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The Case Could Ask: Who Owns Adams’ ‘Moonrise’?

Though it is not part of pending litigation over “The Mural Project,” a new book of Ansel Adams photographs--and may never be--the authors and the publisher have suggested that one of Adams’ most famous photograph, “Moonrise, Hernandez, N.M,” shot in 1942, may be publicly owned.

And while the issue of the the ownership of “Moonrise” ownership is a sideshow to the pending litigation, both authors and the head of Santa Barbara-based Reverie Press contend the famed picture might itself be in the public domain by a strict interpretation of Adams’ wartime employment contract with the U.S. Department of the Interior. A “Moonrise” print has sold for more than $71,000.

Adams, according to Peter Wright and John Armor, the authors of the unauthorized new Adams book and Reverie Press, their publisher, may have shot “Moonrise” while Adams was on government time and expense account as part of his employment on the Mural Project. The project was a series of more than 200 photographs of national park scenes for which Adams was retained in 1941 and 1942 by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Armor charged there was “a little hanky panky” in Adams’ handling of “Moonrise” but said the issue will probably not be brought into the litigation. He and Wright denied they are holding the issue out as a possible trump card in their court battle with the Adams trust.

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Armor said government documents indicate that Adams submitted mileage reimbursement requests for the day “Moonrise” was shot and that Adams requested payment for processing time in the evening the photograph was made.

“Moonrise” is widely viewed as Adams’ single most important image. The story of how he observed the scene driving along a highway en route to Santa Fe after a day of shooting for the Mural Project and frantically set up equipment to capture the image before the sun set is a legend.

In his autobiography, published in 1985, Adams recalled, “I knew it was special when I released the shutter, but I never anticipated what its reception would be over the decades. ‘Moonrise, Hernandez, N.M.,’ is my most well known photograph.”

William Turnage, Adams’ former business manager and one of the four members of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust Turnage charged the defendants in the new litigation have spuriously raised the issue of the possible public domain ownership of “Moonrise” to lend weight to their defense against the publication rights case. He asserted the strategy is intended to “defame Ansel’s memory and say he was cheating.”

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