© Northern Arizona University, Cline Library
Westward JoeIt's a long way from Bavaria to Monument Valley, but Josef Muench wasn't deterred by the distance. After a short pit stop in Detroit, he bought a Model T and headed west to Arizona, where he became one of the most respected landscape photographers of the 20th Century.
By Kathy Ritchie
If John Wayne were alive today, he'd tell you he "was the guy who found Monument Valley." The truth is, Monument Valley came to Hollywood's attention thanks to former Arizona Highways photographer Josef Muench.
For years, Muench, along with his wife and son, David, traveled across Northern Arizona, photographing places like Monument Valley. Muench became incredibly passionate about the area and the people who inhabited it. "We'd go out there and spend a whole day with a Navajo family, photographing them, spending time with them," says David Muench, himself a longtime photographer for Arizona Highways.
At the time, Monument Valley was mostly undiscovered country, but that was about to change. When trading post owner Harry Goulding found out that Hollywood was looking for a location for an upcoming Western, he collected several of Muench's Monument Valley photographs, drove to California and sold the West to John Ford and United Artists. Ford's movie was Stagecoach, the star was John Wayne, and the rest is history.
It was a milestone in Muench's career, but before Monument Valley and Arizona Highways, there was Detroit. Born in Schweinfurt, Bavaria, in 1904, Muench followed his brother to Michigan when he was in his early 20s. He worked hard, learned English and saved — enough to purchase a Model T and head West. By the time he reached California, Muench was broke, but he persevered. In 1936, he arrived in Arizona and decided that it felt like home.
"I don't know what triggered his connection with Monument Valley," David admits. "His passion — his love of the people — was really a way of life. He just connected with the people, so friendships developed."
Sometime between 1938 and 1939, Muench met Raymond Carlson, the iconic editor of Arizona Highways. Carlson decided to run Muench's photograph of Rainbow Bridge National Monument, and for the next 50 years until his death, Josef served as a contributing photographer to the magazine. Today, David and his son Marc are regular contributors to Arizona Highways.