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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Unknown Arch


Under our noses, a chance to make a statement—and a difference


David Muench’s “unknown arch” frames Mt. Whitney and the eastern Sierra Nevada in California.
[At OP we made a mistake when we originally ran this column and this image. The column originally showed Mobius Arch which, of course, is very well known indeed. We have corrected the error on the website and you can now see the image David Muench intended for us to run. I would like personally to extend apologies to David Muench for this mistake. -Christopher Robinson, Editor]

It almost looks like two rocks kissing. Or an elephant trunk. I found this granite arch in the 1970s purely by accident. No one had ever photographed it. Few have since. There’s no trail to it. And although I’ve gone back many times, it’s always a challenge to find it.

I love arches. They make amazing natural connections between near and far features in the landscape. And this one, in the Alabama Hills below the spectacular granite peaks of the eastern Sierra Nevada Range, is striking. It allows me to frame distant Mt. Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet, and other “Top Rock” within its graceful arc of eroded stone.

The eastern Sierra is my favorite place in the world. I first came here in childhood. My mother Joyce and father Josef Muench introduced me to the area in the 1940s and 1950s. Most Americans know this landscape intimately, although not by name. Hundreds of films and TV programs, commercials and magazine ads have been shot here since the 1920s. The names form part of our cultural bedrock: Gene Autry, Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger; Gunga Din, How the West Was Won, Maverick.

For high drama, you can’t beat the contrast of sharp-spired granite peaks soaring behind this rounded jumble of wind-, sand- and water-worn granite forms. When I first photographed this arch, I faced depth-of-field challenges. To hold focus from the arch all the way to Mt. Whitney, I needed to set the lens aperture on my 4x5 view camera to ƒ/64 or ƒ/90.

I recently returned—with a Panasonic Lumix FZ50. And I got a surprise: This little “nonprofessional” digital sensor, which most pros and workshop attendees wouldn’t take seriously, allows me to hold that same amazing depth of field—at ƒ/9 or ƒ/11! I made many new images with the Lumix in winter dawn light. Snow capped the Sierras and arches (there are other arches here, with names like Moebius and Triple Arch). But “my” arch doesn’t have a name—yet. For now, I want to keep it that way until I know it’s protected. Otherwise, it could be inundated and damaged by visitors. The Alabama Hills flank Highway 395, which shuttles thousands of skiers back and forth from Los Angeles to Mammoth Mountain. Backpackers, campers and sightseers also flock here in summer. There are trails for hiking—but also for ATVs and motorbikes—in the area, which is BLM-regulated.

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