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Hernandez revisited

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Ansel Adams is one of the most popular photographers of all time. And his photograph "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" is one of the world's most popular photos.

But the town of Hernandez has never become a popular tourist attraction. Located just north of Espanola, N.M., the town is the same sleepy village it was in 1941 when Adams pulled his car to the side of the road en route to Carlsbad Caverns and popped the shot seen around the world.According to his wife, he only had time for one click of the lens.

Today, the familiar snowy skyline around Hernandez remains, as does the gypsy moon rising above the peaks. The little white crosses still ignite in the churchyard and the old adobe church still hovers like a grand kiln.

But on the nearby highway, the world rushes by without giving a glance. Over the years, remodeling projects, growth and fresh trees have conspired to conceal the grace and charm of Adams' photograph.

"Once in awhile someone will stop and ask about that photograph," said Orlando Ortega, manager of a little general store east of town, "but they don't come by very often."

Six years ago, Ortega was a focal point of an article that Marty Esquivel wrote for New Mexico Magazine to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "Moonrise."

"We were poor then," Ortega said of the time, "but we were much happier. Money was hard to come by, but we didn't need it much back then. Now, life has become too fast. Fast, fast, fast."

Today, Ortega and others still tell of the simple life of 1941 when they'd husk corn under a harvest moon. But all they have left of that era are their memories, and - of course - one classic photograph.

Over the years the history of Hernandez - like the rest of the world - has been a history of quaintness giving way to politics and profits. According to Esquivel's research, the town was founded by Spanish settlers in the 1700s and called San Jose de Chama. Later, the name was changed to Hernandez, to honor Benigno C. Hernandez, New Mexico's first congressman.

Politics entered in, too, when land near the old church was sold to the county. The county, not especially impressed by ideas of charm, put up storage sheds that undermined any sense of reverie.

The old graveyard is still a wonderful tribute to a past era, though at times visitors in search of Ansel Adams have angered nearby residents by clumping around on the graves and disturbing the neighborhood.

And the history of Ansel Adams himself was also rather involved.

Although most Americans see him as a kindly Wilford Brimley - Will Geer with a Kodak - Adams was actually born in San Francisco in 1902 and given a first-rate education. He was always the aesthete. For a time he considered a career as a concert pianist.

But photography soon stole his heart and turned him into a legend. As photographer, he helped found the famous "f64" club, a group of photographers that writer Henry Allen said "strove to the point of scrupulosity to worship The God of Things as They Are in sharp-focus pictures that teased up every last fiber of driftwood or crevice of rock face."

Adams was also a genius of the darkroom, as the "cannon ball moons" that appear in many of his photos attest.

And in that full moon rising over Hernandez, perhaps Adams glimpsed his legacy: Beautiful photographs of natural wonders laced with divine grace.

As Adams and several others were making their way around the national parks to shoot photos, the photographer suddenly pulled over near Hernandez and literally created a masterpiece on the fly.

Esquivel said the photographer seldom revealed the times and dates of his photos, but with the help of David Elmore, a solar physicist at the Sunspot Observatory near Alamogordo, photo historians figured the moon was in that position on Oct. 31, 1941. More data would surface, however, that has lead many to believe Adams stood on that roadside at 4:49 p.m. on Nov. 1, 1941.

Deseret News writer/-photographer Ray Boren and I stood on that roadside at 4:49 p.m. on Dec. 13th, 1997. And a full moon was about to appear, though it lurked beneath the horizon longer than we could stay.

Still, like the residents of Hernandez - and the rest of the world - we have Ansel Adams' photograph We also have a sweet poem by Jane Candia Coleman called "Moonrise, Hernandez."

The poem begins:

It is not night yet

but we stand waiting

for the moon to come

for the first thin slice

to deepen the dark places.

Ansel Adams knew the feeling. Orlando Ortega - who husked corn by the light of the moon - knows it, too.

Now, through these photographs, others can share it as well.