Unknown Arch

Under our noses, a chance to make a statement—and a difference

David Muench’s “unknown arch” frames Mt. Whitney and the eastern Sierra Nevada in California.
[At OP we made a mistake when we originally ran this column and this image. The column originally showed Mobius Arch which, of course, is very well known indeed. We have corrected the error on the website and you can now see the image David Muench intended for us to run. I would like personally to extend apologies to David Muench for this mistake. -Christopher Robinson, Editor]

It almost looks like two rocks kissing. Or an elephant trunk. I found this granite arch in the 1970s purely by accident. No one had ever photographed it. Few have since. There’s no trail to it. And although I’ve gone back many times, it’s always a challenge to find it.

I love arches. They make amazing natural connections between near and far features in the landscape. And this one, in the Alabama Hills below the spectacular granite peaks of the eastern Sierra Nevada Range, is striking. It allows me to frame distant Mt. Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet, and other “Top Rock” within its graceful arc of eroded stone.

The eastern Sierra is my favorite place in the world. I first came here in childhood. My mother Joyce and father Josef Muench introduced me to the area in the 1940s and 1950s. Most Americans know this landscape intimately, although not by name. Hundreds of films and TV programs, commercials and magazine ads have been shot here since the 1920s. The names form part of our cultural bedrock: Gene Autry, Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger; Gunga Din, How the West Was Won, Maverick.

For high drama, you can’t beat the contrast of sharp-spired granite peaks soaring behind this rounded jumble of wind-, sand- and water-worn granite forms. When I first photographed this arch, I faced depth-of-field challenges. To hold focus from the arch all the way to Mt. Whitney, I needed to set the lens aperture on my 4×5 view camera to ƒ/64 or ƒ/90.

I recently returned—with a Panasonic Lumix FZ50. And I got a surprise: This little “nonprofessional” digital sensor, which most pros and workshop attendees wouldn’t take seriously, allows me to hold that same amazing depth of field—at ƒ/9 or ƒ/11! I made many new images with the Lumix in winter dawn light. Snow capped the Sierras and arches (there are other arches here, with names like Moebius and Triple Arch). But “my” arch doesn’t have a name—yet. For now, I want to keep it that way until I know it’s protected. Otherwise, it could be inundated and damaged by visitors. The Alabama Hills flank Highway 395, which shuttles thousands of skiers back and forth from Los Angeles to Mammoth Mountain. Backpackers, campers and sightseers also flock here in summer. There are trails for hiking—but also for ATVs and motorbikes—in the area, which is BLM-regulated.

I’m talking about the Hills because we photographers have a unique opportunity to help make history here, to make a difference for our children and future generations. We can protect the Alabama Hills from being overrun and prevent the hundreds of arches from being trampled. In 2007, I contacted California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office and proposed an Alabama Hills National Monument. James Peterson in the Senator’s office has since worked closely with the Alabama Hills Stewardship Group, an active organization that includes local citizens, businesspeople and Inyo County Board of Supervisors members. The group is crafting a “designation” for the area that works for all concerned—not National Monument status, which they feel gives too much control to the BLM, but some protection to encourage tourist dollars to continue flowing into the area, while also protecting it from overuse and abuse.

Meanwhile, I’ve worked with Kevin Mazzu of the Stewardship Group and David Kirk of the BLM to urge that arches and other granite forms be protected within the final designation. Whatever the final decree, which is coming soon—perhaps this year—we photographers can be an important part of the process.

There’s a key term at play here: the word “stakeholders.” The Stewardship Group and BLM keep a running tally of Alabama Hills visitors, right down to the percentages of each group. “Stakeholders” include hikers, bikers, horseback riders, American Indian tribes, local businesses, mining interests—and photographers. We can be counted and heard. One way is to visit the area. Let it be known you want it protected.

There are regular meetings of the Stewardship Group in nearby Lone Pine. If ever there was a time to be seen and heard, this is it. We can contact key people. I’ve added some contacts here. We’ve had opportunities to protect our sacred lands in the past, such as Kings Canyon National Park, which came about through grass-roots activism inspired at least, in part, by Ansel Adams’ photography. We have one again, right now—in the wonderful, unique Alabama Hills. I urge you to join me and be a part of history.


Alabama Hills Stewardship Group, Kevin Mazzu
BLM, David Kirk
[email protected]
BLM, The Alabama Hills
BLM, The Alabama Hills, Advisory Council Update

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.