As photographers, I think we reach others not just by building a sterile inventory of detail, but by seeking pristine and primal light and using it to the landscape’s advantage. We’re after something more than simple reality. We also want to help viewers connect with the spiritual essence of the natural world. To me, that comes down to one idea: the sacred.
My name is David Muench. I’ve been photographing the landscape for about 50 years. In my years of pilgrimage to the great places, I’ve sought the earth’s sacred spirit, whether after a long climb on foot to one of my favorite “top rock” mountain peaks or wandering down a pristine slot canyon, feeling the compressing sensuality of red rock sculpture all around me. Always, I’ve listened, with all my faculties, to the earth, to the sky, to become more attuned to the voice of our Earth Mother.
I consider myself a poet of the landscape. I’m an ancient child, returning to the Source whenever I can. I try not to rely on specific techniques or frivolous things to get there. I just arrive—and open up.
You could call it a spirit-to-spirit dialogue or eavesdropping on the eternal. It’s listening to a whisper of wind or hearing an inner voice that says, “Forget the next planned stop. Go up that ridge ahead; something’s there.”
I’ve had many such moments in the field over the years. They often have led to treasured photographs I never would have made—if I hadn’t learned how to be still inside, and listen.
Recently, I climbed Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii. In sheer mass, it’s the world’s largest mountain if you start from its submerged base far beneath the Pacific.
I felt overwhelmed by the mountain’s perspective and dimension. It’s scary. It’s profoundly dramatic. I worked my way up the immense, seemingly infinite slope at the edge of darkness and predawn light.
After a while, I felt that I wasn’t just on another mountain, but on another planet. No matter where I looked, I saw slope, and sky. The volcanic incline just rises and rises. Climbing through the climate bands from the tropical up to the dry/cold/thin air at the nearly 14,000-foot summit, you can’t help but respond to its might. You’re suspended between earth and sky, an amazed witness to the changing of the guard at sunrise, at moonset, at sunset.
When you let all that raw power inside you, it’s dramatic. The camera work plays second fiddle to the surprise of it, the power and majesty of it.
Aldo Leopold, father of the national forest wilderness system, once titled a book chapter “Thinking Like a Mountain.” I love that phrase. It makes me feel I belong to the land.
On Mauna Loa, I found myself thinking like the mountain. I had to. What, I wondered, does it want from me? How can I be of service to this wonderful place? Because the visual was nothing like I had expected. I was on top of it, in the middle of it, completely respecting it and way beyond merely using it as something to capture on film.
I also find important the American Indian’s traditional respect for the earth—and all that exists upon it. By sensing that every plant, rock, cloud, tree, stream and mountain has its own sacred quality, our images become so much more.
So, in these sacred places, you give them time. You invite them inside you. You feel their insistence on existence in your heart. It’s an important process for creating.
Indians have a phrase for it: to walk in someone else’s moccasins. In places like Mauna Loa, you walk in the land, and it walks inside you.
Let your subject have the space it needs. You spent all the hard work and planning and money and desire to get there. Now just stop.
Put your ego and purpose aside.
Feel the earth.
Respect everything that comes to you—an urge, an impulse, a sense of the magical. Then start photographing.
If you can do that every time you go out, even for just a little while, you’ll find the sacred spirit in the land.
David Muench’s youthful vigor and spirit have evolved his mastery with the 4×5 view camera to include 35mm film and, most recently, digital SLR shooting of which he says, “I feel I’m doing some of my best work right now.” Over the course of some five decades, his work has been celebrated in more than 50 exhibit-format books such as Plateau Light and Eternal Desert, as well as innumerable exhibits and permanent installations. See more of his images at www.muenchphotography.com.