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Ansel’s masterpiece is great, but Billy is worth more

SANTA FE, N.M. — What’s probably Ansel Adams’ most famous photograph, and maybe the most famous picture ever taken in New Mexico (more on that below), is getting some renewed attention.

A copy of Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” snapped north of Española, is up for sale at an April auction at Christie’s in New York.

In the Huffington Post, writer Daniel Grant retells the history of how the picture came to be and discusses putting a price on “Moonrise” when there are more than 900 prints around.

Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” is an acclaimed masterpiece, but its selling price is a mere fraction of what the famous picture of Billy the Kid from Fort Sumner picture went for.

Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” is an acclaimed masterpiece, but its selling price is a mere fraction of what the famous picture of Billy the Kid from Fort Sumner picture went for.

“Driving back to Santa Fe, New Mexico on October 31, 1941,” Grant begins, “after what had been a disappointing day for picture-taking, photographer Ansel Adams (1902-84) brought his car to an abrupt stop, yelling to his companions to bring him his tripod, exposure meter and other photographic equipment so that he could take what would become one of the most famous images in fine art photography, ‘Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.’


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“The picture has three separate elements: the town of Hernandez in the foreground, a rim of clouds illuminated on the horizon by the setting sun and the glowing moon alone in the dark sky above.

“Adams knew it was a great picture, but ‘he was never completely satisfied with the prints he was making,’ according to his grandson Matthew Adams.” Adams tried different sizes (up to 40 inches by 60 inches) and is quoted as saying “it is safe to say that no two prints are precisely the same.” He eventually kicked up the contrast, making the image more dramatic. The 1973 print at Christie’s is 16 by 20 inches and is estimated at $50,000 to $70,000.

Famous picture of Billy the Kid from Fort Sumner.

Famous picture of Billy the Kid from Fort Sumner.

A smaller (14” x 19”) 1948 version went for $609,600 in 2006 and a 1950 mural-sized print (39” x 56”) from Polaroid’s collection sold in 2010 for $518,500. Traditionally, value depends how close the print was made to when the picture was taken, Grant writes.

The photography site SLR Lounge last year listed the 27 most expensive photos ever sold — a strange number (no Top 10 here), but maybe SLR just wanted to include “Moonrise, Hernandez,” ranked 27th for its $600,000-plus sale.

The only New Mexico picture that can rival Adams’ masterpiece in terms of fame — of Billy the Kid, from Fort Sumner, circa 1880 — came in 9th. It sold for $2.3 million in 2011. New Mexicans can be proud to note that the list also includes Alfred Stieglitz photos of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands ($1,470,000) and a nude O’Keeffe ($1,360,000). No. 1? Andreas Gursky’s “Rhein II,” which went for $4,338,500 at Christie’s in November 2011.

Neither Manson nor dueling banjos

Dianne Fallon of Kittery Point, Maine, writes an entertaining blog called “Random History and Offbeat Trivia,” and was in New Mexico recently. She recounts that when the relatively sparse snow at Taos Ski Valley didn’t entice her family, they headed for other spots, including Black Rock Hot Springs, north of Taos, which she found “very isolated and a little bit spooky.”

Her entry continued: “I reminded myself that these hot springs are well known to locals and likely to be populated by mellow bathers rather than Deliverance-style killers.

“We did run into a few naked people, but they weren’t carrying spears, and were quite friendly and polite. After they finished their soak (the pool was pretty full of people), we took our turn and enjoyed sitting in the 97-degree water while the Rio Grande flowed past us on its way to the Mexican-American border. Eventually, a local mom and her four-year-old daughter joined us, thus quelling any lingering notions that a drug-addled maniac was about to burst forth from behind a rock.

“Memories of Charles Manson mingled with those from the movie Easy Rider to fuel my paranoia. The scene in which Dennis Hopper and Peter Hopper go skinny dipping with two girls from a hippie commune was filmed at nearby Stagecoach Springs Hot Springs (also called Manby Hot Springs). Although nothing chilling occurs in that particular scene, the audience senses impending danger as the two men continue on their journey. Fortunately, from our hot spring pool, we had a clear view of the trail to the parking spot and would at least spot the killers before they sprang upon us.”