11 Oct In Conversation with Photographer Marc Muench (Part 2 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, recently returning from a trip to photograph polar bears in Svalbard, Norway.
Recently, I sat down with Marc at his home to chat about photography, travel, and a possible alien apocalypse. This is the second in a two-part series; you can read Part 1 here.
SB: Has your definition of adventure evolved over the years?
MM: Yes. No longer am I hoping that the avalanche doesn’t kill me. I’m just hoping that the polar bear doesn’t kill me.
SB: Well, talk about favorite experiences! That was one of mine — the first time seeing those guys in the wild earlier this summer. That was just cool.
MM: That was. It was just the coolest thing ever. And you understand all the circumstances that made that happen and how unusual it was, especially for you because you didn’t even plan to go on the trip!
SB: No, I didn’t.
MM: And there you were all of a sudden—
SB: Shiny new parka and—
MM & SB: (In unison) 500 mm lens!
MM: See how that stuff happens?! Did I tell you about the Greenland polar bear?
SB: No, you didn’t.
MM: We’re out in Greenland and we’ve been up all night photographing this moonrise over these icebergs and it was just a fascinating night. And we’re just standing there drinking our weak coffee and I look off the bow on the starboard side and there’s some pack ice and I say, “Look at that pack ice, we should be looking for polar bears.” And literally 30 seconds later I go, “hmm look at that brown spot.” I grab the glasses and there’s a polar bear. And so, we got this great shot of a polar bear. And it was on top of the night before and everything else on that trip. It was the best thing since sliced bread.
S: Well, that’s because nature really does just show up for you.
MM: Well, no. It’s just… I think… Uh, yeah. I’ve had some good luck.
MM: It kind of pisses off my dad, he tells me.
SB: We’re joking about the luck you have, but you do see things that other people don’t see. And it’s not just spotting the polar bear in the field. I’ve watched you look at someone’s image and all of a sudden, you’re cropping, and then you’re cropping again, and again, and you find seven other photos within the photo. How can people get better at seeing that?
MM: Put your 10,000 hours into observing. Because I did. I probably put in 30,000, when you add up all the time that I looked at my dad’s pictures, my own pictures, and now other people’s pictures. I don’t know how many hours it is, but it’s way over 10,000.
By the time I got into college, I had seen all of my dad’s pictures — all one million of them at the time. And then I went off to college and created all these journalistic photos for two years, and then I went to two more years of college and created more artistic, architectural, commercial shots, and then I started a commercial career and I took all those pictures. And I’m going through the list of all the things I did over the years that were just nothing but looking at pictures.
The more you look at them, the more you realize what’s wrong with them. And then you’re just that much more efficient at picking out the good parts. That’s what I attribute it to.
SB: You made the transition from commercial work to teaching about ten years ago. You, Andy Williams, and David Rosenthal started Muench Workshops. What has surprised you about that experience?
MM: It surprised me that it’s lasted 10 years and is still growing. When I stopped the career in stock commercial photography, the income was going up. And so, I figured, why would that stop? [I thought] I’d be fine for another 20 or 30 years. But [stock sales] went down 80%. And you learn a lesson in life, which is that you just can’t expect things to work. So, over the last 10 years, we’ve put in the time and effort and people have responded. That was a pleasant surprise.
SB: And what about the teaching itself?
MM: That’s been a pleasant surprise as well — how much I enjoy it. I started meeting very interested people, very intelligent people — lawyers, doctors, [people from] all walks of life — and they didn’t want to just learn aperture. I took that on as a challenge. Because you’ve got to know [the technical stuff] and you’ve got to be able to teach it, but what intrigues me more is composition and the creative side. I’m still learning to teach that.
SB: What advice would you give people who want to become better photographers aside from putting in their time?
MM: Can they still put in their time, though?
SB: Yes, Marc, they can still put in their time. I’m saying in addition to putting in their time.
MM: While they’re putting in their time, (both laugh) they should be learning every single feature of the camera. Because just going through what the settings are isn’t enough. They’ve got to practice using those settings and in doing just that, they’ll learn a lot about photography.
SB: And beyond the technical?
MM: Study photographers. Start there. Go to the photo shows at the museums. Pull out the old [National] Geographic if you like that kind of work, and look through all the bylines and find the pieces that you like and then go see if [the photographer] is still alive and photographing, and see what they’re doing. You can do the same with Life magazine. That was a great one. There’s just so much there, it’s unbelievable.
