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Moonrise, Hernandez, NM--Offer your critique

Tom D , Jul 16, 2001; 01:58 p.m.

In looking at critiques, they can often be useful devices for people to improve their images. I am wondering about the critique of fmaous photos by famous photographers. For example, Ansel Adams is one of the most famous photographers of all time. One of his most famous images is Moonrise, Hernandez, NM. (If you haven't seen the image in a while, you can see it by viewing this link.)

While many photographers may be hesitant to critique such a famous image, I was wondering if anyone would do so, for the benefit of those trying to improve their photography. For example, what do you think of the large amount of black sky at the top of photo?


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Dave Nance , Jul 17, 2001; 04:56 p.m.

Some background about "Moonrise"

I am an unabashed enthusiast of "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico". I have a poster of it on the wall of my office, and I made a trip to Hernandez a couple of years ago to find the spot where it was taken (by the way, the old church and cemetery are still there). 

I know there are folks in the photo.net community who dislike Adams' work; I will not be surprised to hear that some dislike "Moonrise" in particular (because of its great popularity, perhaps?). I will leave the critiquing to them.

But, I thought I'd contribute the following excerpt from a piece by Mary Street Alinder, Adam's long-time assistant and biographer, about "Moonrise". I found it on the internet once - sorry, can't find it there now, so can't provide a link, but I still have some of the text. I think it is an interesting piece of background to any critique of the photo.

From "Ansel Adams: Some Thoughts About Ansel And About Moonrise", by Mary Street Alinder (Copyright 1999 Alinder Gallery):

"Moonrise was made on a typical Ansel trip to the Southwest in the fall of 1941 combining two commercial assignments: one for the U.S. Department of the Interior at Carlsbad Caverns and the other for the U.S. Potash Company. Accompanying Ansel were his son, Michael, and his good friend, Cedric Wright. The trip was a grand, meandering one, tailored to show eight year old Michael the sights of the Southwest. After a few days exploring Death Valley, the Grand Canyon and Canyon de Chelly, they decided to photograph about Santa Fe.

"Driving back to their hotel following an unsuccessful day of picture making in the Chama Valley, Ansel glanced to his left and saw a fantastic event. The sky was illuminated by brightly-lit clouds in the east and the white crosses in the cemetery of the old adobe church seemed to glow from within. He nearly crashed the car as he screeched to a halt in the roadside ditch, dashed out, yelling at Michael and Cedric to find the tripod, the camera, the meter, etc.

"Ansel rushed to assemble and mount the 23.5 inch component of his Cooke Series XV lens on his 8 x 10-inch view camera loaded with Ansco Isopan film and find the Wratten G filter. All was in place, but he could not find his Weston light meter. He remembered that the moon reflects 250 foot candles and he based his exposure upon that fact. He quickly computed a setting of 1/60 at f/8, but with the addition of the filter it became 1/20 at f/8. To achieve the same exposure with greater depth of field he stopped the lens to f/32 and released the shutter for one second. He prepared to make a second exposure for insurance. Dramatically, the light faded forever from the foreground.

"Moonrise, the negative, was far from perfect. It took me two years to convince Ansel to make a 'straight' print of Moonrise. He printed it without his customary darkroom manipulation as a teaching tool to show the basic information contained within the negative. Comparing this print with a fine print, one is struck by the immense work and creativity necessary for Ansel to produce what he believed to be the best interpretation of the negative. His final, expressive print is not how the scene looked in reality, but rather how it felt to him emotionally.

"Moonrise was Ansel's most difficult negative of all to print. Though he kept careful records of darkroom information on Moonrise, each time he set up the negative, he would again establish the procedure for this particular batch of prints because papers and chemicals were always variables not constants. After determining the general exposure for the print, he gave local exposure to specific areas. Using simple pieces of cardboard, Ansel would painstakingly burn in (darken with additional light from the enlarger) the sky, which was really quite pale with streaks of cloud throughout. He was careful to hold back a bit on the moon. The mid-ground was dodged (light withheld), though the crosses have been subtly burned in. This process took Ansel more than two minutes per print of intricate burning and dodging. Ansel created Moonrise with a night sky, a luminous moon and an extraordinary cloud bank that seems to reflect the moon's brilliance. Moonrise is sleight of hand. Moonrise is magic."

