Way back in 1990 when I was 22, during my college days at Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara CA, I had the chance to photograph Josef Muench at the tender age of 85 – father of David, grandfather to Mark – all great photographers in their own right, David probably being the most famous of the three.  

Josef was a landscape pioneer, many of his images gracing the pages of Arizona Highways for much of the 1940s and 1950s.  To my understanding, he worked for the magazine for roughly 50 years, and his stunning landscape images (shot with his 4×5 camera in 1936) helped place Monument Valley on the map.  He returned hundreds of times and to many, his views are some of the most memorable photographs ever taken of this southwest location.  He went on to capture images around the world, in Africa, Alaska, Asia, Canada, Colorado, Europe, and Hawaii.  Even the unmanned Voyager Expeditions, launched in 1977, included one of his photos (in a group of 117 images of Earth’s landscapes) – a snow-covered Sequoia redwood taken in Kings Canyon National Park.

Born in Germany in 1904, some say Josef once threw a tomato at Adolf Hitler, hitting him in the face.  I couldn’t verify this, but he sounded like my kinda guy.  While writing this post, I was able to find a nice quote online, Josef talking about the deserts of the Southwest: “When I first saw the desert I liked it. It was new and different. It immediately took on a meaning to me. I had heard it was barren. It isn’t. A little cactus–so delicate and beautiful, can hide from you. You have to go slowly, and look carefully.”

I can’t recall how I found his information when I was in college, but when I contacted him to fill one of my school assignments, he was kind enough to schedule a time, welcomed me into his home, sat patiently while I set up my 4×5 view camera, and allowed me to capture this portrait, even giving his suggestions on how he might pose.  


Portrait of Josef Muench, Santa Barbara, California – © Sean Arbabi | seanarbabi.com

We talked for a bit about photography, and although I wasn’t old enough to really interview him the way I would today, I knew I was with an old photographic soul, so I attempted to soak up his words of wisdom during our brief time together.  Ironically we shared the same age (11) when we received our first cameras, and now I’ve had the chance to photograph some of the places he visited (although oddly enough, I’ve traveled all through the Southwest but never been to Monument Valley and have had the desire for years).

He past away in 1998 at the age of 94, but his images live on- just Google his name (Josef with an “f”) to review some of his work.  May I be so lucky as to live as long as he did, viewing the world through photographic eyes.


9/11 plus 8

Today, on the eighth anniversary of 9/11, many channels ran specials, some of which I DVR’ed. After watching one tonight, taped in 2002, interviewing photographers who captured images that day, watching unbelievable images documented that day, I felt compelled to write something – if not to honor the people who suffered and died on that day (and in the subsequent years in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan),but at least to share what it’s reminded me of.

As so many of us were, the attacks, chaos, and destruction that ensued from that day impacted my life profoundly. Although I was back in the Bay Area from a recent trip, I found myself depressed for weeks and months by all the events that occurred- it was weird since I’d never experienced that- to be moved and affected by something that happened 3000 miles away.

I look at America eight years later and wonder if we’ve changed for the better. Politically in many ways we have, but in other ways with the infighting, greed, the lack of finding common ground, the pursuit of arguing to win instead of fighting for what’s wrong or right, and the push to merge church and state by some shows me that we haven’t. And although massive greed almost killed the economic machine that allows us to live so freely and comfortably as compared to other countries, even that didn’t stop business-as-usual for the ones who feel their place in this world is based on their bank balance instead of their character. Even Plato understood this when he wrote “All the gold which under or upon the Earth is not enough to give in exchange for virtue”, and he lived almost 2500 years ago.

To top it off, we still seem to care about crazy reality couples who’ve become famous by having too many children, and buy the ridiculous magazines to read the gossip and support this behavior, instead of finding medical care for so many underprivileged children in this Nation. In this still rich Nation.

So these were the things I was reminded of today as a photographer who has traveled the world. September 11th, 2009 gave me the chance again to honor the fallen Americans, but also reminded me that this Nation was formed, compiled, created by people of all nations – and that all nationalities were changed, were moved, were killed.

On September 7th, 2001, I took the NY Subway to the World Trade Center and walked through the lobby for the first time; an Iranian-American with my Italian-Beliguim journalist friend ending our week of work in NYC. Four days later the world changed for so many lives. Eight years later it continues to affect Americans – Americans who came together from every corner of the world.


Nevada 50

Old West Highway, desolate road, traveled one summer week,
Blue sky days, sagebrush seas, mirages from asphalt heat

Mining towns far apart, dreams of prosperity gone so fast,
Jets thunder over petroglyphs, native hunters present and past

Countless characters with tall tales, life engraved throughout their face,
From Austin, Stagecoach, Middlegate, Cold Springs, & Majors Place

I drive the waves of mountain ranges, ridgelines of Pinõn pine,
The type of scenery to help the thoughts depart a cluttered mind

This desert is often branded as a vast and wasted land,
I see its stark and wild beauty touched by a higher hand

2002 poem by Sean Arbabi while on assignment capturing Nevada’s desolate Highway 50