By Patricia Luebke
“Wandering for me is largely a visual experience that is connected directly to my mind and heart. It’s as necessary as air. And without question, the best way to wander is in a small airplane.”
Those words are from the opening of Russell Munson’s best-selling DVD, “Flying Route 66.” For this award-winning master photographer and artist, these words echo the reality of his life.
Munson’s father was with United Airlines. He graduated from Army Air Corps flight school in 1930 from Kelly Field in San Antonio. In 1932, United hired him as a copilot on a Boeing 80-A Tri-Motor; he also flew the Boeing 40-B-4.
“That’s an older, open-cockpit, single-engine biplane,” Munson explained. “He would fly mail with that airplane when the weather wasn’t suitable for paying passengers.”
After becoming a captain, he flew the Boeing 247, which Munson says then was considered a very modern airplane. At the time, United paid pilots according to the difficulty of the route, including extra pay for night flying, so Munson’s father chose a high-paying one.
“He mostly was on the Oakland to Salt Lake City route,” he said. “That meant he flew over the mountains at night.”
His parents had been married after flight school, and lived in Chicago by the time Munson was on the way. His mother went to her mother’s home in San Marcos, Texas, to give birth.
“I’m not sure why she left my father temporarily; maybe she wanted me to have Texas citizenship,” he says.
During World War II, Munson’s father was called back to the Air Corps, and became commanding officer at Love Field when it was both a military and civilian airport.
“We lived in Dallas and that’s where I started school,” he said. “School is something I always hated from that first day in Dallas until I graduated from college.”
From Love Field, his father was sent to India with the Air Transport Command, not as a pilot, but as a base commander in various locations. So Munson and his mother moved back to San Marcos. When his father returned the following year, he rejoined United and they moved back to Chicago. When United moved its operations base to Denver in 1948, the Munsons moved too. That’s where they stayed until Munson graduated from high school in 1956.
It was during school that Munson developed his love of photography.
“I started photographing airplanes when I was 12,” he said. “When I was 14, I got serious about it, and knew then that photography would be my career.”
When it came to college, his parents suggested he “try something different,” so when the admissions director for Yale University visited his high school, Munson talked with him and was granted early admission.
“Yale was an academic shock to me, even though I’d been in college placement classes,” he recalled. “My education to date was nothing compared to what the boys from prep schools had, and I spent my freshman year desperately trying to catch up. Then there was the lifestyle of wealthy Eastern people which was all new to me.”
His original plan was to study philosophy, but he had taken some art classes and really liked them. At the time, Yale’s art department was part of the graduate school.
“The classes were mostly all grad students from Cooper Union and the Rhode Island School of Design, so once again, I was way over my head,” he said.
But he persevered and graduated with a B.A. in design.
He had been in Army ROTC in college, and had a year before his two-year commitment, so he headed to New York City. He landed a job as a magazine art director and then later one with well-known advertising photographer Wingate Paine. When his time came, he was sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
“The weird thing is that the Army doesn’t usually put you where you belong, but in my case, it did,” he says.
For two years, he was art director of The Military Review, a magazine published by the Army Command and General Staff College. Something more important, though, happened at Fort Leavenworth. It’s where Munson learned to fly.
“Even though I’d saved the money, my parents would never allow me to take flying lessons,” Munson says. “I learned to fly in an ex-Army Super Cub and loved it.”
He remembers how small the Super Cub looked to him on the ground.
“Once we got into the air, it didn’t matter; the experience was fantastic,” he says.
When he got out of the Army in 1963, he landed a teaching fellowship at Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts.
“Andover always had a good visual studies program that was required, and through Wingate Paine, I got a teaching fellowship in photography—really in visual perception,” he said.
Another teaching gig followed, teaching a Polaroid course to bright, underprivileged kids. With a part-time job at Princeton University making slides in the history of art department, Munson decided to launch his own photography business in New York City in the fall of 1964.
His first airplane
It was while he was working at Princeton that he crossed paths with someone else who would influence his life. At the time, Air Facts was published there.
“I was a subscriber, so I decided to just drop in. There were Leighton Collins and Richard Collins sitting at their respective typewriters,” Munson said.
Within three years, Munson had paid off a loan to start his business and had saved $5,000. He was ready to buy an airplane.
“I had been trying to rent planes here and there, but it was expensive,” he said. “Flying meant so much to me that I decided I could no longer live without having my own airplane.”
In 1967, he bought a Super Cub that was being rebuilt as a class project at Letourneau University in Longview, Texas. He logged lots of time, flying it back to New Jersey where it was based at an airport that no longer exists: Totowa-Wayne Airport.
“I think the airport is now a shopping mall,” he said.
Now an airplane owner, he had more reason to turn to the business of aviation photography. He visited the offices of Flying magazine in New York City, and met with the executive editor.
“Aviation photography became all I did for a long time,” he said.
A Seagull’s Higher Vision
Munson had admired Richard Bach’s work, which had appeared in various aviation magazines, including Soaring and Flying. He had become friends with Bach after visiting him on a cross-country Cub trip at Bach’s home at the time in Ottumwa, Iowa. Soon, they were doing aviation articles together, and Munson flew with Bach on two of his barnstorming trips.
“When he came to New York, he’d sleep in my studio to save money,” he recalls.
On one such trip, Bach told Munson of a project he was having trouble getting published. It was a book about a seagull who wanted to master flying.
In fact, many publishers had turned down “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” Munson hesitates to state an exact number, but thinks it was 18. The eventual publisher, Macmillan, had turned the book down once, but Bach’s previous work had caught the eye of another editor there. Eleanor Friede asked to see what he was currently working on. She loved the manuscript, but thought it needed illustrations. Bach had some sketches done, but Friede didn’t like them, so he turned to Munson with his dilemma.
