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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Timeless Moment


With a handheld, integrated-lens digital camera, renowned landscape photographer David Muench explores the proposed Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument

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When we finally move on, heading downhill on a trail bound by massive rock forms the whole way, it's like walking through a sculpture garden of undulating forms and the skeletal arms of winter's oaks. An occasional cholla reminds me I'm in the desert.

There's an excitement about wandering through an area worthy of protection that goes beyond the wonder and delight of entering into its wild magnificence, becoming, instead, a connection with the whole of America's wildness. Wild places have often been protected because of photographers' work. In the 1860s, Carleton Watkins' photographs garnered state protection for Yosemite Valley. In 1872, William Henry Jackson's photographs were part of what convinced Congress to designate Yellowstone as our first national park. In the 20th century, Ansel Adams' images helped gain protection for Kings Canyon National Park.

Photography has a singular ability to present both the grandeur and the subtle nuances of nature's power in a way that transmits this moment for all time. David calls this the "timeless moment," the moment between past and future stopped—in the moment—by the camera.

Spending the next day on the west side of the range, we watched clouds forming farther west, beyond the Rio Grande. David, excited by the storm light the clouds portend, says, "This draws me, especially in early morning, looking east to get the silhouette."

The following morning, we leave before sunrise to get into position to photograph the mountains against a gray sky. The New Mexico drought is severe, yet, this morning there's rain along the road to the Bureau of Land Management A.B. Cox Visitor Center. Clouds veil the faces of mountains; mist wraps itself about the peaks, sliding through gaps, wraith-like. Rain sprinkles the windshield as we drive the Dripping Springs Road. It pours down on David as he walks across the desert flat below the rhyolite outcropping, which forms a rock echo, a shadow, a shield for the mountains on this west side. The overcast day brings soft, even lighting, revealing the desert's textures.

"Sun and shade are rough on a photographer's intentions on a wild landscape," he says later. "What speaks to me in this light are the forms and textures of a very scratchy environment. Today—in this subdued light—is about form and texture rather than contrasty light and shadow."

Watching rain fall in the Chihuahuan Desert, I understand that the way in which we see wildland is our own. But in the ability of the camera to replicate our vision, it ceases to be personal, becoming, instead, a universal statement of both nature and art.

You can see more of David Muench's work on his website at www.davidmuenchphotography.com.

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