A David Muench photograph seems to contain two messages. One comprises the setting, the earthly elements being featured, and the light. Then you are pulled into the scene, invited to feel the grandeur and the detail, and breathe the atmosphere. You are asked to revere the place and hear its message. This is the second communication from the photographer, a sharing of his perception and inspiration.
"What I aim for, I couldn't put it in words for a long time," Muench says with more pragmatism than modesty. "I'd rather speak through images." However, over the course of more than four decades as a working landscape photographer, with thousands of images published in a dizzying array of freelance projects, he has found a language for his inspiration.
Muench wants to show "that three-dimensional quality of the connectedness of the geology and the plant life with the landscape, to bring out both the powerful essence of it and a celebration of the beauty of it." He takes on this complex task with the simple act of observation, honed by countless hours spent in nature.
"He's a delightful trail companion," says longtime friend and collaborator Lawrence Cheek, who currently is writing the text for Muench's latest book on Arizona. "But we could still be out there on the trail, because he will hike 20 feet and stop for two hours, setting up a picture and cursing the five-mile-an-hour wind that ruins it."
Breathing in nature
Seeking those ideal conditions, Muench says, requires "patience to wait just a minute, and not jump up and move around." Let minutes turn into hours, he advises, but don't lose a "mindfulness and awareness" of the surroundings, lest you miss an amazing scene unfolding behind you.
Spontaneity might be a bit hard with Muench's bulky 4 x 5 camera that can require long exposures, but he has lightened the load over time and now shoots much of his work with a 35mm.
Even so, he has taken to the field with "the idea of making one image today." He recalls one glorious autumn morning in Colorado's Sneffels Range: "Everywhere I turned, I was literally filming. I had to tell myself, ‘Look for something new or unusual, don't just record everything.'"
Hanging out with a setting and observing it in detail represents "that sense of now," he says, the essence of the world changing in front of your eyes. "How it changes, and how slow it changes — it's what I call those timeless moments between the past and future. How do you capture those in a photograph?"
You can try, he says, by not boxing them up into an idea of perfection. "Our whole thing is thinking we're bigger and better than the landscape," he says. "You're putting your own vision and ego on it, rather than . . . entering into a place and responding to it, letting nature be a part of it."
If Muench sounds a bit spiritual, perhaps that comes from spending a lot of time in magnificent wilderness during the magic hours at sunrise and sunset. Dawn is "a beginning, a start of a whole new cycle in your life," he says, and dusk provides a reflective sense of transition.
Just as he celebrates that magic light, Muench also honors iconic Western images, but he wants to let them reveal a new aspect. "I'm emphatic about doing the El Capitans, the Half Domes, to get the main subjects that we all know and work with, because they are so profound and exciting," he says.
He now is sharing his perspective in outdoor photography workshops. In a recent Arizona outing, he was reminded of how profound and exciting the Colorado River could be. "We had a rain up the river the night before, and the river changed, went to muddy," he recalls. "Boy, did I get excited on that, not to have that green-looking ribbon that comes out of Lake Powell. This is like an open library of geology. That's the way it's been for centuries — that's how it created the Grand Canyon!"
The primeval landscape leads Muench to look back in time, revering the cliff dwellings of the ancient Puebloans and eschewing today's sprawling civilization. "I've been kind of known as an ancient child," he says. "I would like to show things before European man came here." He occasionally will allow a canoe or human observer into the scene, but only to give perspective. "I just love it when we're a small or minuscule event in the landscape." Nor do animals generally enter into Muench settings, unless by happenstance. He says that he loves to see them "pass through an image I'm doing — that's exciting." If they stay, they may become part of the landscape.
Animals may not be a focal point, but flora is another matter. "Flowers represent such a temporary and such a current thing," he says. "They're an example of renewal." His eye may go to the light on a distant peak, but he grounds his images with "joyful interludes" of foreground color. The wildflowers are "just pure color, a little bit of shape and texture. Light just completes the photograph."
Embracing the delicate flow of a meadow has not always been appealing to Muench. "I've come to a more gentle approach and feel [that] I've mellowed in time," he says, describing the overhead close-up shots he's been taking for his upcoming Arizona book about small flowering plants nestled in desert formations.
