Transcendental reactions – how aviation and photography work together

12 questions for aviation photographer Russ Munson

Russell Munson is one of aviation’s most celebrated photographers, contributing to Richard Bach’s classic book Jonathan Livingston Seagull and dozens of cover photos for Flying magazine. More than just a photographer, Munson holds a Commercial Pilot License, with Instrument, and Multi-engine ratings, and owned his beloved 1962 Piper Super Cub for over 35 years. We asked him about photography, airplanes and what happens when the two come together.

Which came first: your love of flying or your love of photography?

The very thought of flight came first. I had, as a child, and still have now and then, dreams about being able to fly with my own body. They are like movies playing in my head, images unreeling of swooping low and landing in a tree, for example. Flight captured my imagination, and I have always had a reverence for the machines that allowed mere mortals like me to fly and see the world as a creature of the sky.

Russell Munson
Russell Munson has made a career out of airplanes and photography.

When I was a twelve year old boy in Denver, I regularly rode my bike to the several airports around town ranging from an oiled dirt strip at Vest Aircraft and Finance out on Colorado Blvd., to Stapleton Field, Sky Ranch, and to Lowry Air Force Base and Buckley Naval Air Station on Armed Forces Day. Even then, I wanted to document everything I saw.

My father taught me to use the family folding Kodak camera to take with me. If I took airplane pictures on a Saturday and got the film to the drugstore right away for processing, I could get the deckle-edged prints back by Wednesday after school. It was always with great anticipation to tear open the envelope of negatives and prints right there in the drugstore to see what I got.

My mother gave me a wood 3×5 card file box to store the wallet sized prints alphabetized by manufacturer: Aero Design, Aeronca, Beechcraft, Bellanca, Boeing, Call-Air, Cessna, Chance Vought, Convair, Curtiss, Douglas, Erco, Fairchild, Grumman, Lockheed, McDonnell, Martin, North American, Northrop, Piasecki, Piper, Rearwin, Republic, Ryan, Sikorsky, Stearman, Stinson, Temco; the names still echo with me. Most of those companies were named after their founders, men who dared to make their dreams come true. That resonated with me, and my dreams.

Before long, my interest in photography as a means of documenting airplanes expanded to seeing it as a means of self-expression and an art form. I began photographing people and landscapes. It was like learning to speak for the first time. By the time I was fourteen, I knew that photography was my life.

The way you and Richard Bach came together to create Johnathan Livingston Seagull is a fascinating story. Can you share that with us?

In 1963 after my Army service, I was accepted for a teaching fellowship in photography at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. My job was to spend half my time teaching, and the other half photographing a project of my choosing. For no logical reason or goal in mind, I had an irresistible desire to photograph seagulls, which I did.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull
A book that became a phenomenon.

After my year-long fellowship, I came back to New York City and started my own business in advertising and magazine photography. Having no foreseeable use, my hundreds of seagull pictures were stored in a box in my studio. Richard Bach, in the meantime, had been writing what would become Jonathan Livingston Seagull. We had not met nor heard of each other, but by the late 60s, I had become a great admirer of his aviation books and articles. His penetrating, evocative, very personal writing put into words exactly how I felt about flying.

I began corresponding with him, and then with a mutual friend flew my Super Cub from New York to Ottumwa, Iowa, in 1968, where Richard was living at the time to meet him. We became friends, barnstormed together, and collaborated on aviation articles. In 1969 he came to New York to meet an editor at Macmillan Publishing, Eleanor Friede, to discuss his manuscript of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Richard at that time could not afford a hotel room, and so slept in a sleeping bag on my studio floor at 6 East 39th Street. After meeting with Eleanor, he returned to the studio saying that she liked the story, but it needed illustrations. I remembered my seagull pictures, pulled out the box, and asked him if photographs would work.

