The Birth Date of Moonrise
By Larry Janss
For those of us who occupy the small, arcane world of traditional (read “large format”) fine art photography, discussing the oral history and the minutia of photographic minutia seems to hold forth any time that more than one of us get together. Debates are engaged, memories are recalled, anecdotes are retold and retold again.
The lore of the great Himself, Ansel Adams, is often at the heart of many fond, usually exaggerated, personal recollections of the jolly old elf.
One of the great kafuffles spins around the precise “birthday” of Ansel Adam’s seminal work, “Moonrise, Hernandez”, arguably the one of the most significant photographs in photographic history. Ansel was famously flakey in his recording of the dates of his photographs, though he could recall the technical details of their making quite precisely. Ansel had pegged Moonrise’s birth at some time in the fall of 1941, he was pretty sure.
The great hand wringing in this case is over the precise date that Ansel actually took, or made, Moonrise. The vernacular in the previous sentence is the stuff of another essay…does one make, or take, a photograph. Mystics and Native Americans have debated this question for centuries. The question at hand, however, is that of Moonrise’s birthdate, and it has been answered previously, twice.
The first answer came at the prodding of Beaumont Newhall, one of Ansel’s closest friends and the director of the then newly created (1940) department of photography of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Beaumont was immensely frustrated at Ansel’s inability to formally name the date of Moonrise’s birth, and so he engaged the eminent astronomer, Dr. David Elmore, of the High Altitude Observatory at Boulder, Colorado, to calculate the exact time of the exposure. Dr. Elmore, after some tediously precise calculations using a copy of Moonrise to measure the moon’s height above the horizon and the fullness of the moon, pegged the date at 4:05 PM of the afternoon of October 31, 1941. Ansel was pleased with this new information and thus it was. Ansel passed away in 1984, doubtless somewhat more content that the mystery of the date had been resolved.
But the date was not to hold. Another man of science, Dr. Dennis Di Ciccri of Sky and Telescope Magazine, was discontent with that answer and took it upon himself to recalculate the numbers. His hypothesis was that the first set of calculations were made based on an inaccurate assumption of the location that Ansel had placed his tripod, described by Ansel as “by the highway.” Dr. Di Ciccro concluded correctly that Dr. Elmore had assumed, incorrectly, that the “highway” in question was the one currently in use. Di Ciccri assumed, correctly, that the small frontage road was, in fact, the main highway of the day. In re-spinning the data based on this assumption and the subtle shift in coordinates, Dr. Di Ciccri determined that Moonrise had actually been hatched on November 1st at 4:49 PM, some 24 hours and 44 minutes later!!
The photographic world was aghast! But what was to be done? Ansel had passed away. Did we have to simply take this aberration on faith? This was a catastrophic, destabilizing circumstance about which no one really gave a damn, much less a second thought. That is, until October 31, 1991, exactly 50 years (or was is fifty years plus one day) after the great click.
On October 31st, 1991, I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, searching for a newspaper to be my guest over breakfast. The weather was crisp and clear with a few atmospherics playing in the northern indigo sky, promising to develop nicely over the Sangre de Christos where I’d planned to go hunting photographs in the late afternoon. I’d planned to head up the ski resort road behind Santa Fe, where Ansel had taken “Aspens”, both Horizontal and Vertical, and thus my thoughts were on the old man and I was pleasantly surprised to see his grizzled old countenance staring at me from the newspaper box – front page of the Albuquerque Journal. That solved one problem; I now had company for breakfast. The Journal, in honor of Moonrise, had printed a long article on the putative anniversary of the taking of the photograph and of the Great Controversy surrounding the photograph’s actual birthdate. It had not occurred to me that this was the controversial day in question but there it was – in print. I read the article voraciously, consuming it and my eggs, and I knew what my destiny was to be for the next two days.