Capturing the arid Southwest is more about buttes than blooms, however, and some of the photographer's best-known images frame the vast open settings in natural windows of rock formed by the arches and cave openings found in his travels.
"It's very exciting to see a window to the sky or to other lands," he says. Arches are "exciting as a frame for the landscape, on the one hand, and they're very exciting as a form themselves. The more smooth and rounded they are, the more exciting."
It is those forms, both near and far, that entice a viewer into a Muench photograph. "The most important part of my style, I think, is capturing the connectedness of the subjects within a landscape to make it a little more complete."
When shooting a vast landscape through a natural window, "you find yourself seeing something different at all different angles," he explains. "Getting way in the back of a cave or inside an arch and framing this great big world from inside the opening . . . " As often happens in his descriptions, he stops talking before finishing the thought, as though willing you to visualize it.
Framing that grand world for the viewer has a purpose, about which Muench is very clear: "The job . . . is not to hit the highest form of ‘art' but to bring what we should see in the landscape, in nature, to people so that they are thinking, ‘That's real, and that's something we need to take care of and have be a part of us.'"
"What motivates David more than anything else is that environmental consciousness," says Cheek. "He's extremely passionate about what he sees, and passionate about protecting it. And he has the artistry to translate that passion into an image that just jumps out at you."
Muench says, however, that presenting his environmental views cannot be the central purpose of a photograph. "I try to keep my opinion out of it — it's too strong," he explains. "I try to show to viewers, to myself, the essence and power of the landscape."
His approach — showing natural history and revealing how time has scoured the landscape to create what we see today, coupled with the land's inherent life and majesty — aims to speak loudly about the need for preservation of our wild places.
"With my photographs, I try to convey how important these places are, and should be, in our lives," he says.
It is a significant message for the Southwest, the fastest-growing region in the country, where humans are devouring a unique and fragile landscape. "Development is just incredibly picking up," Muench says. "Treating Mother Earth a little better is very important to me. That's an uphill struggle right now."
Undaunted, Muench is encouraged by the possibility of making a dent. "Getting photographers more educated in this realm is, I think, quite exciting," he says. "They can be led to be stewards, or to help, at least."
First, photographers themselves must be respectful of the landscape. He knows of "only a few bleeps or bubbles" that could put bad marks on the profession, such as "a photographer putting a fire under Delicate Arch," in Utah's Arches National Park. "There were some real struggles for a while," he recalls, when even a tripod could set off alarms among park rangers, but today "if you're not bringing in a crew and doing a big project, [you're] pretty free to move about almost at will." Many more places, however, are being "managed" through permits and visitor limits that have been set due to limited National Park Service resources and the need to preserve the sites.
The flip side of those limitations is greater enjoyment when you do get out on the trail and encounter only a few people. "You have the solitude, and it makes sense, you agree with it," he says. "In the '60s, there were just people behind every tree. You were concerned about your stuff, or [had] no place to camp."
Muench's attitudes have changed since those freewheeling earlier times, too. "In the '60s and '70s, I never paid attention to fences," he recalls. "Now you can get into big trouble." The private-land version of park permits is permission.
Inspiration, then research
Such details require advance planning, something Muench says is essential for a successful trip. He spends much time "pre-visualizing" his trips and what he hopes to capture. "Checking the weather, phoning the national parks or monuments, that helps you; it guides your structure for traveling to a place." He also spends time in the visitors centers and talking to the rangers, who know the land more deeply than anyone else. The photo notes in his books often cite geological or historical tidbits about the subjects, thus transforming this research into more overt education for his audience.
At the age of 68, the photographer has come to realize that a bit more personal planning is a must, too. When he's not on the road, he practices a weekly regimen of yoga with his wife, the writer Ruth Rudner, who has urged him to seek more physical balance. That also includes gym training for strength and endurance.
In addition to carrying less gear, he now uses amenities such as pack animals for long trips. "What really broke our backs lately was having to carry bear canisters into the Sierras," he says. No longer will he head out to a deserted location with little water and lots of gear, then shiver the night away under his camera cloth so that he can capture the pre-dawn light.
