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Private Journey Public Lands

David Muench continues his lifelong exploration of our connection to the national parks and the wilderness within them

Our national parks often bring to mind icons of the American landscape: Delicate Arch in Arches, El Capitan in Yosemite, or Mount McKinley in Denali. These and many other locations found within the country’s national parks not only are emblematic of the United States’ natural beauty, but also are an important part of its history.

In his latest book, Our National Parks (Graphic Arts Books, 2005; ISBN: 1-55868-918-4), David Muench explores our connection to the parks and the wilderness within them. Although the book contains many of the famous and beautiful vistas that draw visitors in the thousands from all over the world, it’s Muench’s intention to do more than glorify these locales as tourist destinations. Instead, the master photographer hopes to reveal the importance of our connection to America’s wild lands.

“Within these parks, there’s wilderness where life and the natural process can occur without human interference,” says Muench. “Birth, death, renewal. These are places where humans aren’t affecting nature. Instead, the national parks offer us the opportunity to learn what it, nature, is all about.”

Understanding The Connection
The National Park System currently encompasses 58 officially designated parks, including portions that are also protected by the National Wilderness Preservation System, which is entrusted with safeguarding and preserving the natural ecosystems. During a time when pressures are increasing to make these wilderness areas available to private interests, Muench hopes that people realize the importance of these lands not only as sites for recreation, but as places to learn about our national and personal identities.

“These places give you the chance to learn about yourself,” he says. “Try and tread lightly and become more aware of what you’re photographing, rather than just shooting to follow your own ego, which I admit I did when I first started out. But that slowly has come around to me learning about what I’m photographing and discovering more about what and where I’m shooting. It’s the essence of a place that I try to convey in these photographs.”

As a young boy, family trips introduced Muench to the awesome beauty and fragility of the natural world. They’re qualities that have propelled much of his work as one of the country’s foremost landscape photographers. It’s a curiosity that often has taken him into less-explored interiors, 4×5 camera in tow.

“One of the things I like to do is backpack to get off the beaten track,” says Muench, although he acknowledges that he may not be able to venture out in the same way he did in his younger years. “Now, not being able to go to peak tops with the 4×5, I instead mainly approach these locations with seasonal timing. From 40 years of shooting and discovering things in the park, I’ve come to learn a lot about lighting and the seasons.”

Muench explains that by becoming familiar of how light, weather and seasonal changes affect a given area, photographers are better able to create an image rather than depend on luck. “If you arrive with detailed knowledge of the time of year, the seasons and place, you can come away with something very dramatic,” he says.

Many instances of this natural drama are evident in Muench’s book, which includes images from all phases of the photographer’s long career. But more than just an opportunity to organize a selection of “best” photographs of the national parks, Muench sees the project serving both the public interest and a very personal one as well.

A Changing Perspective
I wanted to do some newer seeing of some of these locations because I’ve been seeing differently over the course of my career,” Muench says. “I was coming back not as a better photographer, but a different photographer. I don’t think of myself as better or worse, though I still get aggravated when an image doesn’t work the way I want it to. I simply feel that I’m coming back to the landscape as a different person with a different way of seeing, which is what’s really amazing.

“When I look at my earlier images, I saw that how I was responding to a location was completely intuitive. I just reacted to what I saw. I saw something that I wanted to photograph and I just did it. Coming back to it in recent years, I was a different person who had learned quite a bit, but I’d also come to learn the importance of these places.”

It wasn’t only the man who had changed in the ensuing years, however. Whether because of human presence or natural forces, the parks themselves have changed, too.

“There are more regulations and restrictions,” he says. “Basically, it’s more crowded. Places that were very personal, that you were once excited to share with one or two people, are now overrun with multitudes of visitors.”

Muench acknowledges that the popularity of himself and other landscape photographers has helped propel the interest in these locations, but he stresses that he hopes his work also provides a greater understanding and respect for the environments. He’d like those people not to only be impressed by the larger-than-life scenes, but the smaller telling details that make the parks such special places.

Search For Subtlety
I’ve learned that it’s the subtle things that result in the greatest impact when I record an image on film,” says Muench. “Some things have changed in the landscape. Better or worse, I don’t know, but I’ve definitely come to see a location in a more simple way. Rather than making my equipment more complex, I think it’s the seeing that has been more important in my development as a photographer. That’s more profound than actually saying that I’m a ‘better’ photographer.

“I’ve never been about creating the one definitive image,” he continues. “I can pick 10 images of a location and I can’t tell you which one is more important or more definitive. There are so many different ways to think and respond to the moods and times in just one place.”

Along with his wife, writer Ruth Rudner, who provides the book’s essays, Muench sees Our National Parks as an opportunity to remind people of both the strength and fragility of these public lands. With the 100th anniversary of the National Park System nearing in 2016, it’s a reminder of how quickly man’s presence has impacted wilderness that has existed on its own for thousands of years.

“ People should pick up sensitivity to the wild and also an awareness that preserving these parks is an ongoing process,” says Muench. “ I feel like this book is a culminating mix of my early, middle and more recent work. It’s a nice balance of imagery that conveys a subject we should all be proud of.”

To see more of David Muench’s work, visit