Q&A: David Muench on the Grand Canyon's 'Timeless Moments'

Speaking with David Muench, a talented photographer and longtime contributor to Arizona Highways, tends to get you thinking about long-lived lives.

Muench has truly lived a life, with a landscape photography career spanning more than six decades. It's hard for anyone else to imagine what his treasure chest of photographs looks like, and the memories flooding his mind every time he gazes at one. We spoke with him recently about his newest book, David Muench’s Timeless Moments: Grand Canyon National Park.

Let's give our readers some insight into your background. Where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like?
I was born and grew up in Santa Barbara, [California]. My mother, Joyce, was a botanist, and my father, Josef, was a writer and nature photographer. They were big naturegoers, naturally, and it was through them that I developed my love for nature also. 

I started going hiking and went on road trips with my parents at a young age. Some days were spent along the coast, and others were spent hiking through the Sierra [Nevada] mountains. I went on my first hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon when I was 10.

When we would go out, I would watch my dad photograph these landscapes. And in these moments, I was so captivated by the moods, temperates and lighting in nature. After a while, I knew that I wanted to capture these moments, too.

While I’m sure it’s a long story, we would love to know how you came to have such a successful career in landscape photography.
Well, my father took photos for Arizona Highways, so I knew the former photo editor before [current Photo Editor] Jeff Kida. Anyway, he told me one day, “If you take a decent photo, we’ll publish it.” So I went out and got lucky on my first try. I took a photo of a saguaro cactus and some clouds, and they ended up using it. That was back in the '40s, and I graduated in ’54. I was still young at the time. 

It’s been a way of life for me ever since. I’ve published about about 60 photography books, a handful of them with Arizona Highways. I’ve done a few exhibits, but I mainly like to publicize my work through books.

I intentionally place myself in seasonal settings, too, like times of the day, times of the week, in between day and night. I take into account my geographical setting. The desert is great during sunrise and sunset, but in the rainforest, with cloud coverage, during the day is best.

The whole process has been very spontaneous and intuitive. There’s been very few structured and strict episodes. I did a few advertising jobs early on, but I’ve carved out most of my career with freelancing. You make opportunities for yourself when you follow your creative energy.

Your most recent book is a collection of four decades of Grand Canyon photography. What was the process that brought this beautiful book to fruition?
I’ve spent majority of my time in Arizona. I absolutely love the desert, especially the Grand Canyon. There’s something about it that has captivated me since I first visited it. It doesn’t do justice just standing at a lookout point. Inspiration for this book came from hiking into it. Hikes in the Canyon are demanding and challenging, but you feel connected because you’re absorbing it, and it’s absorbing you. 

And when I think about the moments I’ve spent there — next to the blue river, or exploring the South Rim in winter, or the North Rim in autumn — I’ve always tried to capture that timeless moment. Those are the moments when the light is exceptional, and it could disappear in seconds. I kept going back to chase these moments and continued to build images. After a while, it was a project that needed to be done. And given the quality of photographs these days, it’s been so rewarding.

Why the Grand Canyon?
It’s such a powerful landscape – so impressive and awe-inspiring. I can’t help but gravitate toward it. I like capturing big places such as this and trying to find the details in it.

In your introduction to the book, you mention the phrase “natural connections” and how these moments inspire what kind of photo you will make. Can you describe what “natural connections” are, and how they play into your photography?
It started out by making photos of something close, like a flower or a rock. I would also take photos of the landscape in the distance. Eventually, I wanted to find a way to tie it all together.

So, with the right lens, I was able to capture what was in the foreground and also capture an expansive background, connecting things together. As I kept making images like this, I realized I was also connecting to myself.

I call it this because you are connecting two parts of the landscape, and the way your eyes change and travel to observe a landscape is fascinating. 

Can you tell us a story about one of your craziest adventures when you were photographing the Grand Canyon? Maybe it was a moment when your tripod almost fell over the rim, or your equipment almost took a plunge during a river trip.
I wasn’t in the Canyon at the time, but one time while I was in Patagonia, I accidentally let my tripod slip and fall into the river.

As far as the Canyon goes, nothing too crazy has happened to me, thankfully. I am very connected to my equipment, and I’m not fearless. That has probably saved me numerous times.

It may be a difficult question to answer, but do you have a favorite spot in the Canyon?
I always come back to Toroweap Point. You drive down a dirt road, and sometimes it can be wet, muddy and messy. But once you get settled, you get up early and look down. You get that feeling in your stomach when you look over a cliff and you see the river and the vistas. The area is primitive and gives you a sense of wild. And most importantly, you can hear the delicate sounds of the roaring river below. That’s what I remember most.

What's on the horizon for Mr. Muench?
I’m really looking forward to returning to some of the places I’ve been to, and noticing how I see these places differently. I haven’t been back to Arizona in about a year. There’s always new things to see, or you see things differently after some time, and I can’t wait to see how I respond to these places.

This might be cliché, but when we're photographing these great places, we need to take them with the intention of preserving the place. On social media, things have been lean, and I hope we can come back to nature. I know that sounds corny, but nature is very delicate, yet powerful. We are seeing the powerful side now with the hurricanes — she’s not always the nicest lady. But we can’t just say we will preserve and protect; we need to show up that way, too.

To learn more about David Muench, visit his website. You can order his newest book on Amazon.

— Brianna Cossavella

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