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.