Seventy-three years ago last month Ansel Adams made this iconic picture of a New Mexico village, landscape, and sky that is still one of his most popular works.
While he’s strongly associated with his native California, especially photographs of Yosemite and the Sierra wilderness, Ansel made several visits to the desert Southwest and his images from those trips have become equally known and loved.
“Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” is a photo I come back to over and over. For me it expresses in a quiet but powerful way the transcendence of beauty over emptiness, loneliness, the mundane, even over death itself.
The composition of the picture speaks of hope and inspiration, moving from complexity to profound simplicity. Beginning with the plurality of forms at the bottom of the photo, our eye rises through the grave markers and the more simple adobe structures of the church and other buildings, into the soaring beauty of the mountains and clouds, and finally we lose ourselves in the profound depths of the dark sky.
There in the sky, silent yet eloquent, solitary yet connected, simple yet awe-inspiring, is the form and light of the nearly round moon. Almost half of the picture is dark sky and still the moon holds its own, suspended in motion, blessing the landscape below.
I’ve spent time traveling in New Mexico, Arizona, west Texas, and even the state of Chihuahua across the Mexican border. Much of the landscape in these places reminded me of Ansel’s “Moonrise.” The dominant memory of each trip is gazing with mouth agape, in awe of the surreal landscape of mesas, canyons, and deserts, often with snow-capped mountains on the far horizon.
Even my favorite series of novels is set in the desert Southwest. The mystery stories of the late Tony Hillerman captivated me from page one of The Blessing Way, the first book in the series. Hillerman loved the stark, stunning landscape of the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and New Mexico and that deep appreciation permeates every book in the series.
Ansel Adams made “Moonrise” after a long day working in another location in New Mexico. Driving just before sunset with his son and one of his best friends, he came over a hill outside the small town of Hernandez and saw this scene. Ansel stopped and yelled for everyone to get out of the car and quickly set up the camera. Seconds after he took this iconic photograph the sun set. The light was gone, the moment was over. He didn’t have time for even a second exposure.
Much has been made over Ansel’s vision to not only see this amazing image but also his ability to quickly set up and make a photograph. When he didn’t have time even to grab his light meter, he recalled by memory the luminescence of the moon and adjusted his exposure accordingly. His skill, his preparation, his training had all prepared him for that one moment and allowed him to make this picture.
This image is about life and death. The grave markers, reflecting the last light of the setting sun, are one of the most distinctive features of this photo. The image begins with death and the universal need for each one of us to consciously accept our own death. But this is done in hope, moving up through life and beauty to the simplicity of the One, the Light that overcomes darkness.
As we approach the winter solstice with the long nights and short days, and the gifts of Advent and Christmas and the Christmas season, this is a photo that brings comfort, hope, and inspiration.