The Big Sky

Legendary landscape master David Muench traded a 4x5 for compact digital cameras for his most recent expeditions in Montana and his exploration of Big Sky Country

One of the greatest landscape photographers of all time, David Muench travels through Montana with a variety of small, lightweight digital cameras. Muench proves that, in a craftsman's hands, any tool can be used to maximum effectiveness. The craggy Rocky Mountains, swathes of flatlands and the notorious weather of Big Sky Country yielded some extraordinary images.
Above: Storm over the Madison Range.

When a photographer used to carrying a 4x5 camera on 20-mile hikes that gain thousands of feet of elevation simply leaps out of bed, grabs his digital camera and heads for the front porch, it's kind of homey.

In fact, it is home. The Montana skies that entrance most people are David Muench's daily fare. Brilliant, stormy, moody, fiery, explosive, all-enveloping, luminous, numinous, crystalline, slashed with the colors of rainbows or formed of the deepest blue, they're skies with no boundaries. When someone says, "the sky's the limit," they aren't talking about these skies. There is no limit here. No limit to the power of nature or to the opportunity for the photographer who can simply never let go of a camera. Sky happens. You want to be ready.

Influencing everything below them, Montana's skies offer a summer light that goes on forever (well, almost...Alaska beats us by a few hours). When the summer sun finally does set, twilight hangs on past all reason. A few hours of stars, so thickly packed, there's hardly room for sky, are followed by the earliest of dawns.

For the images presented here, as for so much of the work he has been doing lately, David used either a Canon PowerShot SX50 HS or a Panasonic LUMIX DMC-FZ70, cameras that allow him to move quickly and to handhold. Always a practitioner of the spontaneous, ready to stop anywhere, turn around anywhere, to get the sudden shot, to enter into the immediacy of the moment, the cameras used here are less interesting to me as onlooker than the hold of home. Knowing how much David likes to travel to the spectacular natural spots of the world, and wondering if something so simple was somehow beneath him, I asked how he feels about photographing from the front porch.


Rainbow shooting down at the Tobacco Root Mountain Range with grasslands in the foreground.

"That's hard labor," he said, smiling, then added, "It's one of those locations you hunt for in the national parks or in high mountain country. The sky here performs almost every afternoon. Storms flow over this landscape with abandon, and this place challenges me. The special moments passing by are exhilarating. It's like watching a performance on the stage."

I take that to mean there's nothing wrong with photographing from the front porch.

There's a saying in Montana that if you don't like the weather, wait 10 minutes. If you spend that 10 minutes not watching the sky, however, you'll miss something unique, of the moment, unrepeatable. Montana's celestial light show is part of what gives truth to the state's nickname as the Big Sky Country. (A.B. Guthrie's novel, The Big Sky, is probably the first source of the name. But, for sure, Guthrie spent time looking at the sky above him while writing that book. Every writer spends time staring at the sky.)


Panorama of silhouetted mountains, storm clouds and falling rain.

The house is oriented toward the west, toward the Tobacco Root Mountains, toward the untamed, transcendent play of light. The mountains, there beyond the next ranch, beyond the ranches up the Pony Road and the old mining town of Pony itself, form the view that tantalizes in every season. Hollowtop Mountain, at 10,604 feet, the highest in the range (and one of its 43 peaks over 10,000 feet), holds snow in its glacier-carved basin all summer. The first mountain to draw new snow to it, it fascinates David in every light, in every season. But, of course, being David, the foreground matters. For that, the white horse belonging to the neighboring rancher becomes a subject he seeks, perhaps the first thing he looks for after his moments with the early-morning light. It's an old horse. One day it won't be there anymore. Sometimes I wonder what David will do when the white horse is no longer there.

