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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

Ultimately, he finds it: "I try to bring it to that point where there’s a sense of the past and a sense of the future that I can capture in a way that suggests both. And bristlecones, when you treat them right, help you do this quite well."

Treating them right is where the technical rubber meets the creative road. That’s when Muench’s time-honored Linhof 4x5 camera gets the call.

"I use quite a bit of the 75mm wide-angle lens, in close," he says. "There are a few trees I’ll photograph with the 500mm or even the 210mm, which I also really like. The 210mm gives a nonabstract view, an easy-going standard shot that helps me get right into the flow."

But it’s the detailed studies of wind-and sun-blasted wood that truly light Muench’s fires. "Oh, geez, those close-ups! The abstracts you can get with that sculpted wood—the bark lines running through—just beautiful stuff."

In more recent years, Muench has added 35mm shooting to his arsenal. Canon’s durable flagship EOS-1v film-based system and "the usual assortment of lenses"—14mm, fisheye, 16-35mm, IS 28-135mm and IS 100-400mm—get a boost from filters, in particular, a circular polarizer. But Muench’s trademark subtle color filtration has fallen somewhat by the wayside more recently.

"I’m using very few filters now," he says. "The image has to be good on its own. I’ve accumulated about 20 filters for my 4x5 system—split neutral-density, graduated splits, graduated magenta and red, and also the 81 EF, which is a warm gold filter. But I don’t play around much with them other than the polarizer or a CC5R for a specific scene like the red rock country to keep things a little bit on the warm side. But I want the image to be pure at the outset."
If I hear of a new tree hiding up there somewhere, I’ll definitely go look for it.

One big photographic challenge that comes with bristlecones is capturing their lofty habitat. Says Muench, "It’s so high and clear, generally above 10,000 feet, that often my workshop students are concerned they will get too black a sky when using a polarizer. I’m usually quite excited just with what I see. So I tell them, "If it bothers you, don’t use it at quite so strong an angle."

Muench is referring to the way choice of sun angle in relation to the lens determines the degree of the polarizing effect.

"After all," he says, "it’s the lines between, in an image, that we’re drawn to. Our eyes go to the contrast between light and dark or between colors. With a polarizer, in particular, these trees, outlined against the sky, become so much more dramatic. So if the polarizing effect is too strong, I’ll suggest doing the image in black-and-white. In the end, it’s a personal choice."

One cautionary note: Using a polarizer atop the White Mountains also can accentuate the horizontal atmospheric smog line typically blown up from Los Angeles, hardly the visual element one wants when crafting a timeless moment.

Bristlecone groves and individual trees have been a key part of Muench’s oeuvre since the very beginning.

"There’s one tree, on the edge of a little grove, that has stood for countless centuries," he recounts. "Although it’s no longer alive, it offers a beautiful isolated image with the Sierras in the background. There’s a lot of space around it, and the slope drops steeply into the Owens Valley below. Hard to find the words for the spiritual quality of that tree."

Still, after so many years, the question arises: What’s left to explore in these ancients? How does he find fresh things to express with a subject he has rendered so long and so well?

Says Muench, "There are other subjects I don’t feel I’ve yet made the ultimate shot of. With the bristlecones, it’s more like going to Delicate Arch. I go to revisit them."

Muench acknowledges that he feels a less intense desire to photograph the pines than when he was younger. They have become more like old friends. But he always hopes to make new discoveries. That’s a fundamental component of the creative life.

And there’s a trace of excitement when he confesses that, although bristlecones aren’t the only reason he goes to a particular area to shoot, "If I hear of a new tree hiding up there somewhere, I’ll definitely go look for it. Whenever I find something fresh and new, I’ll bang away at it."


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