Chachi Arcola , Jul 17, 2001; 05:02 p.m.

As I sit here in my office staring at Moonrise hanging up on its own wall in all its glory, I've often pondered the same thing; what about that large amount of black in the sky? I think it just goes to show that you have to learn the rules before you can break them, and its the exception to the rule that proves why the rule exists. In other words, 99% of the time it would be ineffective to have the top 55% of your image completely black. However, in this classic image, the black sky dwarfs the town and the graveyard and for the viewer, conveys the loneliness, solitude and isolation of this town. The glowing clouds on the horizon provide a brilliant division between earth and sky. The small amount of foreground illustrates, at least to me, the feeling of being upon the town, yet not so close as to be within it. I've also often wondered about the large amount of black space in the middle of another of Adams' works - Winter Sunrise from Lone Pine, CA. In that piece, I think the blackness is somewhat less effective, but at the same time, creates what seems like an unnatural lighting effect, since the mountains behind are brilliantly lit.

Philip Glass , Jul 17, 2001; 05:39 p.m.

Since photo critiques are intended to help the photographer achieve his/her inner vision, what is the point of critiquing an image that so apparently achieved its author's? In my opinion, this photograph is the most eloquent example I know of how the real "truth" of photography lies in its ability to reflect the artist's vision in a language that is, by now, universally understood. It is a mirage of the truth conjured in the artist's mind and crystallized into reality by the alchemy of the darkroom.

Jeff Kennedy , Jul 17, 2001; 06:04 p.m.

I've always thougth that particular shot was one of the weaker ones AA made. If it were mine I would crop about half of the black at the top off and make a nice panorama out of it. I understand why it's there but I don't think it's effective.

Doug Broussard , Jul 17, 2001; 07:00 p.m.

I think you should all go out and make some photographs instead of noodling around critiquing Ansel's fine work.

Richard Haines , Jul 17, 2001; 07:47 p.m.

Yea Doug. I fully agree. I'm reaching for my camera right now.

Nige Buddy , Jul 17, 2001; 07:51 p.m.

Rather than critique Moonrise, discussion might be more appropiate (unless A.A. has a photo.net account and read's this.... hi Ansel, love your work!)

I was never much of a fan of 'Moonrise' having viewed it in various books and websites, none of which do it any justice. I viewed an original last year and was converted! You must see it 'in the flesh' to appreciate/critique/analyse/reject/poopoo. That's my opinion anyway!

Zap Trax , Jul 17, 2001; 08:03 p.m.

You, Mr. Kennedy, are one of the few people on earth who it doesn't effect in positive way, but that is the wondeful thing about ar -- we each have a personal experience of the thing the artist created. I think it is a great image that is all the more powerful when you look closely at the little town and realize how unremakable a place it is. The buildings are nothing to look at but AA captured the moment in a way that makes the town seem magical. For me the magic is in the way the setting sun illuminates the crosses. AA was really in the Zone.

I'd give it a 9 for asthetics and a 9 for originality.

Cowan Stark , Jul 17, 2001; 09:19 p.m.

OK, before we get too serious here's a little comic relief, but there's a point. I recounted this story on an unrelated post, so bear with me. Last fall I was at a large format workshop in Santa Fe, and we were car-pooling out Las Vegas, NM for a location shoot. Steve Simmons, the workshop leader pulled over, got out of the car and asked us if we had any idea where we were. We all looked at each other a little puzzled not getting his point. After a few hints we realized we were standing in Hernandez in the exact spot Ansel took the picture. Of course it's now overgrown, the church is obscured by another building, the mountains were barely visible and it was almost mid-day. Other than that, I guess everything else was the same! Anyway, AA definitely saw something unique that made him scramble to make an image right then and there. How many potentially great scenes have we all driven by and not even given a second look? I guess we'll never really know. That, folks is what 'vision' means to me. So waddya think? Did I come close with my 45 point eye-controlled focus, image-stabilized zoom lens with Agfa 50....? Right, I didn't think so either!

BTW, I've also seen the real print, and agree that to see it on a screen or printed page just doesn't do it justice. But then, why does this image appeal to so many people who don't know the history behind making it?

Lunchtime, Hernandez, NM

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