A plume of warm human breath billows above the frozen ice fields of the Alaskan wilderness. Award-winning New Mexico-based photographer David Muench lugs his heavy 4”x5” large format camera through this primordial landscape, his eyes carefully tracking the ever-shifting light. Then it happens: A salmon-colored alpenglow illuminates the imposing peak of Mount Saint Elias, which towers above purplish-black glaciers. Muench triggers the shutter to capture this fleeting instance, a landscape equivalent of what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson referred to as “the decisive moment.” For Muench, this means imagining “spontaneous moments of fantastic light.”
David Muench’s National Parks captures many such decisive moments at 54 of America’s diverse national parks. Muench and co-author Ruth Rudner will display and discuss this new collection of photographs and essays at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande NW) on Saturday, Nov. 16. at 3pm. The work is a celebration of our national parks and an urgent call to protect them. Muench refers to himself as “a landscape photographer who has photographed what once was, and will never be again.” Much of the pristine wilderness he captured decades ago now shows the scars of our presence: roads, power lines, signage, mining installations, cellphone towers and light pollution.
Viewed through this lens, the landscapes in Muench’s new collection depict a rapidly vanishing world burdened by the prospect of its future destruction. The images summon us to our own decisive moment: If we waver in our commitment to fund and protect our national parks, future generations will experience them only through photographs like Muench’s.
Why save our wilderness? Rudner gives us one answer: “It’s a place that allows me to feel my connection to the earth and everything that’s in it.” But what about those of us who would rather be clinking cocktails than clamoring up a steep slope? The late author Edward Abbey reminds us that the preservation of wilderness is just as important for resolute city-dwellers: “We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it,” he writes in Desert Solitaire. “We need a refuge even though we may not ever need to go there.” Just knowing that this refuge exists can soothe the modern psyche, which is increasingly hemmed in by strip malls and urban sprawl.
Muench’s landscapes and Rudner’s accompanying essays beckon us back to the natural world; sumptuous colors and textures invite us to become intimate with sand and sky, stream and stone. By framing a foreground element—fireweed, bear grass, caribou antlers, a crescent-shaped glacial fragment—Muench’s photographs allow the eye to effortlessly journey into the sprawling wilderness looming in the background. We’re meant to inhabit these spaces, not just view them. The images give us a bridge back to what Abbey calls “the only paradise we ever need—if only we had the eyes to see.”
Christopher Guider holds a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature and has published numerous articles on the relationship between memory, place and photography in twentieth-century works of literature.