I have to wonder if this Ansel Adams image has become the Mona Lisa of the ‘Photography World’? It seems like it is the print to own by auction goers. Like the Mona Lisa, onlookers seem to flock to it only to ooh and aah and to get a picture of it for their own.
The image has taken on a life of its own. While it is an interesting image, printed very differently by Adams (or his assistant/s?) over the years, the reasons for it’s excessive popularity remain intellectually elusive (kind of like that ‘smile’, eh?) It was not a well exposed original negative, and took very extensive burning and dodging (darkening and lightening) after the fact, in the darkroom, to achieve some drama.
From the Wikipedia Ansel Adams entry –
“On a trip in New Mexico weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Adams shot 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. The photograph’s fame was probably enhanced by Adams’s description in his later books    of how it was made: 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 Annual 1943, 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 1300 unique prints, most in 16″ by 20″ format… Many of the prints were made in the 1970s, 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 reached US$609,600 at Sotheby’s New York auction in 2006.”
Recommended reading: The Making of 40 Photographs
The image has some subtleties, and some visual depth (after all the darkroom doings) but it certainly isn’t as dramatic as, say, the Yosemite Half Dome images, or others of Adams’ works.
Now, in what reads like a Press Release from the Swann Auction Galleries, Art Knowledge News is reporting about the sales of 2 prints of the image along with other photographic works to indicate the returning photographic print market.
Daile Kaplan, Vice President and Photography Specialist, said, “Our sale results reflect the growing market for works by classical photographers, with two different versions of Ansel Adams’s “Moonrise Over Hernandez, New Mexico” selling for competitive prices. And for the third time, a photograph by David Heath set a record at Swann.”
At least there were other prints sold besides the Hernandez ones. The sold prints cover a wide range of ‘photo auction darlings’:
Harry Callahan, Ruth Bernhard, André Kertész, (“Chez Mondrian” one of my faves), Edward Weston, Walker Evans, Barbara Crane, John Szarkowski, Helmut Newton, Lewis Carroll, Louis-Émile Édouard Durandelle, Lewis W. Hine, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Yousuf Karsh, and, representing more recent photographers – Steve McCurry.
Yes, the list is rather shy on female photographers. Blame the buyers, I say.
So, what is it about this one image that makes the auction addicts giddy? Is it merely the jump-on-board frenzy to obtain the ‘Emperor’s Old Print’? What do you think? Comment below.