He took them to her the next day; she thought they were perfect, and the book was born. About half the pictures in the original book were made during my teaching fellowship, and the other half I took in 1969 to fill in more completely with the manuscript. Using photographs to illustrate the story rather than paintings or drawings made it seem more real.

But that’s not the end of the “coincidences.”

In 2012, I again began photographing seagulls again from a compulsion as strong as the first time almost 50 years earlier. Again there was no specific purpose in mind other than perhaps possible use in a future JLS website. Not long after, however, Richard’s wife, Sabryna, was going through old boxes of his stuff, and came across a faded, typewritten manuscript of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Part Four. The original JLS was divided into only three parts. She thought it was important, and showed it to Richard who remembered that he had written it at the same time as the rest of the story, but decided back then not to include it in the original book.

Richard sent the newly found Part Four it to me asking what I thought. My first impression was not to mess with what was already a classic. But after reading Part Four a couple of times it was clear to me and everyone else who read it that this was the perfect ending for the book, and by chance the photographs I had been taking were fitting very nicely with the text. I shot more to complete Part Four, and the “Complete Edition” of Jonathan Livingston Seagull “including the rediscovered Part Four” was published by Scribner in the fall of 2014.

For younger readers who were not around when Jonathan Livingston Seagull was first published, can you explain why it was such a phenomenon? When did you and Richard Bach realize the book was going to be big?

The book touched readers deeply who identified in their hearts with Jonathan’s spiritual pursuit of freedom and perfection as being the most important thing in life, and who were inspired by Jonathan’s belief that we don’t have to blindly follow the accepted norms of limitations and mediocrity which inhibit us from reaching for the highest sense of who we truly are. Jonathan’s story encouraged readers to seek the very best that is within us all. It was a labor of love for me, because I believed in Jonathan’s story as so beautifully painted by Richard’s words.

Neither Richard nor I had any idea that it would make publishing history. We just both believed in it, and would have been happy if it sold out the first printing. Sales began slowly, then the pace quickened, and by the end of the first year skyrocketed. That was when we realized it was big. It was a total but very pleasant surprise. I’m not sure exactly how many copies have been sold worldwide, but we’ve been told it is more than 40 million. Both the original edition and the new edition remain in print.

Explain your love affair with Cubs.

I learned to fly in an ex-Army PA-18-125 Super Cub in the Ft. Leavenworth Army Flying Club. That was in 1962 when I was stationed at Ft. Leavenworth as a 2nd Lieutenant working at the Army Command and General Staff College. At the age of 14, I had saved up enough money from my paper route in Denver to take flying lessons, but my parents wouldn’t let me.

Aviat Husky
Russell Munson’s Aviat Husky – a worthy replacement for his beloved Super Cub.

Ten years later, I had my chance at Ft. Leavenworth. But I debated with myself a couple of weeks before joining the club. I’d go out to the flight line at Sherman Army Air Field, and walk around the club Super Cub, bending down to look in the cockpit with my hand cupped against the plexiglass to block the reflections, and thinking: this is a mighty small and pretty minimal airplane. Not much there but two tandem seats and a few basic instruments. Do I really want to do this? Yes, I did.

I remember the first flight with my instructor, Earl Irish. We taxied out to the runway, and Earl opened the throttle from the rear seat with me following him on the controls in front. The little Cub, quiet ‘til then, roared, vibrated, and levitated. I was thrilled, and thought, minimal airplane or not, this is just damn wonderful. The Super Cub is like an aerial Jeep with all the advantages and disadvantages of that kind of vehicle—slow, not overly comfortable, but it could go in and out of anywhere. I loved it. That little airplane gave me the sky.

Out of the Army and in my own business five years later I bought a used 150 hp Super Cub and flew it all over the country for 37 years. We had wonderful adventures together, landing at big airports as well as hayfields in Iowa, on skis in Vermont, dry lake beds in Nevada, and gravel roads in Canada. It was like an eager puppy wagging its tail, ready for the next romp. I now fly an Aviat Husky, an equally fine airplane, and better in some ways, but the Piper Super Cub will always have a place deep in my heart. We grew up together, and it never let me down.

