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Thread: What did AA actually see when he “came upon this extraordinary scene”?

  1. #1
    Land-Scapegrace Heroique's Avatar
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    What did AA actually see when he “came upon this extraordinary scene”?

    Yesterday, while browsing AA’s The Negative, I re-visited his ever-fascinating account of taking the “Moonrise” photo – from chapter 6, “Natural Light Photography” – and his very first sentence struck me in an odd way like never before.

    “I came across this extraordinary scene when returning to Sante Fe from an excursion from the Chama Valley,” he says, before describing his drama-filled moments of setting- up and taking the shot.

    AA illustrates his account, as most here know, w/ a final print – only a final print – and nowhere in his account, except rather indirectly, does he suggest how much he manipulated the “reality” of the New Mexican scene to achieve, so movingly, his pre-visualized aim, as seen in the book.

    However, if you inspect the two photos below, his manipulation was more than you might think. Much more. (Forum member Cesar Barreto shared this fascinating comparison in a related thread.)

    The top photo shows “Moonrise” as a finished print; the bottom one shows “the only straight [contact] print.”
    — Top photo’s caption: “Ansel Adams, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941.
    — Bottom photo’s caption: “[Title repeated] To better understand the interpretive challenges of creative photography, the only straight print of Moonrise is on view at the Alinder Gallery.”

    ----------
    Which brings me to my question for you – When AA claimed to have “come across this extraordinary scene,” exactly which scene was he referring to? Did he mean the top photo (the only one that appears in The Negative), or the bottom photo? The final print’s scene (in his mind), or the scene of “reality”?

    Either way, do you think his “claim” has the potential to mislead, or be misread?
    Attached Thumbnails Attached Thumbnails Moonrise.jpg  

  2. #2
    Kirk Gittings's Avatar
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    Re: What did AA actually see when he “came upon this extraordinary scene”?

    IMO that statement and that image by him is the epitome of the concept of Pre-Visualization (a concept I know some disagree with-I don't-I do it every time I make an exposure). When you are largely in control of your equipment, materials and processing you "see" a scene in terms of what you can do with it expressively-all the way through burning and dodging and toning. That doesn't mean that your original concept doesn't evolve past the initial exposure, but that the full possibilities of interpreting a scene via B&W run through your head and you make appropriate choices of filters, DoF etc.
    Thanks,
    Kirk

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  3. #3
    Clay
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    Re: What did AA actually see when he “came upon this extraordinary scene”?

    Neither print is reality. The scene was in color, and these are black and white photographs. What made Ansel great was his ability to use his knowledge of how his materials (camera, film and paper) can be used to transform a scene into something profound. Probably several people drove by him as he was hurriedly setting up his camera who looked at the scene, shrugged, and thought 'meh' and drove on. His genius was his ability to recognize 'extraordinary' when he saw it. Most people don't.

  4. #4
    JoeV's Avatar
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    Re: What did AA actually see when he “came upon this extraordinary scene”?

    Seeing the moon rising above the little church in the village of Hernandez, near dusk, is pretty special, even with a "straight" print. The fact that he also previsualized what potential there was for this negative in the darkroom I'm sure added to the emphasis he made in his statement.

    Keep in mind he was returning from a day in the Chama valley, so his eye was probably already well-atuned to the vistas of northern New Mexico.

    ~Joe
    The photograph and the thing being photographed are not the same thing.

  5. #5
    Peter
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    Re: What did AA actually see when he “came upon this extraordinary scene”?

    A full moon rises as the sun is setting. For the full moon to be that high in the sky, the sun must've down for about 1/2 hour or more. I think it was fairly dark at the time. He overexposed the neg to get good detail on the ground. That made the sky look light, as it does in the straight print. He then over developed the neg to increase the contrast on the ground, and especially to increase the values on the town, which lightened the sky even more. Then, in the darkroom, he burned the sky down to get it back to what it was when he saw it.

    Just my guess.

    Peter

  6. #6
    Kirk Gittings's Avatar
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    Re: What did AA actually see when he “came upon this extraordinary scene”?

    Peter,
    Actually I think he underexposed the scene to maintain the detail in the moon, which is why he later chemically intensified the foreground to build up the thin foreground density which allowed for the later well known version of the print.
    Thanks,
    Kirk

    "When did photography become a desk job?" Kirk Gittings 2009

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  7. #7
    unexposed darr's Avatar
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    Re: What did AA actually see when he “came upon this extraordinary scene”?

    Ansel was just being creative using the tools of the day and his technique--no different from today amongst creative artists. The tools may have changed or evolved, but the process is still the same.

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    Re: What did AA actually see when he “came upon this extraordinary scene”?

    Quote Originally Posted by Kirk Gittings View Post
    IMO that statement and that image by him is the epitome of the concept of Pre-Visualization (a concept I know some disagree with-I don't-I do it every time I make an exposure). When you are largely in control of your equipment, materials and processing you "see" a scene in terms of what you can do with it expressively-all the way through burning and dodging and toning. That doesn't mean that your original concept doesn't evolve past the initial exposure, but that the full possibilities of interpreting a scene via B&W run through your head and you make appropriate choices of filters, DoF etc.
    What Kirk said.

    About 3 years ago at the #2 Andrew Smith gallery in Santa Fe, several different versions of this print were displayed to illustrate how Ansel's interpretation changed over the years. His initial vision of the scene didn't change since once the exposure was made the space and objects in the scene were "frozen" on the sheet film.

    I've driven up that same stretch of road quite a few times and I've yet to see anything close to the original scene; of course the landscape has been transformed quite a bit as well.

    My wife and I had an opportunity to purchase a 16x20 "modern" version of this print about 30+ years ago for 2K, we passed that day and have regretted our decision ever since.

  9. #9
    Peter
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    Re: What did AA actually see when he “came upon this extraordinary scene”?

    I was just guessing, having no knowledge of the steps he took. Continuing with speculation; I wonder if he shot the scene at dusk, to capture good foreground detail, as the moon was above the horizon, but invisible behind the clouds. Then later, when the moon was higher in the sky, he double exposed the neg, for the moon's details, possibly underexposing the moon to fall in line with the overdevelopment he had to do for the dusk exposure.

    If you know better, I'll stop guessing.


    Peter

  10. #10

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    Re: What did AA actually see when he “came upon this extraordinary scene”?

    Re: previsualization, it wasn't until several years after the negative was made that Adams started darkening the sky in prints. That part of the equation should be safely filed as "post-visualization" As Adams himself noted in Examples, "The printed image has varied over the years; I have sought more intensity of light and richness of values as time goes on."

    Quote Originally Posted by Peter Mounier View Post
    A full moon rises as the sun is setting. For the full moon to be that high in the sky, the sun must've down for about 1/2 hour or more. I think it was fairly dark at the time.
    The moon isn't full, and Adams also wrote in Examples that the sun was still on the crosses of the graveyard when the exposure was made.
    Attached Thumbnails Attached Thumbnails aa.jpg  
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