07 Oct In Conversation with Photographer Marc Muench (Part 1 of 2)
Marc Muench is an internationally renowned photographer who has spent his career telling stories in single frames. He is the bearer of a legacy of landscape photography started by his grandfather, Josef Muench, and carried on by his father, David Muench. But from adventure sports to wildlife, Marc’s take on the landscape has been his own. He has eleven book titles to his name and his work has appeared in the pages and on the covers of magazines such as National Geographic, Time, and Outside, to name a few.
In the last decade, Marc has turned his eye toward teaching, leading photography workshops all over the world. We first met on one of these workshops three years ago, and in the years since, Marc and I have become friends. I’ve had the opportunity to travel with him from time to time, most recently returning from a trip to Tombstone Territorial Park in the Canadian Yukon.
Recently, I sat down with Marc at his home to chat about photography, travel, and a possible alien apocalypse. This is the first in a two-part series.
SB: I know a bit about how you got started in photography, but tell me anyway. How did you get started?
MM: I borrowed my dad’s Leica when I was seven, or six, or something, and that was it. It was sitting there in the box and I always wondered: what the heck is he doing with it? So, my first memory was oh, let me try this. And we were somewhere in Arizona or — I don’t know where — somewhere in the summer, and I borrowed it. It was a 21mm lens and the Leica single lens reflex camera. I don’t remember the pictures I took with it, but I remember that.
SB: Your dad is David Muench, the world-renowned landscape photographer, but your mom is also an artist. She’s a painter, right? So, what was it like growing up with two parents who were artists?
MM: That’s why I wanted to go into something different at first. But it was a great influence as I look back on it, of course. My mom had graphics up all over the walls. And the light box was out, and transparencies would be spread across the lightbox, and there were transparencies in piles all over the place that were being sent out to clients. It was just a constant influence of pictures, graphics, and then of course the artistic side, and it became a great influence, but I didn’t know it at the time.
SB: So, you considered doing something else?
MM: I always thought, well, I’ll become a photographer, but when push came to shove, it seemed a little… just like Dad and Grandpa. So, I thought I’d try medicine, and then after a couple biology classes and EMT courses at City College, it was like, wow, there’s a lot of “butt time” with this…. A lot. I didn’t mind the biology. That was fun and exciting, but it was probably not going to be a good choice.
After a year, I ended up going into Photography 1. And [after the first class] this lady comes up and tells me that if I really want to do something different and a little bit more advanced, I should talk to the head of the journalism department. So, I did and that pretty much reshaped everything from then on.
[The head of the department] was a very charismatic, old-style instructor. He had done his journalism program at Columbia and had a whole career in journalism. He lived and breathed journalism. He had all the old students’ pictures up on the wall and he would talk about them every day, and then he would scream and yell at you and throw coffee. And smoke cigarettes while he was doing it.
SB: Just like an old newsroom.
MM: Just like an old newsroom.
It was just the best thing ever.
SB: Did your parents want you to go in a creative direction?
MM: The only time that we really talked about it was when I started looking at where I was going to go after City College. My dad would say, “Well, maybe you should apply to [Pasadena] Art Center [College of Design]. Just see if you can get in.” At the time, they would take portfolios and they turned away quite a few students. Anyway, I got in and I ended up going to Art Center, but he didn’t say, “Oh, you have to be a photographer.” My mom didn’t say that. They just kind of let me go.
SB: There’s a legacy of landscape photography in your family — not just your dad, but also your grandfather, Josef Muench. And you’re known as a landscape photographer, but you took your own path and you’ve done a lot of other things. Do you have a favorite? Or has what you enjoy photographically changed over time?
MM: It’s changed over the years. At first it was capturing people in the landscape. Adventure sports — that was what I loved when I started the career. It could be snow skiing. It could be climbing. And then it evolved into landscapes, probably because I was getting older and the sports were getting more extreme. Then it changed a little bit with the workshops. And then it became wildlife photography. So, I would say right now, the pursuit of landscapes and wildlife in those landscapes is probably my favorite.
If somebody said, “Here’s a grant, Marc, for 10 million dollars. Go do what you want to do.” I would go in pursuit of these great migrations and photograph those and the landscapes around them.
SB: Do you ever get tired of going back to the same location?
