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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Sentinels Of The High Country


Seeking out the bristlecone pine in the rarified air of the mountain Southwest, David Muench finds both spiritual pilgrimage and everlasting challenge

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Sentinels Of The High Country
Anchored to the steep, rocky flanks of a peak in California’s White Mountains stands a bristlecone pine so utterly exposed to the extreme climate and withering winds, it seems incredible that it ever germinated, much less matured. That this tortuously wrought living entity endured the extremes of nature’s fury for more than 4,800 years is downright miraculous. Nicknamed Methuselah, after the biblical figure who lived 969 years, the bristlecone is the oldest living tree on earth. The Bronze Age, Stonehenge and the 365-day Egyptian calendar all came into being around the time it germinated. For nearly a half-century, David Muench’s chosen tool of expressing the mystery and power of the bristlecone pine has been the 4x5 large-format camera. And when he photographs Methuselah and other ancients, the experience is, for him, not unlike gazing into the soul of time itself.

In their groves along the shoulders of mountains from California to Colorado to New Mexico, the twisted bristlecone sculptures evoke echoes of Muench’s own photographic ethos. He has always favored the term "timeless moment" to depict his approach to the making of a photograph. What better synonym for timelessness, then, than this tortured, solitary entity, living on the sharp edge of survival between brutal environment and a genetic predisposition for staggering longevity?
After all, it’s the lines between, in an image, that we’re drawn to.

Bristlecones have ever been the Muenchian mantra, mecca and muse. Over the decades, he has lovingly, even dutifully photographed their enigmatic convolutions to arrive at a place where most photographers would consider their body of work on the subject more than complete.

But also at play here is the notion of the pilgrim’s journey. For Muench, life goes beyond mere purpose to engage in purposeful homage to the photographic subjects that have moved and shaped him so profoundly. For Muench, bristlecones always will offer a dramatic subject on which to focus the lens. But there’s more here—an ineffable siren call that at times can challenge the vocabulary.

He tries: "The bristlecones give you space and the sense of distant time."

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