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

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.

A keyhole perspective in White Canyon, Utah.

As David’s work became totally ubiquitous in the books, magazines and calendars of the 1970s and beyond, his other revolutionary contributions to outdoor photography were on full display and included his mastery of color, using backlighting in many images, eschewing bald blue sky days for stormy and dramatic weather, and creating compositions of tight clarity. It soon became easy for editors to spot a David Muench 4×5 transparency on the light table where it stood out clearly from his competitors.

At the same time, a whole generation of Baby Boom photographers, a decade younger than David and raised like him in American national parks, began to notice this new way of expressing their love of the natural world. Did we copy David? The short answer is yes. Certainly, he was the major inspiration for all of us. In my case, living in the small town of Moab, Utah, without a mentor or a teacher, obsessively studying the work of David Muench, Eliot Porter and Philip Hyde was my photography college. People like me, Larry Ulrich, John Fielder, Jack Dykinga, Willard Clay and dozens of others took up the 4×5 camera because of him.

Keeping up with David was a challenge. No one worked harder and spent more days in the field, although many tried. He climbed every mountain and hiked every canyon, creating a body of work that most likely never will be matched in size, quality and scope. Not content to shoot just in the West, David traveled and worked extensively east of the Rockies in the Appalachians, the Heartland, the South and New England throughout his career.

And there was no question where David came down on environmental issues. Like Adams and Hyde, he made his imagery available to environmental groups whenever asked, and his written statements deftly express his concern for and dedication to preserve what he was shooting.

This spring, I was lucky to be in the audience for a day-long presentation by David in Salt Lake City. It was his first speaking engagement in the state that he had captured so well both on film and digitally over the decades. Seeing his 4×5 images on a big screen and hearing his stories was the glimpse behind the curtain that inspired everyone in the audience. With great humility and humor, David talked about the subjects he loves: bristlecone pines, rock art, toprock of soaring peaks and narrow slot canyon defiles. Approachable and friendly, if David comes near your city, his program is not to be missed.

It occurred to me that perhaps no American has ever greeted the sunrise and sunset pouring over our country’s landscape more often than David Muench. A rough estimate might be over 15,000 such sessions, with the 4×5 Linhof Master Technika standing tall beside him and the stack of film holders ripe with the possibility of captured beauty at his feet. Tutored by nature, this lone figure, the American individualist as artist, is our greatest living landscape photographer.

See more of David Muench’s photography at www.muenchphotography.com. You can see more of Tom Till‘s photography at www.tomtill.com.

What I Learned From David Muench

1 Look for the very best foreground you can find for a wide-angle image. This may mean scouring a site for hours to find the perfect patch of lichen, clump of flowers or evocative pool of reflection water.

2 “Bad weather means good photos” is a mantra David repeats often. It’s one of his great contributions to the art. Before him, with the exception of Adams, most photographers wanted to please editors with Paul Simon “all the world’s a sunny day” images.

3 The job of a landscape photographer requires vast amounts of time and planning. In his book about the Sierra Nevada, David says that no photographer can appear at a site at a random time on a random day and expect good results.

4 Somehow, when you have enough images, get them in a book. Whether it’s ebooks or paper, books are essential artifacts of your work and essential to building a career.

5 Work hard at getting a new take on an oft-photographed subject. Use the weather, the moon, clouds, foregrounds and unusual vantage points.

6 Include more than one point of interest in your images—this can be a reflection, a great foreground, an expanded color palette, a backlit sun star or some subtle, but beautiful detail others may walk past.

7 Visit a good location countless times. All great gestures of the Earth’s landscape are in constant flux. Visiting them often always provides a new opportunity and a new way of seeing the many facets of their beauty.

8 Bracket your compositions. Now an easy task with digital, David constantly worked this way with 4×5 film. Over the years, I would notice many different scenarios of one shooting session, all different and all good.

9 Pay it forward with your images by making them available to environmental groups, local, national and international. Protecting what we shoot is more important than our imagery and careers.

10 Work under the tutorship of nature. No university or workshop teaches us all we need to know as nature and landscape photographers. Only hours in the field with an open heart can do that job.