MM: No, I haven’t — well, I’m trying to think if there’s a place I wouldn’t want to go back to. Not LAX.
The number one reason I don’t want to go back to a place is because of crowds. A place like that is Yosemite. When I used to go to Yosemite back in the day, it was when a storm front was coming off the Pacific and it was going to snow and that was the time to drive there and be there in the storm and then when it clears. Now, you have to call ahead. It just doesn’t intrigue me anymore, although the spot does. I’d love to photograph Yosemite again. I could spend a month there easily.
SB: That brings up something interesting because you saw a lot of places when you were younger that now are pretty overrun. What have you learned from observing that change over time?
MM: Just how incredibly lucky I was to see it when nobody was there.
SB: There’s something about being alone in wild spaces.
MM: Mm hmm.
SB: Do you think it makes it easier to connect with the subject?
MM: Maybe at extended periods of time, but I think for most of the world — the geology and the botany, for example — you have to go study it. You can’t just be there with it.
SB: But you do also make connections with a place by being there. You have to do that in order to portray it — to tell its story.
MM: Yeah. Absolutely.
SB: So, how do you do that?
MM: In that case, it’s an experience. It could be, for me, a time that the weather changed: phenomenal atmospheric conditions. And when something like that happens and I feel as though I worked for it, then it becomes more special.
If you drop me out of a plane or a helicopter in the middle of some place, it is harder to bond with it. Like in Tombstone [Territorial Park]. That was a perfect example. As fascinating as it was, if you’d hiked in, spent the night, and then hiked out, you would feel far more attached to that place than just being dropped off and picked up.
So, you’re absolutely right. You have to spend time there.
SB: Speaking of that moment when we were helicoptered into the Tombstones: We were each sort of crouched down on one knee, our friend Gordon was there, we were holding down our gear, one hand keeping our hats on our heads as the helicopter took off and left us in this place. And I looked over at you, and you were just grinning.
MM: (Grins) Yeah.
SB: And then I don’t know if you said it out loud and I just couldn’t hear it over the helicopter, but I could read your lips and you said, “Holy shit, you guys.”
What were you thinking at that moment?
MM: It was realizing that it was a find. That it was something so unusual. I didn’t expect it to be that good. And those don’t come around too often. It was a bit of a discovery moment: There’s another place on the planet that I need to spend time at, and it’s amazing.
SB: I’ve seen you get very excited in the field about things.
MM: No. Never.
SB: (Laughs) Throughout your career, have those moments felt the same?
MM: Oh, yeah. You just can’t jump high enough, ‘cause you realize that this is different than the normal day, and whatever conditions are happening, they’re happening in a great spot. I guess the more I learn about the potential failures of that occurring, the more pleased I am that it actually does occur.
SB: What are some of your most memorable experiences? Not the best, but memorable, impactful.
MM: I remember the first night in the [Maasai] Mara in Africa. The day was getting long. We’re coming in and we see this lioness and her two cubs. It was overcast. The sun had not set, though. And we watched this lioness and her two cubs emerge and the cubs were playing around her head — just this magical moment. We sat there watching for a good hour. And then it got dark and I looked to the right and on this hill, there are three giraffes walking across the horizon on the silhouette of the ridge, and I’m going, are you kidding me?! And then this huge cloud starts dropping lightning, so now we’re stopping to photograph the lightning. We were really late for dinner.
And then later, taking my dad up Mt. Hood and summiting at sunrise.
SB: What was that like?
MM: It was amazing. At the top of the route there’s a place where you go through these two rocks, and it had just snowed the day before, so it was completely white, and they call it the Pearly Gates. So, there I was with my dad, going through the Pearly Gates.
That was a lot of fun and a great memory.
SB: Did he enjoy it as much as you did?
MM: He did, I think. Because I went with him. And we’ve had some other climbs like that and summits that we’ve enjoyed together. It seems like a life past of those adventures, and now it’s a different series of adventures with the workshops.
To be continued …
Inspired to travel with your camera? Take a photography workshop with Marc Muench himself! Sail on a Lindblad photography expedition to Antarctica with National Geographic photographers! Or, capture the scenic drama of Patagonia on a photography expedition with Natural Habitat Adventures.
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