Sunday, June 1, 2008


Half a century of photography, half a hundred exhibit books and still going strong—David Muench has a new book of the work that has made him a world treasure

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Early on, the young photographer was emotionally moved by the glories of early and late sunlight. "That, to me, is everything. It's not the only thing—but it's so important."

He will photograph during midday. "If it's overcast or raining—perfect!" But he says, "Midday sun is too bald. I usually use that time to scout new locations.

Baboquivari Dawn, Baboquivari Wilderness. Two exposures in one created the look Muench was after. Linhof 4x5, 500mm and 210mm lenses, Fujichrome Velvia
"My early learning process centered around capturing special moods in special times. That meant quite a bit to me. In Arizona, I was drawn to the drama. That landscape has so many possibilities. It became a personal vision, a matter of intuitively approaching things. None of my work then was very rational. I was going for the things that attracted me.

"I spent the night out there—slept right in the car. The stars were out, but it was snowing. I thought that was just normal, to stay out there like that."

Over the years, he drove and hiked and endured blistering desert heat and frozen highlands. Place names seeped like sedimentary rock layers into his memory and soul: Betatakin, Yei Bichei, Keet Seel, The Mittens, Superstition Wilderness. Each beckoned with mystery, each teased with the promise of discovery.

Layering The Landscape
For more than half a century, Muench has rendered indelible the magnificence of the Southwest. Reflecting on his long years roaming slot canyons, rock arches and flowering meadowlands, his speech before long returns to the word layers in describing his near/ far technique for establishing depth in his images.

This classic Muench approach places a strong element to anchor the immediate foreground. The element plays against, and connects the viewer to, a strong feature in the middle and far distance.

Muench had mastered conventional techniques in his youth, including the rule of thirds to align elements into a pleasing composition. But in time, all true artists seek new ways to summon creative fires. Take "Sandstone Form, Lukachukai Country."

"Frankly, sometimes I'd just get bored," he laughs, adding, "I didn't want to be slavishly devoted to rules, to that ‘East Coast' look you see in old paintings in hotel rooms."

My early learning process centered around capturing special moods in special times. That meant quite a bit to me. In Arizona, I was drawn to the drama. That landscape has so many possibilities.

"Sandstone Form," a prime example of creative breakout, showcases a compositional technique he has used to powerful effect.

"I felt the power of the rock forms right in front of me. They intrigued me, yet I didn't want to turn my nose up at the main icon in the area, Greg's Arch."

In the image, the red-rock structure floats at the very top, in deep shadow. "But it's still there," says Muench. "That was always important to me—to include the icons of that great landscape."

That near/far style evolved by osmosis from witnessing how his father composed images.

"It slipped into my work in the early '70s," Muench recalls. "Monument Valley was Dad's big thing. He influenced me in the way he would put something in the immediate foreground, such as a tree, to frame the scene.

Storm over the Colorado River. Desert view frames the meandering Colorado. Linhof 4x5, 75mm lens, Fujichrome Velvia
"I love how that style works. You place things in layers—foreground, midground, distance—to achieve three-dimensional depth. It ties it all together—the geology and the plant life. It gives you a sense of place by connecting everything."

Doubling Up
Artists don't master mediums by resting on their laurels. Muench's desire to more fully express his spiritual connection to the land led to other explorations, such as double exposures and light painting.

One such image focuses on an old adobe church. Behind and above, a ghostly rock wall with a gigantic cross fills the sky. Although the actual petroglyph cross was only a few inches high, its transparency through double exposure creates a compelling testament to Christianity's influence on America's native people during the "winning" of the West.

Another double, "Kachina Peaks, Home of the Mountain Gods," is so artfully rendered, the image could exist in the real world. A rough elliptical hole in a cave frames a distant mountain scene. On the deep black cave wall above the hole, phantasmal rock glyphs of warriors and totem animals hover like spirits over the opening to the daylight world.


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