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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tutored By Nature

Fellow landscape photographer Tom Till describes why David Muench is one of the greatest living photographers and why his work stands the test of time and remains inspirational

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In his career, David Muench has translated nature scenes by developing distinct compositional styles that have made him both admired and emulated. His connection to the landscape runs deep. While many photographers may only capture a superficially pretty photo, Muench explores the landscape to create rich, evocative and lasting art. Above: Beargrass and Mount Rainier, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

I grew up scouring the pages of Arizona Highways, LIFE, LOOK and National Geographic, but my life was changed forever when I leafed through Arizona Highways in an Iowa gas station in the early 1970s. Devoted entirely to the work of one photographer, the issue unfolded before me with photographs unlike any I had ever seen, even in the hallowed pages of the great periodicals I had grown up studying. Here was a depiction of the American landscape that transcended all others—portrayed in the vision, dedication and talent of one young man, David Muench. The compositions, the colors, the mastery of communication all seemed to be the visual equivalent of the books I was reading by Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold and John Muir. These images were like a magic carpet, carrying me from the cornfields of Iowa to Big Sur, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Monument Valley and other American icons I had visited, but not really seen.

Foxtail pines, Golden Trout Wilderness, Sierra Nevada Mountains, California.
Many of you know the rest of the story about David and his singular career, but some recent conversations with especially young photographers have led me to worry that David Muench and his work and still continuing career were perhaps being overshadowed by photographers who ride the social-media wave. Without taking anything away from them, I felt it was important to reeducate everyone about David's importance, contributions, innovations and magnificent body of work. After working at the same workbench as David for most of my life, I feel qualified and honored to take on this task. If you shoot landscapes anywhere in the world and you don't know David Muench, it's like being a budding filmmaker who hasn't heard of Martin Scorsese. In the pantheon of American landscape and nature photographers, we have William Henry Jackson, Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde and David Muench.

Born into a family that venerated the landscape and the outdoors, David's photographer father and his natural-history writer mother introduced him to the beauty of American nature and the lifestyle of a working outdoor photographer at an early age. Josef Muench, David's father, was prolific and determined and could out-hike younger men when he was in his 80s. One of my most prized possessions is a LIFE magazine cover photo of Delicate Arch done by Josef in the 1950s. Joyce Rockwood Muench, his mother, was a storyteller, and this, too, can be seen in David's work—many of his great images tell simple, but beautiful narratives about the land. Marc Muench, David's son, is a frequent contributor to OP and one of America's great young photographers. David likes to joke that his family parallels the painting Wyeths, and certainly the Muench family dominates the field of outdoor photography more than any other American family ever has.

Large oak along the Limberlost Trail, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
The innovations that David brought to color outdoor photography match those of Ansel Adams in black-and-white. Though some photojournalists and even Adams were using wide-angle lenses, David's signature near-far compositions have the intended effect of placing the viewer in the scene. David's foregrounds weren't randomly selected. Where other photographers (and everyone in Europe) revealed a subject like Mount Rainier as distant and aloof, David added a perfectly composed tableau of bear grass and a lake reflection of the peak. In a time when nature was coming under more and more attack, David allowed the viewer to feel as if he or she could step right into the photograph, experience nature directly through his eyes and camera, and come away bonded to this great American national park and all the others.

David also was straying from the beaten path to shoot new locations. This was a courageous move because the public likes to see imagery of places they know, rather than the more obscure, equally beautiful parks that are lesser known. David showed these less popular parks to be every bit as magnificent and important to the fabric of the natural world as the better-known places. At the same time, he went to great lengths to bring forward original visions of the great parks like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon. As David tells the story, he and Marc noticed the small opening on the skyline that millions of people had passed by in Monument Valley. Amazingly, this gracefully formed natural arch perfectly framed the towers of Monument Valley. Now called Teardrop Arch, it's just one of David's many great discoveries.


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