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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

Although much of his prolific work with the bristlecones was done in the 1970s and ’80s, Muench more recently began adding another time element to his images of the ancients: star trails.

“I worked with star trails at Patriarch Grove,” says Muench. “Many of the bristlecones there are flag trees,” describing how the ancient sentinels, bent and blasted by centuries of extreme weather, mark the direction of the prevailing winds.

Patriarch Grove lives within the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of the White Mountains. The Whites are an arid, lofty range that parallels the granite Sierras of California, separated only by the narrow Owens Valley.
The bristlecones give you space and the sense of distant time.

“Long time-exposure star trails add a cosmic, otherworldly feel to the images,” says Muench. “I’ve made some 35mm star-trail images, primarily in that grove. The spatial thing really happens up there with the very high ones, against that great sky space. You’re tying the very tops of some of this landscape into the sky and space. That’s what gives it that timeless quality. It’s really a sky image, so doing star trails is like pulling the whole universe into the frame. You often have clouds in those high mountain areas. They play a part, too. I like the very late light before sunrise or after sunset.”

There seems to be no end in sight for this photographic juggernaut. Muench’s calendar is full of seminar dates, location workshops and always another book. His latest two publications continue a long partnership with Graphic Arts Center Publishing. One is a state portrait coffee-table volume of New Mexico. Close on its heels comes a new work on an old favorite: Arizona. There’s also a digital photo project involving world heritage sites.

“Other than that, I’m just loafing,” quips Muench.

There was a time not long ago when Muench acknowledged a sense of urgency to complete work still undone in America. Does his recent interest in overseas landscapes mean his majestic renditions of the American scene are nearing an end?

“Oh, no,” he says. “There’s still a lot to do. For instance, I feel bad not doing more in the East. There are many hidden places there I’d like to photograph. Also, like the bristlecones, you go back to a place you think you’ve seen and recorded well, and realize you haven’t really touched it emotionally.”

Since our emotional landscape as human beings is always changing, how we interpret what we encounter in life is ever-shifting as well. That’s a big part of being an artist in the first place—responding to the inner voice.

Says Muench, “There’s always room, a lot of room, to see with a new eye.”

David Muench is 71 years old and still going strong. When asked if he thinks he has another 20 years of shooting left in him, he laughs and says, “More like 30!”

Will he ever retire? The answer is quick and decisive: “No.”

Still, physiology plays its role. “It’s a ‘use it or lose it’ type of thing,” he says. “It’s not so easy for me now, hiking above 10,000 feet to visit one of these ‘old friends.’ I need to build up to it.”

Living at 5,000 feet in New Mexico helps keep him acclimatized. “I still backpack and hike over the passes in the Sierras. I’ll go up there, walk around, huff and puff, puff and huff, mix it up a bit, and see how bad I’m doing. Then I just work through it, get over it.”

In the end, there’s a delicious temptation to regard the bristlecone pine as a simulacrum for David Muench and his storied career. Like the gnarled arms of Methuselah, twisting round and round like a tornado frozen in wood, his images reach for light and warmth in the rarified air, to anchor the high ground for the rest of us.

To see more of David Muench’s photography and for information on purchasing prints and books, visit www.muenchphotography.com.


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