You have a DVD about flying Route 66. What inspired you to take on this project? What’s your fondest memory from that experience?

Route 66 the highway is a glorious, dynamic, totally American symbol of freedom: the open road. It became famous in the 30s during the depression when farms in the Midwest were foreclosed, crops were destroyed in the dust bowl, and life as they had known it came to a sudden stop for thousands of people. Many piled their belongings into old cars and headed west on Route 66 in search of a new life. The “Mother Road,” as John Steinbeck called it in The Grapes of Wrath, became the symbol of hope, and the pathway to a fresh start.

Route 66 with Cub shadow

I loved the image that this stretch of asphalt ranging from Chicago to Santa Monica provided an exit for people who needed to be somewhere else, or anywhere else. Over the years I had flown my Super Cub over portions of the route several times while flying out west. One Christmas my step-daughter gave me a facsimile copy of a 1946 auto tourist book called, A Guide Book to Highway 66, by Jack D. Rittenhouse. (It is still available on Amazon.) That set the spark, and I began reading more books on the history of the road, and thought it would be interesting to do an aerial tour in my Super Cub of the entire route to see what artifacts remain of the old route, and discuss both the history and share the spirit of adventure that Route 66 still invokes today.

The DVD was another labor of love that I began selling exclusively through Sporty’s Pilot Shop in 2003 on the hundredth anniversary of powered flight. Again to my surprise and delight, it is still in the Sporty’s catalogue 13 years later. In looking at the DVD today, the adventure of exploring our land in a small airplane is just as exciting as it was back then. What has changed during that time is the implementation of GPS navigation and digital devices which have revolutionized our cockpits for the better. Unfolding and refolding sectional charts in a narrow cockpit is not something I miss.

My fondest memory of flying Route 66 was being able to see from an aerial perspective what remains and what has changed on the old route, and trying to imagine what the travelers back then were thinking and experiencing in their Fords and Plymouths. The interstate highways have modernized and homogenized ground travel, of course, but especially out west where spectacular terrain makes such changes seem trivial, the emotions and dreamy thoughts that the open road fires within us still hum with the same urgent rhythm of tar strips on a two-lane blacktop.

What are the greatest lengths you ever went to in order to get a good photo?

If I may modify your question to “get a good photo story,” the first thing that comes to mind was a photo story I wrote and photographed for the October, 1989, issue Flying magazine called, “Grass Routes.” The challenge was to see if I could fly my Super Cub coast to coast without landing on a paved runway. It required extensive planning to find unpaved runways within the range of my airplane, calling ahead to verify their condition, long delays such as a heavy rain in Pennsylvania making a swamp of a deep grass runway, and so on, but I did it thanks to my Cub’s chubby tires, auxiliary fuel tanks, and ability to get in and out of a couple of marginal strips. It was a memorable trip, and lots of fun.

What’s the difference between taking a photo of an airplane and making art?

Thanks for such an easy question, you devil. People have tried to define art forever and never with complete success because the subject is so subjective. A good friend of mine defined art as something you never get tired of looking at, and that may be as good a definition as any.

Art, in this case visual art, requires two participants: the artist, and the viewer. The old saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” is true. If the beholder is not moved by what he/she sees, it isn’t art to him. In thinking about this over the years, there are to me at least three attributes a work of art has.

First, the artist has seen something that most people might have missed whether it be an abstract or representational image. Two, the artist has the mastery of his craft to successfully convey what he/she has seen in a compelling way. Three, the work of art transcends the subject. By this I mean that a photo of an airplane, for example, has to be more than a representation of that subject. It has to transport the viewer to levels beyond that to, for example, the image of freedom, or the inspiring beauty of nature, or in some way capturing the emotions and imagination of the viewer beyond the level of, “here is a pretty picture of a 172.”

