Sentinels Of The High Country

Seeking out the bristlecone pine in the rarified air of the mountain Southwest, David Muench finds both spiritual pilgrimage and everlasting challenge

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Sentinels Of The High Country

Anchored to the steep, rocky flanks of a peak in California’s White Mountains stands a bristlecone pine so utterly exposed to the extreme climate and withering winds, it seems incredible that it ever germinated, much less matured. That this tortuously wrought living entity endured the extremes of nature’s fury for more than 4,800 years is downright miraculous. Nicknamed Methuselah, after the biblical figure who lived 969 years, the bristlecone is the oldest living tree on earth. The Bronze Age, Stonehenge and the 365-day Egyptian calendar all came into being around the time it germinated. For nearly a half-century, David Muench’s chosen tool of expressing the mystery and power of the bristlecone pine has been the 4×5 large-format camera. And when he photographs Methuselah and other ancients, the experience is, for him, not unlike gazing into the soul of time itself.

In their groves along the shoulders of mountains from California to Colorado to New Mexico, the twisted bristlecone sculptures evoke echoes of Muench’s own photographic ethos. He has always favored the term “timeless moment” to depict his approach to the making of a photograph. What better synonym for timelessness, then, than this tortured, solitary entity, living on the sharp edge of survival between brutal environment and a genetic predisposition for staggering longevity?

After all, it’s the lines between, in an image, that we’re drawn to.

Bristlecones have ever been the Muenchian mantra, mecca and muse. Over the decades, he has lovingly, even dutifully photographed their enigmatic convolutions to arrive at a place where most photographers would consider their body of work on the subject more than complete.

But also at play here is the notion of the pilgrim’s journey. For Muench, life goes beyond mere purpose to engage in purposeful homage to the photographic subjects that have moved and shaped him so profoundly. For Muench, bristlecones always will offer a dramatic subject on which to focus the lens. But there’s more here—an ineffable siren call that at times can challenge the vocabulary.

He tries: “The bristlecones give you space and the sense of distant time.”

Ultimately, he finds it: “I try to bring it to that point where there’s a sense of the past and a sense of the future that I can capture in a way that suggests both. And bristlecones, when you treat them right, help you do this quite well.”

Treating them right is where the technical rubber meets the creative road. That’s when Muench’s time-honored Linhof 4×5 camera gets the call.

“I use quite a bit of the 75mm wide-angle lens, in close,” he says. “There are a few trees I’ll photograph with the 500mm or even the 210mm, which I also really like. The 210mm gives a nonabstract view, an easy-going standard shot that helps me get right into the flow.”

But it’s the detailed studies of wind-and sun-blasted wood that truly light Muench’s fires. “Oh, geez, those close-ups! The abstracts you can get with that sculpted wood—the bark lines running through—just beautiful stuff.”

In more recent years, Muench has added 35mm shooting to his arsenal. Canon’s durable flagship EOS-1v film-based system and “the usual assortment of lenses”—14mm, fisheye, 16-35mm, IS 28-135mm and IS 100-400mm—get a boost from filters, in particular, a circular polarizer. But Muench’s trademark subtle color filtration has fallen somewhat by the wayside more recently.

“I’m using very few filters now,” he says. “The image has to be good on its own. I’ve accumulated about 20 filters for my 4×5 system—split neutral-density, graduated splits, graduated magenta and red, and also the 81 EF, which is a warm gold filter. But I don’t play around much with them other than the polarizer or a CC5R for a specific scene like the red rock country to keep things a little bit on the warm side. But I want the image to be pure at the outset.”

If I hear of a new tree hiding up there somewhere, I’ll definitely go look for it.

One big photographic challenge that comes with bristlecones is capturing their lofty habitat. Says Muench, “It’s so high and clear, generally above 10,000 feet, that often my workshop students are concerned they will get too black a sky when using a polarizer. I’m usually quite excited just with what I see. So I tell them, “If it bothers you, don’t use it at quite so strong an angle.”

Muench is referring to the way choice of sun angle in relation to the lens determines the degree of the polarizing effect.

“After all,” he says, “it’s the lines between, in an image, that we’re drawn to. Our eyes go to the contrast between light and dark or between colors. With a polarizer, in particular, these trees, outlined against the sky, become so much more dramatic. So if the polarizing effect is too strong, I’ll suggest doing the image in black-and-white. In the end, it’s a personal choice.”