Traveling light doesn't mean traveling less, however. Currently, he is crisscrossing the rural West for new books on Arizona and on the national parks, surfacing in towns only to return calls where he can find cell-phone connections.
Even the American West may have gotten a bit too local for Muench, though. This fall he will complete a book on the national parks of New Zealand. Patagonia is on the travel agenda, as are workshops in Iceland and Australia, which will pay the freight for excursions into new lands. He has visited Antarctica that way and would like to do the same in places like Costa Rica, the Andes and the Himalayas.
No permits or plane tickets were contemplated when Muench first traversed the Western landscape. Of course, that was some seven decades ago, with his adventurous parents. His father, Josef Muench, was a pioneer of color landscape photography and a prolific mainstay of the celebrated travel magazine Arizona Highways, while his mother, Joyce Muench, wrote about their experiences. The family would travel from their home in Santa Barbara to the eastern Sierras, still one of David's favorite places, or to the desert Southwest, taking airboats up the Colorado River or animal pack trips deep into the canyon lands.
"I wish I had been photographing more when I was a kid," he says. "I'd taken boats up Glen Canyon before there was a dam." To have an image of the land that is now covered by Lake Powell, another place his adventurous parents took him, would be an important lesson in how we affect our wild country. It was in those places where both his love of nature and his through-the-lens interpretation of it grew.
"My interest in the landscape and the West came definitely out of travels with my dad," he recalls. "It was really in my genes." Although for many years he rebelled against his father's style as he sought to make his own mark, he now can see a thread of continuity tying to his style, what he calls "the near/far thing — having something very close, and having the distant landscape way off.
"I tried to think where I got this," he muses. "Somewhere way back, I would be changing lenses back and forth, and I just knew I shouldn't be doing this; it was blocking creativity. I needed to really get involved and connected with the landscape; needed to have what you walk on become part of the landscape." Looking back at his father's work, he sees the roots of that theory. "He would work with a juniper or piñon — any tree form — like an arch. The main thing was to get something in front [that could be] like a frame to this landscape."
Muench's style didn't spring fully formed from his lens, however. "I just wanted dramatics." He recalls trying to make his mark on his father's work. As a teenager, it was his job to make prints. "I printed my dad's photographs, and mine too — black-and-white, 8 x 10 prints. I'd use no. 4 paper instead of no. 2 or 3. I just wanted the strong contrasts."
He calls the '60s and '70s "a real free-for-all for me," when he simultaneously created a career and a shooting style. "I had to think about . . . what I'm seeing and why I'm photographing." To an observer of his path back then, the landscape might have seemed like an odd choice for someone who loved fashion and architecture, which he studied at the time at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles.
Given those interests, why does he now keep people and structures out of the picture? "They don't fit. They don't connect," he explains. "Architecture, in most cases, is an intrusion." There are exceptions, like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. With such forms "you start to feel that man is part of the landscape," he says. "You feel the power and the strength of man, and you're not embarrassed by it." Perhaps it's no coincidence that the shape of his admired creations pleases the eye with what could be called a delicate arch.
All in the family
Along with building a career, Muench married, and he and his first wife, Bonnie, raised two children, Marc and Zandria. "Both had early adventures with us," he recalls. Both are now photographers, although they are veering from their father's footsteps, perhaps just as David did from Josef's. Marc Muench shares bylines with his father on books about the West, but also does much work in skiing, an atmosphere and palette that is the polar opposite of the desert landscape. Zandria Muench Beraldo has focused her lens on dogs, and is a well-known photographer for books on breeds.
"They're on their own and doing things in their particular way," Muench says proudly, "but I'm just happy there was an inherited influence and spontaneous influence back through time." Now, as he looks at his father's tree-framed landscape or an image of a Western travel scene with his mother that hangs over his desk, the influence appears. "All of a sudden you realize how important this was in your very beginning."
