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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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Lukachukai Country. Red sandstone buttes reach into sky space, Navajo Nation. Linhof 4×5, 75mm lens, Fujichrome Velvia

Resting on the dust jacket, inviting you in, is a sublime, graphical image of a huge window in solid rock. Through the sailboat-shaped opening in the massive sandstone wall, earth’s old friend the moon rides full and crisp through a rich magenta wash of middusk sky. Higher up, scarlet hues ease into cool vermillion.

One deep band of milky purple, the postsunset line, anchors the bottom of the window. And there, a small rounded boulder, of the same ruddy burgundy as the surrounding rock, perches on the ledge of the opening, as if deliberately placed.

Perhaps the enigmatic rock has been there for 10,000 years. Perhaps it rolled to rest the day before the Linhof 4×5’s shutter clicked in 1997. How long will it guard the portal? Another day? Another millennium? That, as David Muench would say, is entirely the idea.

The image, “Moonrise, White Mesa Arch, Navajo Land,” pulls the viewer into one of Muench’s classic, timeless moments. Contemplating this gateway, we become time-travellers with broken clocks. We feel we could go anywhere, be anywhen.

Moonrise, White Mesa Arch, Navajo Land. The event of moonrise and earth shadow rising through the sandstone brings a wonderful spirit of harmony to any evening. Linhof 4×5, 300mm lens, Fujichrome Velvia

“Moonrise” informs the classical photographic enigma of how to make ancient rock, worn by wind and rain, anchor the touchable present, yet also frame the infinite.

The image invites mystery as well: What’s on the other side? “Step through the sail-shaped sandstone door,” it whispers, “and treat yourself to the layers of earth’s vast mystery.”

And so you open the book, titled simply Arizona (Graphic Arts Books, 2007), to begin a celebration that transcends mere retrospective.

“The book is about revisiting Arizona,” says Muench. “It reveals the multiple layers of my life in photography, the ideas and personal themes I wanted to show in my work.”

Arizona thus becomes its own timeless moment. Early 1950s compositions of the iconic, grand landscape share space with recent 35mm images of magenta-tinted morning snowscapes and penlight-lit, glowing rock petroglyphs.

And There Was Light
Arizona sets the photography free to tell its own story, without the guidance of text other than Muench’s own one-page introduction.

He begins by reporting a singular event: “On July 3, 1948 the first party ever to arrive by air-driven boat came up the Colorado River from Lee’s Ferry. The 64-mile trip through the magnificent scenery of Glen Canyon was climaxed by the hike up to see Rainbow—the World’s Greatest Natural Bridge.”

The boat captain’s log lists the following passengers: Josef Muench, Joyce R. Muench and David Muench.

Muench’s late father Josef, esteemed as a top landscape photographer for 50 years, was an early, lifelong contributor of iconic imagery to Arizona Highways.

Although Muench was only 12 when he made that boat trip into breathtaking Glen Canyon (drowned years later by the dam that created Lake Powell), he had already dogged his father’s trailblazing footsteps for a decade.

“I started photographing as a kid. My dad gave me an Ikoflex Zeiss camera, 2 ¼ format. I remember doing color with it, though I started out with black-and-white.”

Before long, he gravitated to a Graphic View and a Speed Graphic, both 4×5 cameras. The format became a lifelong favorite.

Morning Fog, Woods Canyon Lake. Linhof 4×5, Kodak Ektachrome

The Soul’s Path
Every son must, in some way, overthrow the influence of his father if he is to find his own way. David Muench was no exception. Yet he was no rebellious firebrand. Learning at his father’s side, he endured the hardships of all apprentices en route to their own careers.

“On these trips, I was expected to help.” He adds with a chuckle, “It was disciplinary.” Sometimes the thankless grunt work of loading film magazines became a sweaty exercise under a dark blanket in the back of the family car. And then there were the day hikes.

“Dad didn’t mind going out in the middle of nowhere when it was 100 degrees F by 9 a.m. He was from the old country,” he laughs. “You’ll see German tourists on your normal 118-degree Death Valley day, and they love it. My dad was kind of like that.”

But Muench, the younger, heard a different calling. “I dropped the midday hikes because often you didn’t get up to some place until noon.”

It wasn’t that he minded the sweltering rigors. It was missing all that golden light that bothered him.

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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 4×5, 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 4×5, 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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“That’s a key picture,” says Muench. “I first found the aperture in the rock and recorded it. Turning around, I saw the rock art just 20 feet away.”

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.”

Excited by such successes, Muench created an illusionary masterpiece with “Baboquivari Dawn,” in which a subtle sky silhouettes supplicant cacti. In the space above, the vaporous outline of Baboquivari Peak, sacred site of the Tohono O’odham people, levitates with transcendental power.

The feat is all the more impressive when you consider Muench made these composites, not on a light table, but in-camera.

“Sometimes I put a sticker on the ground glass to remind me of the exposure I had just made,” he says. “I tried to shoot them close together, so they wouldn’t slip out of my head. It was a lot of fun.”

Each exposure was, he adds, “usually one stop under. To get one element lighter than the other, I’d underexpose 1 ¼ or 1 ½ stops. If I wanted an element stronger, I’d underexpose only ¾ of a stop.

“Some people do multiple exposures, but I like two. Now, with today’s amazing digital tools, I’m a little hesitant to do it.”

Ancient Puebloan Ruins, Navajo Nation. Ancient and mystical, this is where time stands still. Linhof 4×5, 75mm lens, Fujichrome Velvia

He doesn’t elaborate, but the sense is he’d rather work in-camera instead of on the computer. For Muench, in-camera is a more immersive, fluid process because he must hold the feeling of one image and imagine how it might interact with the second compositional element that he studies under the dark cloth—upside down and backward.

David Muench And Be There
Any moment in the field offers the potential for achieving a timeless image. With Arizona, David Muench shares his family album of a lifetime of them.

“The book is a personal statement that shares the excitement of what I do,” Muench explains. “That’s what keeps me going. I know where these places are. They demand your full presence. It’s a matter of just going back there, and being there. I choose to look forward rather than reminisce.”

While he regards all his books as gallery exhibits in book form, Arizona represents a full measure of Muench, the witness—Muench, the interpreter, for the soul of the land. Move through the pages slowly enough, and in time, you sense every throat-choking, dusty hike down a sandstone trail, every biting wind high on a bristlecone slope.

“Arizona holds a very special place on this globe. I love the landscape—its challenge, its brilliant light, all its moods. That’s what the book is really about: the layers through time of my work.”

To see more of David Muench‘s photography and for information on purchasing prints and books, visit