Hernandez was a little hard to find. It’s up the road from Espanola on Highway 84 and nearly invisible at speeds over 35mph. I only knew I was in the town itself for having been told so by the little sign that announces “Hernandez.” It took a few passes, back and forth, before I found the actual site, but, finally, there I was, on photographically sacred ground. All of the elements were in their places. There was the famous, humble church; the cemetery with its glowing white crosses; the swath of cottonwoods; the Sangre de Christo Mountains looming timelessly, unchanged in the fifty years since their visit from Ansel. And there were the clouds, unexpected but welcome nonetheless, a swipe of luminescence arranged like a comforter over the Sangres. But there was no moon. The moon was operating on its own calendar; ignorant or uncaring of the consequences its absence would have on my mission. The first consequence was to the title of this mission, and of my soon to be made photograph. It instantly changed to “No Moonrise, Hernandez”.
Having found the scene, I now had to find the precise spot – the location of Ansel’s tripod marks. I had some time; I’d arrived at about 3:15 PM, giving myself a full fifty minutes to prepare. Ansel had taken his Moonrise from the top of his automobile on a platform he had built for just such an occasion. This fact, and the 50 intervening years, made my task of finding his tripod impressions impossible.
I carried a little image of Moonrise, a postcard, with me, as well as a “viewing card” – a cunning devise that Ansel handed out freely to his students – made of an 8 x 10 piece of stiff black cardboard with a 4 x 5 rectangle cut out of the center. By peering through the card and referring to both the actual scene and the postcard, walking back and forth, measuring in my mind’s eye the distances of church to tree, of crosses to the fence, I narrowed the divide. I imagined a clicking sound in my head – like those in the old movies wherein the hero is homing in on the radioactive bomb and the crackling of the Geiger Counter increases its frantic chatter as we get nearer and nearer the source. Steal a peek at the postcard, eyes to the viewing card, check, back to the postcard….no, that big Cottonwood is too far from the old farmhouse in juxtaposition to the crosses and the church. Check. A couple feet to the left, up 5 inches, diagonal 3 inches and – woop woop woop – my internal claxons erupted, the shimmering image in the viewing card froze, the veil of time parted; I was looking at Moonrise, Hernandez, in the fall of 1941.
Ah, but the dowager had aged. Sigh. Where there had been an open field in front of the church there was now a dirt road scraped through the scene, rudely bisecting it. That insult was not too bad, compositionally; a scar of life on the maturing face of Hernandez. And the old church sported a snappy new hat, cocked a little sideways in a jaunty sort of way, in the form of a tin gabled roof built sometime in the intervening fifty years to shed the rain and keep the old adobe from melting. The true disappointment to the timelessness of the scene was the rude addition of a cinderblock shack with its tin roof placed on the landscape, marring its left flank and compromising the pristine composition that Ansel had defined 50 years earlier. Alas, I surrendered to my realization that mine was more of a photojournalistic task than an artistic one and the course of time is not always fair or esthetic. Having discovered Ansel’s tripod marks, I proceeded.
It would be less than honest to say that this was a normal assignment for me. I cringe at paranormal reports of “feeling the spirit” and that the artistic act is simply the “channeling of a higher force.” Hooie. My artistic acts more resemble the scratching of an itch. Or sneezing. And, anyway, I was not there at Hernandez that day to commit an artistic act. I was there to replicate the real artistic act that had taken place fifty years earlier; one of the most significant in the field of fine art photography extant.
But I must admit… I did feel a little otherly that day, and, I guess, a little voyeuristic as well. I had the distinct feeling that I was peeking through a time window floating in front of me on my camera’s ground glass, peeking into Ansel’s personal vision.
And the thought enchanted me that, on this spot one half century earlier to the minute, Ansel was scurrying around in a frenzy, getting his camera set, choosing the lens, muttering, mumbling. Having misplaced his light meter, he had to estimate his exposure based on his preexisting knowledge of the luminance value of the nearly full moon…. I could almost hear him huffing away, like far away faint static on an old radio, shouting orders to his friend Cedrick Wright and to Michael, his 7-year-old son.
