An exceptionally early print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, arguably Ansel Adams's greatest photograph, could sell for $1 million at Sotheby's.

Update: The exceptionally early print of Ansel Adams’s Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico sold for $685,500.

What you see: Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, a gelatin silver print created in 1941 or 1942 by Ansel Adams. Sotheby’s estimates it at $700,000 to $1 million.

The expert: Emily Bierman, head of the photography department at Sotheby’s.

Who was Ansel Adams? He defies easy categorization. His work is synonymous with images of the American landscape. He was an exacting printmaker and an advisor to Edwin Land and the Polaroid corporation. He worked with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service. It’s hard to overstate Adams’s activity over his seven-decade career.

Where was Ansel Adams in his career in 1941, when he shot Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico? He was a known entity. He had produced the Parmelian prints of the High Sierras, and his photographs had been exhibited at An American Place, Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, in 1936. He was contracting with the U.S. Department of the Interior to create photographic murals. He had much to recommend him.

How did Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico come to be? It was not intended for the photographic murals. He happened to make it in the Southwest, on a day when he wasn’t shooting for that project. He was accompanied by his son and a fellow photographer. They were passing through Hernandez, New Mexico when Adams was immediately struck by the quality of light in the town and its cemetery. He pulled the car over and they all got out. The time was ticking down, and no one could find the light meter. Adams made a quick calculation [based on what he knew about the luminosity of the moon]. Before he had a second chance to shoot an exposure, the sun disappeared behind the clouds and the day was over. It was a one-shot wonder, a combination of pure luck, timing, and mastery behind the camera and in the darkroom.

The creation of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico seems to be a story Adams keeps telling, and elaborating on, over the years… And many other people wrote about it as well. The story of taking the negative is legendary at this point. What’s most important is the end result, the photo Adams made. It was one in a million.

By happening to remember a fact about the luminosity of the moon at just the right time, Ansel Adams got a shot that everyone else would have missed. Exactly, but it’s also the mood he was able to capture in the photo. Only Ansel Adams could really pull out that emotion and the visceral response we get to the best of his photos.

Did Ansel Adams know what he had the instant he shot it? Or did that only become clear later, in the darkroom? It was probably a mixture of both. He had visualized what it should look like. When he developed the negatives, the exposures were difficult to get to a point where they looked like what he had visualized. It took work in the darkroom.

Was Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico an instant hit? It’s one of his most popular images, and it was immediately sought after. He started getting orders for prints, but only a handful are known to date from the 1940s. The developing process was so laborious, and Adams was such an exacting printmaker, it was time-consuming. To have an early print is beyond exciting. It stands in stark contrast to later prints.

How does Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico show Ansel Adams’s mastery of his medium? It’s so exceptionally nuanced. The landscape has great detail in the brush in the foreground. You see the late afternoon sun hitting the grave markers and a vast band of inky darkness punctuated by bands of wispy clouds. Then you have the totally luminous central point of the moon. From a composition standpoint, it’s a beautiful photo. How it was delivered by Adams is pure magic.

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico was first published in the U.S. Camera Annual 1943. Was this print made for that publication? This is not that print.

How do we know this print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico is the earliest to come to market? We’ve done the research–there’s a long history of auction records to look back to. Its provenance is pretty remarkable. It was acquired directly by Sidney Liebes, a family friend of Adams, to mark his fourteenth wedding anniversary. We know Liebes and his wife, Marjorie, married in November 1927. The print was made in late 1941, possibly early 1942. There’s also the physical characteristics. Its dimensions are consistent with prints that Ansel Adams sent to the State Department early in 1942. It’s a magnificent print, and its condition is exceptional.

When we call an Ansel Adams print an “early” print, what does that mean, exactly? Looking at Moonrise, early prints are relatively close to the time of the negative. Here, we mean early 1940s to the mid-1940s. This is the earliest one to come to market, and possibly the earliest one in existence. The next-earliest to come to market dates to 1948. Sotheby’s sold it in 2006 for $609,600.

Adams personally made about 1,300 prints of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. I realize this is a uniquely desirable example, but how does the print’s relative abundance affect the market? What one primarily sees on the market is later prints, from the 1970s, with the demand for fine art prints. They tend to be standard in sizing–15 inches by 19 inches. Adams also did a handful of mural-size prints. We sold one at the Photographs from the Polaroid Collection sale in 2010 for $518,500. In terms of collector preference… there are two ways of collecting, really. One is seeking the early prints, the rare examples that clearly shows what the photographer intended. They’re very hard to find, and few in number. Finding an early print of Moonrise is like searching for treasure. Later prints have a different type of emotion. They’re higher in contrast, and the mood of the day is totally different.

Can you elaborate on how later prints of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico differ from earlier prints? Earlier prints are much more detailed and nuanced. With later prints, the band of clouds remains at the horizon line, but you lose all the clouds higher up.

You lose the twilight. Exactly, and the magic of the fleeting instant.

The later prints of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico were done by Ansel Adams, so no one can claim they aren’t true representations of his work. But why did he make those changes? Why did he squish some of the details and the nuances in those later prints? As the years went on, Adams’s style evolved. He sought higher contrast and greater intensity of dark versus light tones, and greater dramatic intensity.

What is this print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico like in person? I’ve had the good fortune to stand in front of it as it hung on a wall, and to hold it unframed in different light. The detail you get out of the photo throughout is like nothing I’ve seen before. It comes to life in person. If you’re someone who appreciates print and object quality, this photo will make your heart sing. It’s a special experience to stand in front of it.

What jumps out at you that doesn’t quite come over in a reproduction? You don’t understand how much there is in the sky and how exacting Adams had to be to coaxed information out of the negative, and the print negative, to have a nuanced range of tones. It’s not too heavy on the darks, and not too hot in the highlights. It’s an absolutely perfectly balanced photograph.

How many prints of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico have you handled? I’ve been with Sotheby’s since 2007. I cut my teeth cataloging the Polaroid collection for the 2010 sale, and there were many Ansel Adams photographs in it. I’ve handled many different prints of Moonrise at Sotheby’s. I can say this is in a class of its own. Its scale is more intimate than the later enlargements we most often see. Its visual power and its object quality pack a punch that’s unparalleled.

The early print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico that Sotheby’s sold in 2006–is that the world auction record for the image? It was the world auction record for Ansel Adams–any print–until 2010. It’s still the record for Moonrise. The world auction record is a mural from the Polaroid collection sale, called Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park.

What’s the likelihood that this print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico will meet or beat them? The photograph is poised to break both those records, certainly, and it deserves them. The Ansel Adams market is deep and international. It’s been quite some time since an early print came up. If you’re a collector of Ansel Adams, a collector of photography, or a collector of American masterworks, this is a holy grail, an impossible-to-find jewel.

Why will this print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico stick in your memory? I remember this image from the beginning of my photography education. To have an opportunity to lay my hands on, and spend quality time with, the best example Ansel Adams made–I won’t have that again. Hopefully I’ll get to visit it in its next home.

How to bid: Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico will headline A Grand Vision: The David H. Arrington Collection of Ansel Adams Masterworks, which takes place at Sotheby’s on December 14, 2020.

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Emily Bierman has appeared on The Hot Bid before, talking about a rare daguerreotype of P.T. Barnum.

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