Surrounded by meadows and wetlands, most of the landscape surrounding the house is in a conservation easement, providing habitat for white-tailed deer, sandhill cranes, a blue heron, muskrats, coyotes, an occasional moose. In a grove of old willows near the creek's ingress onto the property, there has been sign of bear. The creek running through the meadows is part of a system producing the only naturally whirling disease-resistant rainbow trout in the world. An inadvertent fly fisherman (he didn't realize he was on our land) this past summer pulled a 14-inch rainbow out of it. (He put it back.) Reflecting sky, the fire and gold of clouds, the creek is, for David, an irresistible subject. Of course, for this one, he needs to leave the house.


Changing weather over the Tobacco Root Mountains near Harrison, Montana.

He does leave the house. The rest of Montana, equally compelling, draws him as much as Hollowtop. The whole of the Jefferson Valley has fascinated him ever since spending serious time in it while photographing the Lewis & Clark journey for the National Park Service in the 1970s. (Those photographs hang in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis.) The Madison Valley, with the high peaks of the Madison Range on its east, its vast meadows, its virtually mythic river, provides a never-ending source of images. Once, exiting the grocery in Ennis, the Madison River's most famous fishing town, we encountered a rainbow of preposterous proportions over the meadows across the road. Every passing vehicle stopped, witness to what seemed some sort of miracle, a heavenly light, a sign that all was right with the world.

Sometimes sky is the result of a foray to photograph something else. When sculptor Jim Dolan gave a gift of 39 horse sculptures to the people of Montana, Wheat Montana—the restaurant at the I-90 crossroads leading to Bozeman, Helena, Butte, Ennis and Virginia City—donated rolling land on Highway 287 for their installation. It's a remarkable installation, a remarkable gift. Most visitors driving to or from Helena, and not knowing about the sculpture, probably just see a herd of wild horses. Grouped in small clusters, the horses seem alive, natural, totally a part of the Montana landscape. For David, photographing them meant photographing their environment, sky as deeply their environment as the grassy hill on which they stand.


Grasslands in low-angled sunlight.

"I wanted to catch very late light on the Tobacco Roots behind them," he said. "I was looking for them to be part of the landscape. I wanted to put them in a context of the Wild West—moody and mysterious."

In the end, although he made many images of the horses, what he found was that he was, once again, photographing sky.

Early this past September, when the weather forecast offered a snowstorm coming to the Beartooth, David took off from the house the day before the storm was due. One of the largest contiguous areas in the United States more than 10,000 feet high, this sky-grazing paradise of high mountains, glaciers, tundra, meadows, lakes, flowers is a place David takes personally. Photographing here since the 1960s, he's endlessly fascinated by the high peaks (28 of which exceed 12,000 feet, including Montana's highest, 12,799-foot Granite Peak). What he wanted now was to be able to drive over the Beartooth Highway's 10,900-foot pass to be present to this late-summer snow before it melted. The highway is one of the great scenic roads of the world—along with Trail Ridge Road across Rocky Mountain National Park, Highway 1 down the California coast and the Amalfi Drive on the southern Italian coast—a tourist road offering access to an otherwise remote alpine world.


The dramatic light and fast-moving cloud systems at the edges of the day make for incredible imagery when you're in the right place at the right time. To be sure, there's an element of luck involved, and David Muench has spent his life creating his own luck to capture moments like this.

Upon arriving in Red Lodge, entrance to the highway, he found the highway closed. Eager to wait until it opened, he spent his time photographing along Rock Creek, no slouch among mountain waters, flowing, as it does, 55 miles from the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness to its confluence with the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone. Photographing sky, which had totally disappeared, wasn't an option. The road remained closed the whole of the next day, while the storm pummeled the area, leaving inches of snow in town, much more on top of the Beartooth. When it opened another day later, David was among the first on top. The previsualizing he did when he heard the weather forecast paid off.

"It worked out beautifully," he told me on his return. "Like catching a whole creel of fish."

"You don't fish," I said.

"I'd release them anyway, if I did," he offered.

But I heard that in the way he meant it, with all the excitement of a tremendous catch. (This is Montana, after all...) One of the miracles of photography is that you don't have to put back what you take.

To see more of David Muench's photography, visit his website at davidmuenchphotography.com.

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