As I was setting up, at about 3:45 PM on October 31st, 1991, an odd thing happened, among the many other odd things that happened that day; people starting showing up. An old gringo couple in an old ford sedan pulled over. A Chicano guy about my age appeared. A couple of young Hispanic teenage girls, sort of embarrassed and giggly, stopped in. Over the course of the next 20 minutes, fully fourteen folks stopped their cars, turned off their engines, set their brakes and got out to watch. Some of them came over to look at my big wooden camera and asked me if I was there to watch Moonrise go by. That’s what the young Chicana girl asked, in her lovely, lilting Hispanic accent; “Are you here to watch Moonrise go by?” I said yes I was. …. here…to watch Moonrise go by.
I told her I loved Moonrise and that I actually owned a Moonrise, having purchased it from the old gnome personally in 1967. “You knew Ansel Adams??!!” she blurted – “jesu… that’s awesome.” Like as though I knew the Pope or a Richie Valens. “Pues, Chica, quien es este hombre Ansel?” asked her friend.
That I’d known Ansel and was there with my big wooden camera caused a little stir of conversation amongst we voyeurs that day. They’d all come out because they’d all read the article in the Albuquerque Journal. They’d all, each one of them, been somehow touched by the photograph, Moonrise, sometime in their lives. Moonrise was our common denominator. The lone Hispanic guy, a homie dude, came up, wanting to talk to the gringo with the big camera, needing to talk, it seemed. Nervously, he told me he’d been in ‘Nam in the ’70s but spent most of his serving in Guam, supporting the air force fighters that would fly in and out, wreaking havoc on the Vietnamese. All day he’d toil away in the 90+ degree heat and 90% humidity. Each night he’d lay in the un-air conditioned Quonset hut barracks, twisted up in his sheets, sweating, trying to get some sleep, achingly homesick for New Mexico. He told me he had a poster of Moonrise pinned to the barrack’s wall and that he’d gaze up at it every night as he tossed miserably in his sheets. He said that, looking at Moonrise, he’d hear the whisper of the breeze coming off of the Sangre de Cristos, feel the coolness of the fall weather as it changed from summer to winter, see the bright orange leaves of the Aspen Trees in the mountains in the black and white photograph, feel the biting cold of the water on his bare feet as he fished a New Mexican stream. Moonrise, he said, kept him grounded while he was in the service of the United States. He said he loved Moonrise; his eyes got far away and moist. He got a little embarrassed then; he was a Homie after all. So he mumbled a gentle saludo to me and moved a few feet away to wait the moment when Moonrise would go by.
Then it was 4:00 PM and the appointed moment was nearly upon us. We could hear it in the low moaning of the wind playing over the high desert, in the ozone-charged atmosphere and we, all of us, got quiet and faced east from our perch along the highway. My camera was all set, film in place, safety plenum pulled, lens focused. The crosses were lit up, flaming in the last light of the sun as it was setting behind us. The clouds performed their assigned task of being there. We all got very quiet. We could hear a light breeze blowing, the caw of a crow. I could hear Ansel puffing from the exertion of having so rapidly set up his camera 50 years earlier.
I was intent on my watch, alternately watching the scene and the watch face. Everyone else was watching only the scene, watching for that glimpse of Moonrise as she passed by. Waiting… four, three, two, one. The moment was on me, I pressed the plunger gently, sort of reverently and …..CLICK. The shutter exploded like a crack of lightning, the report of a rifle echoing off the distant Sangre de Cristo Mountains. My shutter signaled a successful exposure by belting out a robust and enthusiastic CLICK and everyone actually jumped a little. They all looked around at each other and me and started to chuckle a soft, quiet, knowing little chuckle, sort of an embarrassed, suppressed giddiness. It was our collective secret, and I swear that I had heard two clicks in that signal moment.
