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Art Market Watch

by Daniel Grant
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Driving back to Santa Fe, N.M., on Oct. 31, 1941, 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.

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, and so the photographer tinkered with them in the darkroom, producing more than 900 prints over the course of 40 years. “In 1948, he bathed part of the negative in a chemical intensifier in order to create more contrast in the foreground and to make the moon brighter. Before that, things had looked a little flatter.” Over the years, the prints also became larger, moving from 16 x 20 in. or smaller up to 40 x 60 in. Ansel Adams himself said that, with all that tinkering and various alterations, “it is safe to say that no two prints are precisely the same.”

In 1996, Adams biographer Mary Alinder estimated that 1,300 prints of Moonrise, Hernandez had been made over 40 years -- often produced by Adams whenever an order for a copy came in, most of them done in the 1960s and ‘70s -- worth a cumulative $25 million. Still, one might presume that the market had some rational way of valuing individual prints. By the year in which they were printed. By the square inch. By whether or not they are signed. But it's not so easy, especially in the rising art market. Sotheby’s New York includes a print of Moonrise in its photo sale on Oct. 5, 2011, printed in the late 1960s or even 1970 at what is called a “mural size” (30 x 40 in.), which carries a presale estimate of $300,000-$500,000.

“We believe that there are only 12 prints made of this image in the mural size,” said Christopher Mahoney, senior vice-president in Sotheby’s photographs department, adding that the term “mural size” was used by Adams. These larger versions were made for specific projects, such as Polaroid wanting a print of Moonrise, Hernandez for one of its corporate offices.

Mahoney stated that most Moonrise, Hernandez prints are closer to the 16 x 20 in. size, mounted on a larger board and signed by Adams somewhere on the mount. The mural-sized prints, on the other hand, were “flush-mounted” onto wood, masonite or -- in the case of the photograph up at auction at Sotheby’s -- on a type of fiberboard called Homosote, and Adams made his own thin wood frames for them.

The mural-sized prints were also unsigned, because there was no mount on which to put a signature. However, Mahoney said that Adams would sign these prints if asked, and this particular print is signed in two different places, in ink on the back and with a stylus etching his name directly onto a lower corner of the image on the front. “I’ve never seen an Ansel Adams with a double signature before,” he noted.

Half a million dollars wouldn’t be a record price for the Sotheby’s Moonrise, Hernandez. A smaller (14 x 19 in.) print from 1948 sold for $609,600 (est. $150,000-$250,000) at Sotheby’s New York in 2006, and a 1950 mural sized print (39 x 56 in.) from Polaroid’s collection went for $518,500 (est. $300,000-$500,000) at Sotheby’s last year. Still more prints of Moonrise, Hernandez have sold for healthy prices, including $360,000 (a 1948 13 x 17 in.), $157,000 (a mid-1970s 18 x 23 in.), $120,000 (a 1960s 19 x 25 in.), $88,000 (a 1960s 15 x 19 in.) and $66,000 (a ca. 1975 15 x 19 in.).

“People say, ‘Boy, this image comes up a lot at auctions,’ and that is certainly true,” Mahoney said. “It’s rare not to see a “Moonrise” or two in an auction catalogue every season. Still, there are never enough of them to meet the demand. It’s that popular.”

Traditionally, black-and-white photography is valued in large part by whether or not a particular print is “vintage” -- meaning that it was created within a year or two or three (there are many definitions for what constitutes “vintage” among photography purists) of the date that the picture was taken. Adams did produce a couple of prints of Moonrise, Hernandez after returning to his studio in San Francisco, “but he found getting the image he wanted was incredibly difficult,” Mahoney said. “The exposure wasn’t exactly right, the contrast level was off. It was a huge amount of hand work, burning and dodging to getting things looking right,” and he might have given up completely.

Nevertheless, Adams sent Moonrise, Hernandez to a photography magazine in 1942, which published it, leading to numerous requests to buy a print from, first, subscribers and later others who saw the photograph. By 1948, Adams went back to the negative and began reprocessing it, “and we think of the modern era of the printing of Moonrise beginning then.”

The early prints of Moonrise, Hernandez showed what Adams actually saw that late afternoon in 1941, with the moon becoming visible in the sky while the sun was just sinking below the horizon; the moon was dim, while the sky was gray and open. In time, the photographer added more contrast, making the image far more dramatic, by brightening the moon while darkening the sky. Through repeated printings, Adams brought out the mystical vision that he spotted from his car years before.

Perhaps, part of the allure of this image is that Adams worked on getting this image just right for so much of his career. “This image encapsulates his career,” Mahoney said, “and we can see in it his changing ideas and esthetic style.”

DANIEL GRANT is a contributing editor of American Artist magazine and the author of The Business of Being an Artist and several other books.