Gallery of Fine Art Photography - Atlanta GA


The Lunar Landscape – Moonset at Donahue Pass

Image and Narrative, by Peter Essick

Some of most famous and popular photographs by Ansel Adams have a moon in them. There is, of course, Moonrise, Hernandez, NM, the most famous of them all. But there is also Moon and Half Dome and Autumn Moon from Glacier Point.READ ENTIRE ARTICLE

However, when I took this photograph of the moon setting behind Donahue Pass, I was thinking of another Ansel Adams photograph with the moon. It is titled High Country Crags and Moon, Sunrise, Kings Canyon National Park, California. It was made in 1935, before all the others and was made in a similar high elevation of the Sierra Nevada.
Moonset, near Donohue Pass, 2010

Moonset, near Donahue Pass, 2010

When I thought about doing a story about the Ansel Adams Wilderness, I wanted to pay homage to the work of the master but not copy his work. It didn’t make any sense to go and photograph the same places or even in the same style as Adams did 75 years earlier. However, it didn’t feel right to totally go in the other direction and photograph in a completely different style. I realized I had been influenced by the work of Adams and I wanted to celebrate that. In my mind, I came up with the idea of “referencing.” By this I mean that when I took my photograph of the moonset at Donahue Pass, I had seen and admired High Country Crags and Moon. There are some similarities in that both were taken at of a granite landscape in the Sierra Nevada above tree line. Also, both feature triangular shapes. My intent was for the photograph to be my interpretation, while also acknowledging the work that came before.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that photographs of the moon in conjunction with a natural landscape are special. It is hard to even imagine a photograph such as Moonrise, Hernandez, NM without the moon, even though the moon is a small element in relative size in the photograph. The moon is both the focal and the exclamation point, telling the viewer that rhythms of the natural world aligned for the fortunate photographer.
In my case, I did time my trip so that I was in the wilderness during a full moon. The full moon rises over the eastern horizon at exactly the same time as the sun sets in the west. So if you want to photograph the moon rising with sunlight on the landscape in the foreground, the best time is a two days before the actual full moon. At this time the waxing moon will look almost full, but it will have been up for two hours because the moon rises one hour later each day. It also moves about 15 degrees each hour, so it will be about 30 degrees above the horizon. The same effect happens in reverse with the moon setting. Two days after the full moon it is possible to photograph the sunrise light hitting on the landscape with the waning, almost full moon still 30 degrees above the western horizon.
In the Sierra Nevada at around 9,000 feet there becomes fewer trees and they grow shorter. At 10,000 feet is about the limit that trees can survive, so above this elevation the landscape takes on a different feel. The marks and polish of the glaciers are more evident without any trees or soil to hide them. Together with the usual cool wind and direct exposure to the elements, it feels like you have entered another world. The only description that comes to mind is that of a lunar landscape. So what better element to place in the background than the real moon, especially if it is seen large enough to reveal the craters and cool beauty of a world beyond.

Posted in: a Deeper Look


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