Hearing the story behind an iconic photograph is always of interest to photographers, but listening to Ansel Adams himself describe how he made his most iconic image is beyond special. The above video from Advancing Your Photography (via PetaPixel) follows Adams as he returns to the exact location where he shot “Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico.” It is a window into a moment in his life that simply has to be seen by any photographer or fan of his work.
Ansel Adams is likely the most recognizable name in photography. His images have mesmerized viewers for generations, and he more-or-less defined modern landscape photography. He was an avid outdoorsman and environmentalist, and the natural world became his greatest inspiration. As a photographer, he was both artist and technician, and developed the Zone System of exposure with fellow photographer Fred Archer. As he explains in the video, both his artistic eye and technical know-how would come in handy for “Moonrise over Hernandez.”
Adams was driving when he spotted the nearly full moon and knew it would make for a great photo. As twilight receded, he stopped the car and set up his camera. The light was perfect, yet he had somehow forgotten his light meter. No worries, though, because (of course) he knew that the luminance of the moon was 250 foot-candles.
Using his Zone System, he was then able to get a perfect exposure on the first try, capturing detail in the buildings and ground without blowing out the highlights in the moon. And it was a good thing he got it right on the first attempt: by the time he loaded a second sheet of film into the camera, what little amount of sunlight there had been had vanished.
Capturing the image was only half the battle for Adams, however. In the video, his son explains the darkroom process Adams used to tone the photograph, complete with before and after images, as well as Adams’ incomprehensible notes.
But perhaps the most intriguing thing about this video is simply listening to Adams talk about his work. On why the image resonated so powerfully with viewers, he is modest, saying he’s taken many photographs before that were easily as good, but that “people just seem to like it.”