One cautionary note: Using a polarizer atop the White Mountains also can accentuate the horizontal atmospheric smog line typically blown up from Los Angeles, hardly the visual element one wants when crafting a timeless moment.

Bristlecone groves and individual trees have been a key part of Muench’s oeuvre since the very beginning.

“There’s one tree, on the edge of a little grove, that has stood for countless centuries,” he recounts. “Although it’s no longer alive, it offers a beautiful isolated image with the Sierras in the background. There’s a lot of space around it, and the slope drops steeply into the Owens Valley below. Hard to find the words for the spiritual quality of that tree.”

Still, after so many years, the question arises: What’s left to explore in these ancients? How does he find fresh things to express with a subject he has rendered so long and so well?

Says Muench, “There are other subjects I don’t feel I’ve yet made the ultimate shot of. With the bristlecones, it’s more like going to Delicate Arch. I go to revisit them.”

Muench acknowledges that he feels a less intense desire to photograph the pines than when he was younger. They have become more like old friends. But he always hopes to make new discoveries. That’s a fundamental component of the creative life.

And there’s a trace of excitement when he confesses that, although bristlecones aren’t the only reason he goes to a particular area to shoot, “If I hear of a new tree hiding up there somewhere, I’ll definitely go look for it. Whenever I find something fresh and new, I’ll bang away at it.”

Although much of his prolific work with the bristlecones was done in the 1970s and ’80s, Muench more recently began adding another time element to his images of the ancients: star trails.

“I worked with star trails at Patriarch Grove,” says Muench. “Many of the bristlecones there are flag trees,” describing how the ancient sentinels, bent and blasted by centuries of extreme weather, mark the direction of the prevailing winds.

Patriarch Grove lives within the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of the White Mountains. The Whites are an arid, lofty range that parallels the granite Sierras of California, separated only by the narrow Owens Valley.

The bristlecones give you space and the sense of distant time.

“Long time-exposure star trails add a cosmic, otherworldly feel to the images,” says Muench. “I’ve made some 35mm star-trail images, primarily in that grove. The spatial thing really happens up there with the very high ones, against that great sky space. You’re tying the very tops of some of this landscape into the sky and space. That’s what gives it that timeless quality. It’s really a sky image, so doing star trails is like pulling the whole universe into the frame. You often have clouds in those high mountain areas. They play a part, too. I like the very late light before sunrise or after sunset.”

There seems to be no end in sight for this photographic juggernaut. Muench’s calendar is full of seminar dates, location workshops and always another book. His latest two publications continue a long partnership with Graphic Arts Center Publishing. One is a state portrait coffee-table volume of New Mexico. Close on its heels comes a new work on an old favorite: Arizona. There’s also a digital photo project involving world heritage sites.

“Other than that, I’m just loafing,” quips Muench.

There was a time not long ago when Muench acknowledged a sense of urgency to complete work still undone in America. Does his recent interest in overseas landscapes mean his majestic renditions of the American scene are nearing an end?

“Oh, no,” he says. “There’s still a lot to do. For instance, I feel bad not doing more in the East. There are many hidden places there I’d like to photograph. Also, like the bristlecones, you go back to a place you think you’ve seen and recorded well, and realize you haven’t really touched it emotionally.”

Since our emotional landscape as human beings is always changing, how we interpret what we encounter in life is ever-shifting as well. That’s a big part of being an artist in the first place—responding to the inner voice.

Says Muench, “There’s always room, a lot of room, to see with a new eye.”

David Muench is 71 years old and still going strong. When asked if he thinks he has another 20 years of shooting left in him, he laughs and says, “More like 30!”

Will he ever retire? The answer is quick and decisive: “No.”

Still, physiology plays its role. “It’s a ‘use it or lose it’ type of thing,” he says. “It’s not so easy for me now, hiking above 10,000 feet to visit one of these ‘old friends.’ I need to build up to it.”

Living at 5,000 feet in New Mexico helps keep him acclimatized. “I still backpack and hike over the passes in the Sierras. I’ll go up there, walk around, huff and puff, puff and huff, mix it up a bit, and see how bad I’m doing. Then I just work through it, get over it.”

In the end, there’s a delicious temptation to regard the bristlecone pine as a simulacrum for David Muench and his storied career. Like the gnarled arms of Methuselah, twisting round and round like a tornado frozen in wood, his images reach for light and warmth in the rarified air, to anchor the high ground for the rest of us.

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