True to the experiment, I immediately slid the safety slide back into the film holder, extracted the holder from the camera, reversed it, placed it back into the camera, withdrew the safety slide, cocked the shutter and turned my attention to the scene…. the light was off the crosses; the moment was passed.
For the official record, I returned the next day to complete the experiment. At 4:49 PM, November 1st, 1941 the light was far off the crosses, the sun was completely set, and the gloaming was thick upon me.
Science has progressed tremendously since those days in 1941 and 1991. The Internet makes everyone a know-it-all. Now one can simply go to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) website, to the solar calculator, crank in the coordinates and the site will indicate that the apparent sunset in Hernandez on October 31 and November 1st, 1941 was at 18:10, or 4:10 PM, whereas by 18:49 (4:49PM) the sun was stone down. The same is true in 1991, as the solar effect on the globe doesn’t much shift in 50 years whereas the moon might just be anywhere. Hence the title of my masterpiece of mimicry, “No Moonrise, Hernandez.” Thus, the mystery is still alive. I can’t tell you whether the photograph was taken on October 31 or November 1st, 1941, but it was certainly made closer to 4:05PM than 4:49PM.
This was fun, doing this thing over the decades. The story started when Ansel told me his personal story of the making of Moonrise. He expounded on the first scientific inquiry into the precise time of the exposure, an exercise that he felt was much ado about very little but that he welcomed and about which he quietly felt flattered. I was pleased with myself that I’d followed my instinct in pursuing the making my photograph that morning in 1991, and pursued reading the scientific and photographic journals about the big kafuffle, doing the research, remembering my old friend. It was all enjoyable sport for me, an old school photographer with time on his hands who loved Ansel.
The real magic of this little yarn isn’t really about when the photograph was made, or taken. It’s about the wonder that a sheet of flat photographic paper decorated with tones of grey, arranged by the master with the master’s touch, can carry such an astounding power as to make a young lonely Hispanic dude, homesick for his mountains, sweltering in Guamanian tin Quonset hut thousands of miles from home, feel the cool breeze of those mountains, bathe in the sunlight reflecting off of sacred crosses in a cemetery and feel the comfort of his home. And that the existence of the photograph had the power to cause a group of fourteen completely disparate strangers to get in their cars, drive across the New Mexican desert to a nondescript spot and simply watch as a sort of arbitrary moment in time passed by.
Time, as Siddhartha described it, is as a river where sentient beings observe their place, and lives, from the shore on which they stand, not precisely experiencing what was happening around the bends, up or down the river, but knowing it is just around the bend and that all time, like all of the river, is happening now. Time was flowing strongly that day and at that moment. It was all happening, everything that had happened, that is happening, that ever will happen, was happening that day, precisely then, in the moment on the banks of that river. And, on that day, for certain, Ansel was working hard and we were watching. We heard the click of two shutters.
Moonrise, Hernandez, by Ansel Adams
4:05 PM ~ Fall of 1941
No Moonrise, Hernandez, by Larry Janss
4:05 PM ~ Fall of 1991
Author Larry Janss first met Ansel Adams in 1967 at the age of 17 while attending Adams’ Yosemite Summer Workshop. Janss attended three of Adams’ workshops over the course of the next 5 years. Finally, Adams told Janss that he could no longer attend the Workshop as a student; there were simply too many avid professional photographers on the Workshop’s waiting list to allow one enthusiastic youngster to hog so much time. But Adams offered Janss a hybrid internship to “carry stuff around and set up cameras.” Janss seized the opportunity and the two developed a fine friendship that was interrupted by Adams’ death in 1984.
Larry Janss with his mentor / friend, Ansel Adams, Circa 1974
Adams paid Janss the greatest of compliments when, during an early internship, Adams declared Janss to be, “…as enthusiastic as a muddy puppy; …and as clumsy too.”