Beech D-18S

Usually such transcendental reactions bypass any verbal explanation. They go directly from the eye to the heart and/or mind. It is like ice on a wing sublimating, going from a solid to vapor without passing through a liquid state. A work of art can push many sensitive buttons in viewers because of their experiences that the artist could not have foreseen. Can a photo of an airplane be art? Sure. A photo of anything can be art if it has the attributes above, and if the viewer is so moved. Above is one example of an aviation photograph of mine that for me meet the above criteria. Do they for you? Can they be considered art? You decide. As for me the label of “art” is irrelevant. I just like looking at the pictures and the thoughts they evoke in me.

Paul Simon sang about not taking his Kodachrome away, and yet it has happened. Do you miss shooting with rolls of film? Are digital photos superior to those from film?

Well, finally a truly easy question, at least for me. I loved the ASA 25 Kodachrome. It was a great film, but once digital cameras could match the resolution of film (and it has since exceeded that of film), I switched over, and have never been sorry. Digital image capture and processing gives the artist so much more control in my opinion that I can’t imagine why anyone still shoots film. I know opinions of very talented photographers differ on this, but that’s mine.

What do you know now as an experienced pilot, that you wish you could tell yourself as a student pilot?

That you, fledgling Munson, will in the future know and fly with pilots more experienced and talented than you will ever be who will nevertheless kill themselves in airplanes doing one time too many what they have gotten away with many times before. Complacency kills.

When you’re walking down the street, driving in your car, or flying, what do your photographer eyes see that other people’s eyes don’t?

Patterns, textures, shapes, colors, gestures, and how they relate to each other. The similarities and/or contrasts between things. Here are examples of what I mean. For many years I flew my Super Cub, then Husky, on to Idaho after photographing Oshkosh for Flying Magazine each year. One year I followed the Wisconsin River down through southwestern Wisconsin for fun, and noticed the sand bars in the river.

Picture One below is an overall shot to show how the scene appeared at mid-day. I imagined how the shapes of the sand bars and the portions of them above and below the surface could be pretty interesting under the right light.

Wisconsin River Picture 1

I ended up returning to this area two or three times over the next few years. Pictures Two and Three are examples of what I got.

Wisconsin River Picture 2

Wisconsin River Picture 3

Anyone can be taught to see things they never noticed before. That is one of the joys I had in teaching visual perception at Andover, Yale, and the International Center for Photography. In school we are taught readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmatic, but rarely learning to see, how to better perceive visually. That’s a real shame, because most of what we know comes to us visually.

Tell us about the one that got away. What photo, despite your best efforts, just didn’t work?

How about, the “ones” that got away? There were so many I couldn’t begin to remember them all. In the sense of meeting my self-imposed standards, I take more pictures that don’t work than do. I just don’t show you the flops. Success often comes from previous failures, or, I should say, from what one learns from previous failures. Failure is an important part of the creative process. I can’t say I love to fail, but creative people must embrace failure as an opportunity. Otherwise, we would all slit our wrists.

Photos can “get away” from a variety of reasons: the anticipated circumstances didn’t happen; the airplane broke; the formation pilot was tired of living and assumed the rest of us were, too; the weather, always the weather, can make or break you. As a professional photographer on assignment, you use every ounce of your ability and cunning to overcome any disaster. There is no such thing as coming back without pictures. As an artist, there have been times when the picture got away because I was simply not good enough to get it. And therefore, there have been themes I have worked on for months or years until I had learned enough from failure to finally get it. Then comes the next failure, the process repeats, and that’s how we grow.

You have one flight left. Where do you go and what are you flying?

To New Mexico and Arizona in my Husky to photograph transcendental landscapes.

1 Comment

  • THANK YOU for the book references. I share Mr. Munson’s passions for flying, photography, and Route 66. Gonna be readin’ some good stuff!

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