No, this isn’t about an eclipse of the moon, or sun. Or even about the moon for that matter. Rather, it’s about finding a photograph, and a realization that, as the proverb goes, you can’t step in the same river twice…because the water has changed.

My wife and I were in Albuquerque, in good measure to be wedded in a hot-air balloon during the Balloon Fiesta; mission accomplished!

In any given day of the fiesta, we begin really early. Like 3:30am early. Balloons launch at dawn before the heat of the sun creates thermal upheaval, and what with transportation and preparation before launch, it starts in the chilly dark of the nearly mile high Fiesta Park. Even with the huge numbers of balloons lauched, the flying is typically concluded before 10am. That leaves the rest of the day for other pursuits, either on or off the field.

We elected to take a car ride north of Santa Fe to see the variety of landscape that surrounds the area. It’s somewhat of a surprise to witness for the first time that a forest surrounding the Los Alamos research community intersects the otherwise desert lanscape and adobe buildings of Santa Fe.

On the ride we drove into the microscopic municipality of Hernandez, NM. I’d always wanted to see if it was possible to view the same scene as captured by Ansel Adams in perhaps his most prized photograph, “Moonrise, Hernadez New Mexico” (and perhaps my favorite of all of his works).

Time has changed a number of things about the area, as expected. The Chama Highway, Route 84/285, has recently been widened from a two lane rural road to a four lane affair complete with shoulders and turning lane. Many of buildings that dot the highway have also been contructed well after that famous single exposure was taken in 1941. But, fortunately, some still remain and of course, the mountains and lay of the land remain intact.

Using the miracles of modern mobile data technology, we downloaded a fairly low but serviceable resolution rendition of Adam’s photo onto an iPad for the reference. Then the hunt was on.

From the Chama Highway, all of the buildings that appear in Adam’s photograph are now obscured by trees. In fact, at first we weren’t sure if the structures were still standing. The reknowned photograph, of course, features a church and some magically illuminated graves. I knew that the graveyard would not likely be moved, and the church might still be there; so all we had to do was find the graveyard as a start. Trouble is, it wasn’t there…or at least could not be seen from the highway.

We ventured onto El Camino del Abajo, or Route 1, as it dipped towards the Rio Grande and a lower elevation. There were various interesting structures, and then there was the old Capilla de San Jose, or the San Jose de Chama Church. There were graves behind it, but the view wasn’t adding up.

On the west side of the Chama Highway, there is the San Jose Church, a fairly recently built church with a new steel roof and white siding. It’s not the church in Adam’s photograph, but there are graves behind it. So, back behind the church we went looking for clues.


Ansel Adams "Moonrise", with arrows indicating the landscape features I was trying to align
Ansel Adams “Moonrise”, with arrows indicating the landscape features I was trying to align


Hernandez MN as seen from behind the new San Jose church, with arrows for the landscape features I was attempting to reference
Hernandez MN as seen from behind the new San Jose church, with arrows for the landscape features I was attempting to reference


Like detectives, we were trying to reconcile the far backgound mountains with the more middle background rock outcropping in his photo, trying to find a point-of-view that would align these two features as they are in the image. I kept climbing further up the hill behind the San Jose church hoping to see this aligment and then also the graves as they appear in Moonrise. The problem was the graves were all wrong, as was the road; and the graves were also very recent, so these were NOT the graves we were were looking for…

So, back to Route 1. We parked at in front of the San Jose de Chama Church. Clues started to resonate. Across the street, a gravel driveway was humorously provided with a streetsign called “Moonrise Ranch”.


I guess that these folks have been aware of the famous photo!
I guess that these folks have been aware of the famous photo!


We walked behind the church into its cemetery. There was a strange makeshift spraypainted warning on the propane tank saying “No Photos”. Hmm. The dates on the graves were from the ’30s through the ’60s. This seemed to jive more. Then, eureka!


The back of the San Jose de Chama Church!
The back of the San Jose de Chama Church!


We could then see the rear of the church and its structure, and it perfectly matched the church in the famous photo. It was then we realized that the photo was indeed taken from the shoulder of the Chama Highway, but it was impossible to duplicate the view from that location at this time.


Then, and now...
Then, and now…


I thought about this for a long while afterward. So many times I’ve seen amazing places and light and made a note to myself that I should return to capture them in image. But, witnessing the pronounced changes from this famous view to how it appears at the current time, I realized that we need to stop and take our photos when the image inspires us. We cannot wait. We cannot go back and re-do it. It might very well never be there again. As photographers, we capture small slivers of time and preserve them for endless contemplation and enjoyment. If the opportunity is gone, there’s nothing to preserve. Ansel Adams didn’t even have time for a back up negative; the light was gone before he could insert the darkslide and reverse the magazine. It was a singular opportunity. We have to photograph in the here and now, and act when the magic is before us.

Moonrise over Hernandez NM by Ansel Adams
“Moonrise over Hernandez, NM” by Ansel Adams