It was 4:49:20 p.m. when Ansel Adams made history

November 1, 1941

On this day, at precisely 49 minutes and 20 seconds after four in the afternoon, Moonrise. Hernandez, one of the West’s most iconic photographs was captured on film for all time. 

Moonrise, one of America’s best known images

Knowing the exact moment a picture was taken isn’t always that important. But Moonrise had stirred so much public interest, every detail of photographer Ansel Adams’ technique was examined from the light meter reading to geographic coordinates for the site.

Adams was on a six-month assignment for the U. S. Department of the Interior at the time.  Secretary Harold Ickes (right) had commissioned Adams to photograph all of the National Parks, reservations and other public lands owned by the federal government.  Adams, his son and a friend, Cedric Wright, came upon Hernandez while driving along New Mexico’s Hightway, U.S. 84-285.  There were just moments left to capture the twilight scene on film. 

“I think of it as a rather normal photograph of a typical New Mexican landscape,“ Adams told an interviewer.  Obviously the public thought it was extraordinary.  Adams made more than 1,300 prints of it in his lifetime and in 2006, Sotheby’s auctioned one of them for $609, 600.

Originally planning a career in music, Adams studied piano for much of his  youth.  Hyperactive as a child, he was raised in San Francisco, kicked out of several private schools and largely tutored at home as a result.  His father, Charles, an avid amateur astronomer, bought a three-inch telescope that he and his son shared.  The pair often visited the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, igniting a love of the natural world in young Adams. 

Yosemite images inspired Adams

A 1916 trip to Yosemite at 14, was perhaps largely responsible for his turning from music to photography.  Marveling at the light, he snapped dozens of  photos with a simple box camera his father had given him.  He returned the next year armed with a bigger camera and tripod and spent the winter learning darkroom techniques while working part-time with a photo finisher in San Francisco.

The popularity and collectablity of Moonrise led to the importance of its provinence and was listed as made in 1940, 1941, 1942 and 1944.  It was left to science to actually pin down the date, a task taken on by David Elmore (right) at the High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, Colorado.  Using astrological calculations, he narrowed the field to 36 plausible dates and determined that 4:03 p.m., October 31, 1941 was the actual time.

Adams agreed with Elmore, using this date in several photographic publications.  It wasn’t until Dennis de Cicco (below) of Sky and Telescope noticed the moon’s position didn’t match the image.  He concluded that Adams had stood 50 feet farther west along the new highway.  Reviewing his findings with Elmore, the pair settled the time at 4:49:20 p.m., November 1, 1941.

 His work having spanned nearly seven decades, Adams died of heart failure, April 22, 1984 in Monterey, California.  At 82, he was survived by his wife and two children.  He received honorary degrees from both Yale and Harvard, was awarded the Sierra Club John Muir Award in 1963, a Conservation Service Award by the Department of the Interior in 1968, a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2007.

The Ansel Adams Gallery, located in the Village Mall, Yosemite National Park, is an authorized park concession and offers visitors exhibits of contemporary photographers and  a variety of educational activities including camera walks, photography classes and a free showing of “Ansel Adams, Photographer” every Friday. 

For more information, fees, times and class size for events go to or write The Ansel Adams Gallery, Village Mall, Yosemite National Park, Ca 95389.

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.