on the “Mural Project” with commissions for the U.S. Potash Company and Standard Oil, with some days reserved for personal work.


While in New Mexico for the project, Adams photographed a scene of the Moon rising above a modest village with snow-covered mountains in the background, under a dominating black sky. The photograph is one of his most famous and is named Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. Adams’s description in his later books of how it was made probably enhanced the photograph’s fame: the light on the crosses in the foreground was rapidly fading, and he could not find his exposure meter; however, he remembered the luminance of the Moon and used it to calculate the proper exposure. Adams’s earlier account was less dramatic, stating simply that the photograph was made after sunset, with exposure determined using his Weston Master meter.

However the exposure was actually determined, the foreground was underexposed, the highlights in the clouds were quite dense, and the negative proved difficult to print. The initial publication of Moonrise was in U.S. Camera 1943 annual, after being selected by the “photo judge” for U.S. Camera, Edward Steichen. This gave Moonrise an audience before its first formal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1944.

Over nearly 40 years, Adams re-interpreted the image, his most popular by far, using the latest darkroom equipment at his disposal, making over 1,369 unique prints, mostly in 16″ by 20″ format. Many of the prints were made during the 1970s, with their sale finally giving Adams financial independence from commercial projects. The total value of these original prints exceeds $25,000,000; the highest price paid for a single print of Moonrise reached $609,600 at a 2006 Sotheby’s auction in New York.

The Mural Project ended on June 30, 1942; and because of the World War, the murals were never created. Adams sent a total of 225 small prints to the DOI, but held on to the 229 negatives. These include many famous images such as The Tetons and the Snake River. Although they were legally the property of the U.S. Government, he knew that the National Archives did not take proper care of photographic material, and used various subterfuges to evade queries.

The ownership of one image in particular has attracted interest: Moonrise. Although Adams kept meticulous records of his travel and expenses, he was less disciplined about recording the dates of his images, and he neglected to note the date of Moonrise. But the position of the Moon allowed the image to be eventually dated from astronomical calculations, and in 1991 Dennis di Cicco of Sky & Telescope determined that Moonrise was made on November 1, 1941. Since this was a day for which he had not billed the department, the image belonged to Adams (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

A friend of mine wanted to become a good photographer.  He was told he would have to put a lot of effort into it, he could not just wait and see what develops.

Second, a Song:

Aiden Robbins is a filmmaker based in the Carolinas with a channel on YouTube.com.

He states: “Most photographers are familiar with Ansel Adams, but his work is more relevant today than we may realize. This week I’m breaking down his iconic style, the methods and intentions behind it, and why it matters for landscape photography today.”

Here is Aiden Robbins’ video on “How Ansel Adams Changed Photography”.  I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.” – Ansel Adams

Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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