“What about using photographs?” Munson asked.
During his teaching fellowship, Munson had felt compelled to shoot thousands of pictures of seagulls, for no logical reason.
“I pulled out a box of contact sheets of seagull photographs—hundreds of them,” recalls Munson.
He showed the photos to Bach, who loved them. So did Friede.
“Half the pictures in the book already existed,” he said. “Then I went back to my favorite seagull haunts, Montauk, New York, and Rockport, Massachusetts, to shoot the other half specifically to fit the manuscript.”
When it came to paying for the photography, Bach told him he didn’t have much money and offered Munson the choice of $500 or half the royalties of the book.
“Being the great businessman I am, I told him 50 percent was way too much,” Munson jokes.
They agreed on a smaller amount, and Munson says he would have felt lucky to make even the $500 in royalties. At the time, no one, including Munson, had any idea “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” would turn into a pop culture institution. Somewhat surprisingly, the book wasn’t an instant success.
“The first printing was 5,000 copies—maybe less,” Munson recalls.
When that sold out, Macmillan went to a second printing. After about a year, the book just took off. Oddly, for a time “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” was on The New York Times Best-Sellers List for both fiction and non-fiction, according to Munson.
“Of course, The New York Times never had a good thing to say about the book; they hated it,” he said.
Nevertheless, the book remained on their best-sellers list for two years.
“There’s nothing wrong with pop culture,” says Munson. “Shakespeare was the pop culture of his day. For a lot of people, ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ is their literature.”
Munson says that many of the classic themes are in the book. He says that over the years, Bach has received letters from people of almost every religious denomination speculating that Bach must be of their belief.
In all, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” went beyond anyone’s expectations, according to Munson who, nearly 35 years later, is still receiving royalties.
“I had no financial expectations,” he said. “The book was something I did because I wanted to do it.”
The publisher estimates that the book has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.
Over the years, Munson photographed hundreds of airplanes for magazine articles as well as for advertising and marketing programs. He published another book, “Why Flyers Fly,” which is now out of print.
“Airplanes are living, breathing creatures so I try to photograph them as I would a portrait of a person,” he said.
In addition to his commercial work, Munson has made fine art photographs throughout his career, which have been purchased for individual, corporate and museum collections. These aerial landscapes are photographed from his Piper Super Cub at altitudes between 500 and 1,000 feet above the ground.
“I call this a sheer zone between abstraction and realism, where subjects are real, intimate and abstract at the same time,” he said.
For more than 20 years, when the winters are cold enough, he has photographed ice formations on the ponds and bays of eastern Long Island. And at least once or twice a year, he makes long cross-country flights to various parts of the United States for other fine art projects.
“Flying Route 66,” his best-selling DVD, came about due to his experience flying the route in his Super Cub.
“Route 66 was always a symbol to me of the freedom of the open road, and I’d flown the route many times,” he said. “My wife’s daughter gave me a 1930s travel guide for Route 66 as a Christmas present several years ago. Since then, this project was forming in the back of my mind.”
He began the project as a CD-ROM, but then the technology for DVDs was simplified so that an individual could do it. He spent the good part of a year learning and experimenting with the computer programs first for CD-ROM, then for DVD production. A big plus of the newer technology is that a CD-ROM requires a computer, and doesn’t play the same way on each one, but a DVD can be played as you would a movie on most computers and any DVD player, according to Munson.
“Sometimes people ask why I didn’t do video instead of the still photos in the DVD,” he says. “It was a conscious decision because I can do more with a still camera. Plus, I was flying the airplane at the same time, which would be more difficult with the bulkier video equipment.
“But the main reason is that to me, a still photo is like poetry and a video is like prose. In other words, still photos capture moments that concisely express the experience. You don’t need to show the viewer five minutes of video prior to and after that significant moment for projects like this one.”
He said he felt that panning and zooming on still photos would impart more information and visual experience than a video, in the given amount of time.
“There is a place for both prose and poetry, but for this purpose, I chose poetry,” he said.
Munson’s current work in progress is another DVD; this one is about the former 8th Air Force bases in East Anglia in England, especially the one in Framlingham, the home of the 390th Bomb Group. He was particularly drawn to this base because it was where an old friend, the late Robert B. Parke, former editor and publisher of Flying magazine, was based. Another reason is that many of the buildings remain in tact.
“A farm family owns the property and saved most of the buildings that they use to store farm equipment. They also have a little museum,” he says.
The existing buildings made for good photography, he said, and he has conducted many interviews with locals. He finds this particular time and place fascinating.
“It was an unusual intersection of technology, geography and world events that put American crewmen in an English-speaking country during wartime, where they’d live in this idyllic country setting and then go to work and have 12 hours of sheer hell and come back again to this quiet place,” he said. “The contrast in that period of time is mind-boggling.”
Among his favorite interview subjects are three women who would go to the air base to dance with the pilots.
Of the airplanes he’s flown, his favorites are a V35 Beech Bonanza he owned for 10 years, the Douglas DC-3 (“even more magnificent than I had imagined”) and the Falcon 10 business jet (“sleek, beautiful and intimate.”). But to enjoy flight for the reasons he wanted to fly in the first place, Munson says the Piper Super Cub is his best friend forever.
Today, Munson holds a commercial pilot license, with instrument, and multi-engine ratings, and a DC-3 type rating. He has owned his beloved 1962 Piper Super Cub for more than 35 years. In some 40 years as a pilot, he has flown a variety of aircraft from ultralights to corporate jets.
These aviation credentials coupled with his artist’s eye have made him one of the premier aviation photographers in the world.
You can see more of Munson’s photographs at [http://www.russellmunson.com]. His DVD, “Flying Route 66,” is available from Sporty’s Pilot Shop at [http://www.sportys.com].