Ansel Adams - Photographs New York Tuesday, April 4, 2023 | Phillips
  • Peter C. Bunnell acquired this remarkable early large-format print of Ansel Adams’s Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico directly from the photographer while a student in 1959. Adams’s printing of Moonrise evolved over the decades: early prints show a wide tonal scale with an emphasis on the mid-tones and more detail in the sky; later prints are far more dramatic tonally, with deeper blacks and brighter whites, in keeping with the general trend in Adams’s print-making style. Bunnell’s 1950s print is an especially nuanced rendering of the negative and captures the subtleties of early examples while incorporating a certain degree of the tonal drama to come later. Its print quality, large size, and direct provenance make it one of the most impressive prints of the image to come to market in recent years. 


    At the time Bunnell acquired this print, he was studying photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology under Minor White. He had inherited from White a deep appreciation of Adams’s work, for its technical perfection and aesthetic precision. While perusing a past issue of Aperture magazine, Bunnell happened upon an advertisement for halftone reproduction prints of Moonrise that could be had for $6.00, postpaid. In April of 1958 he wrote to Adams asking if such prints were still available. He wrote: ‘This photograph has been a favorite of mine since first seeing it at the George Eastman House. I would like to know if I could possibly purchase a print of this either for the previously advertised price or for a more recent adjustment.’ 



    Bunnell received a quick reply from Adams’s secretary stating that the ad had been published prematurely, and that the project was abandoned after the printer was unable to produce a reproduction that met Adams’s standards. Undaunted, Bunnell took the opportunity to initiate a correspondence with Adams that ultimately blossomed into a friendship. In 1958, Bunnell organized for Adams to deliver a lecture at RIT where the two met in person. In the correspondence before and after the 1958 lecture, Bunnell politely pressed is case for acquiring a print of Moonrise, not just a reproduction, but an actual photographic print. Finally, in July of 1959, he received a card from Adams with the news that he would be making a set of large-format prints shortly, including Moonrise.  ‘Have faith,’ Adams wrote. 



    In early August, Bunnell’s persistence finally paid off when he received the print offered here. He wrote to Adams: ‘I shall be permanently indebted to your generosity.’



    Years later, once Bunnell was firmly established at Princeton University, Moonrise had pride-of-place in his home. Former students remember it as the first photograph they saw upon entering the house. Bunnell had fashioned the same style of white-painted wood frame in which Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, the seminal photographic historians, displayed their print of the image.  Of the many photographs Bunnell would subsequently acquire, Moonrise – his first major photographic acquisition – remained the star of his collection, a focal point in his home, and a photograph that he lived with every day. 



    In 2006, Bunnell’s former student Joel Smith curated an exhibition devoted to Adams’s most famous image at the Princeton Art Museum where he was Curator of Photographs. Called Ansel Adams, Moonrise: Print the Legend, the exhibition examined prints made at different points in Adams’s career and demonstrated the evolution of Adams’s interpretation of the negative over the years. Bunnell’s print was a key part of this exhibition; it was the largest example shown and represented Adams’s 1950s interpretation of the image. 


    Moonrise has its origins in a late afternoon in the fall of 1941, when Adams stopped on the side of the road and hastily set up camera and tripod atop his car to capture a small New Mexican village illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun. The resulting photograph, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, became the most celebrated image of his career and is a touchstone of 20th-century photography. Moonrise was first reproduced in U.S Camera in 1943 where it inspired a great deal of acclaim, but Adams for the most part declined requests for prints because the negative was profoundly difficult to work with and required an extensive course of burning and dodging to yield a print that met his high standards. Yet requests kept coming. In 1948 he took the radical step of reprocessing the negative to intensify its tonalites and to facilitate the production of perfect prints.


    After the successful reprocessing he began, very slowly, to fulfill print orders. Even so, prints of Moonrise, in any format, made before the 1970s are very rare. Adams biographer Mary Street Alinder states that the majority of prints of Moonrise were made after 1970, at which point the market for fine art photography had been established and Adams had secured his place in the pantheon of great photographers. Peter Bunnell’s version is a far rarer thing: it is a large, bravura print made in the 1950s, before Adams had settled upon his late-style interpretation of the image, and printed by Adams specifically for his young friend. 

    • Provenance

      Gift of the photographer, 1959
      Collection of Peter C. Bunnell, Princeton, New Jersey

    • Exhibited

      Ansel Adams, Moonrise: Print the Legend, Princeton University Art Museum, 26 October 2007 - 13 January 2008

    • Literature

      Haas and Senf, Ansel Adams, pl. 37 and p. 146 (for stamp)
      Adams, Ansel Adams: The Making of 40 Photographs, p. 40
      Alinder and Szarkowski, Ansel Adams: Classic Images, pl. 32
      Little, Brown and Company, Ansel Adams: The Grand Canyon and the Southwest, frontispiece
      Stillman, Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs, p. 175
      Szarkowski, Ansel Adams at 100, pl. 96

A Reverence for Beauty: The Peter C. Bunnell Collection, Part 2


Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico

Gelatin silver print, printed no later than 1959.
18 3/4 x 23 1/2 in. (47.6 x 59.7 cm)
Overall 32 x 37 1/2 in. (81.3 x 95.3 cm)

Signed in ink on the mount; titled in ink and 'Photograph by Ansel Adams, 131 - 24th Avenue San Francisco' stamp (BMFA stamp 4) on the reverse of the mount.

Full Cataloguing

$150,000 - 250,000 

Sold for $381,000

Contact Specialist

Sarah Krueger
Head of Department, Photographs

Vanessa Hallett
Worldwide Head of Photographs and Chairwoman, Americas


New York Auction 4 April 2023