When not building his own photo library, Marc Muench also operates Muench Photography, where he works with "probably 60 file cabinets" full of more than 100,000 of David's mounted 4 x 5 transparency images. He handles the images for David's books, serves stock-image needs and creates fine-art prints. "We started about eight years ago when we purchased a drum scanner," Marc says.
What began as a way to make art prints has turned into an online library and a business that handles the separation work for all of David's books, as well as special projects, like a series of 12 x 16-inch prints of national park images offered in conjunction with an American Park Network publication. "Once a book project starts, we'll get about 150 to 200 original transparencies that we'll scan, then we'll go into the proofing process," Marc explains.
Technician Tom Dietrich scans transparencies into 200MB files. Marc imports those into Photoshop for retouching and then both father and son review press proofs. "Marc is inside my head as far as quality," David says. They use a high-resolution inkjet printer to make art prints up to 30 x 40 inches, which are then sprayed with a UV coating and either mounted or rolled to send to the buyer. They also do quite a bit of printing at Reed Photo-Imaging in Denver, which has been David's printing partner for many years.
A collection of more than 100 of David's photographs printed by Reed was recently presented in Denver at the new Reed Photo-Art Gallery. Many of his photos also are available at the Brookover-Muench Gallery in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
"Quite a few buyers are collectors," Marc says. "Others are gifts, for birthdays or Christmas, for their spouse, based on a place they've been." He says buyers often choose a picture that they've seen in a book, or find one on the website.
Buyers or magazine art directors may see digital images on www.muenchphotography.com, but they won't find any photographs that started out that way. Although David Muench shoots much more these days with a Canon EOS-1V 35mm than with his trusty Linhof 4 x 5, he says that more evolution is unlikely. "I probably won't do the digital," he allows. "I'm open to it, but the seeing is the same, and the composition, form, and color and light you work with are all the same. . . . I'm hoping nobody says, ‘Well, we're not processing film anymore,' because I care about film as a medium and an art form."
Meanwhile, as his son sifts the files and scans the best to create what they call Muench's core images, the father continues down the dusty Western trail. "Now I'm like Clint Eastwood," he jokes. "Nobody can take anything away. I'm really free to express myself."
Like Eastwood, he's been somewhat of a maverick in a very long career, squinting into the rising or setting sun, shooting up the landscape, returning again and again to his favorite themes. A David Muench photograph mirrors a cowboy's reverence for the land, and urges us to appreciate those places while we can.
"I was looking really closely at Delicate Arch," he says about one of his favorite rock formations. "On that left-hand side, there are some cracks above that thin pedestal. There's a neck that's really small. It looks like at any moment it could collapse from its own weight. It could go down in my lifetime.
"There's such a delicate moment in time on this planet, as an earth form," he adds. His beloved stone arches "are more like us, just a blink in time of life on this planet."
IN THE LOUPE: David Muench
Office and Home: Corales, N.M.
Gallery Rep: Brookover-Muench Gallery, Jackson, Wyo. (www.brookover-muench.com)
Published Books: Muench has published 50 exhibit-format books, including "National Parks of America," currently in its 13th printing. Recent titles: Windstone, Plateau Light, Vast & Intimate, Primal Forces, Images in Stone, David Muench's America and American Portfolios.
Upcoming titles: Our National Parks, with text by Ruth Rudner; Arizona, with text by Lawrence Cheek; and National Parks of New Zealand.
Workshops: In recent years, Muench has been leading photography workshops through a number of prestigious organizations. Upcoming sessions include Iceland, with fellow photographers Thomas D. Mangelsen and Jim Brandenburg, July 5-18, 2005; Patagonia, with Jack Dykinga, Feb. 17-March 3, 2006; and National Parks of Australia, Oct. 26-Nov. 20, 2006, all through Distinctive Journeys. Also, Big Bend National Park, April 20-26, 2006, through Friends of Arizona Highways.
Recent Exhibits: Reed Photo-Art Gallery, Denver; Mountain Light Gallery, Bishop, Calif.; Santa Barbara (Calif.) Museum of Art; Phoenix Art Museum, with Ansel Adams and Jack Dykinga. Sponsored by Arizona Highways, this last exhibit also was shown at the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography and the Museum of Northern Arizona.