SB: Let’s talk a bit more about travel. I read this interesting piece recently by Pico Iyer. In it, he writes that it’s great that more and more people are traveling and seeing the world, but he worries that travel will become something of a tasting menu — more about getting the selfie in that place and checking something off of a list, and less about being uncomfortable in a space and figuring out what you can learn from that experience. Is there something to that? Is there something to getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and what that opens you up to?
MM: Oh, absolutely. You really have to understand that there are necessities when you’re traveling, but outside of those, you’ve got to be able to be uncomfortable, just like you said. Because there are times that things just don’t work out, so you roll with the punches. And you’ve figured that out. Is it a personality trait? Yes, I think it is.
SB: I know for me, a lot of my ability to be uncomfortable when I travel came from traveling as a kid. For me it was India, and for you—
MM: It was a camper for a month and a half every summer. And it wasn’t a big camper. There was a little bunk and my sister and I would sleep in that, and my parents were right below us. It was probably those experiences that taught me how to appreciate the good hotel when it came and not just expect that every night. If I had grown up in that nice hotel every night, I wouldn’t be the way I am.
Some of the better workshop moments are seeing people that have obviously grown up that way. Not so much that they’re privileged, but they have not experienced the wilderness. They have not experienced being uncomfortable and all of a sudden, they are uncomfortable. And they melt down. But seeing the metamorphosis of them realizing what just happened — that they just survived something that they thought would kill them, and that they have the inner strength to do that — those are some of the better moments in workshops: giving people experiences that they wouldn’t otherwise have, through photography.
SB: So, what’s a place you haven’t been yet that you want to go and photograph?
MM: The Atacama Desert.
You know what’s interesting though, I was looking at pictures of the Atacama and I don’t see that many good ones. I really don’t. So, at first, I wasn’t that intrigued. But I know there is stuff there. It’s like Death Valley. For a long time, there weren’t pictures of Death Valley that were any good. I’m sure it’s going to be amazing and that’s the part that’s so hard to convey to someone, typically, who’s learning photography, but who’s also kind of a trophy hunter: The best pictures are the ones you didn’t expect — the ones you find. And if I’m looking at things in that context, [I want to photograph] the whole freakin’ world.
I’m in trouble.
SB: But what’s the point? We go to these beautiful places and try to make beautiful images. Is that it? Is there more to it than that?
MM: Ideally, we all want our work to make some difference, right? So that would be great. And my grandfather’s image of the General Grant Tree is on a spacecraft hurtling through space, so his image maybe will make a difference to some alien dude sitting on an alien beach who’s going to go, “Wow, look at that tree!” and will maybe come over here.
SB: So, when the alien apocalypse arrives, we can blame your grandfather?
MM: You can blame him. It is his fault. And I told you about the Hitler story, right?
SB: I don’t know. I feel like I would remember “the Hitler story.”
MM: So, it’s written in Life magazine. My grandfather was living in Germany and while Hitler was just coming into power and politicking, he came through [my grandfather’s] town. And my grandfather was hiding and he threw a tomato at Hitler and it hit the sign next to him and it splattered on him.
SB: Wait. What?!
MM: That’s the story. And so [my grandfather] came to the States because his friend said, you better get out of Dodge, man. He came to the States and he stayed.
SB: That’s an awesome story.
MM: (Laughs) So, then he takes a picture of a tree and it’s going into outer space! The dude was amazing! I really wish I knew him more. But, what’s it all worth? Well, I doubt he knew that was going to happen. So, you never know.
I think in the end, it’s more about meeting people. You’re going to look for pictures and, ideally, you’re going to make a difference with your pictures. It might influence people to do something differently, hopefully for the better, but you don’t know. But while you’re doing that, you’re going to meet people who will turn around and tell you a story about something that will change your life. And the whole story evolves around those personal connections, probably more, for most of us, than the pictures we create. I think that would be the meaning of it all….
And a few good prints on the wall.
Inspired to explore?
– Visit the “Crown of the Continent” with Off the Beaten Path to visit Glacier National Park, with accommodations at the shimmering St. Mary Lake of Marc’s photograph, above.
– Put in your time with the camera! Take 11 days of your summer to sail, raft, kayak, hike – and yes, photograph – Alaska’s Inside Passage alongside National Geographic photographer Rich Reid on a Lindblad Expeditions tour.
– Check out photographer Court Whelan’s guide to photographing polar bears on The Natural Photographer blog. Then, photograph polar bears on the open tundra alongside naturalists and professional photographers on Natural Habitat Adventures’ Tundra Lodge Photo Tour in Churchill.
– And, of course, you can always take a photography workshop with Marc Muench himself!
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