Patience pays off for Fritz Mueller

His iconic panorama shot of Tombstone Valley in the autumn, with sunlight bathing the golden tundra as craggy mountains loom in the distance, has been splashed across magazine pages.

Fritz Mueller’s photography needs no introduction to most Yukoners.

His iconic panorama shot of Tombstone Valley in the autumn, with sunlight bathing the golden tundra as craggy mountains loom in the distance, has been splashed across magazine pages and billboards after the territorial government bought it as the centrepiece to its tourism campaign several years ago.

But most don’t realize Mueller spent five days bunked up in a tent, sick with the flu, waiting for the right light conditions.

“I had enough time to take three photos before the situation disappeared,” he said. “That magic light can last just a moment.”

Mueller has just released his first photography book, with text by his wife Teresa Earle, in time for the Christmas holidays.

It’s called Yukon: a wilder place, and it’s a product of more than a decade of work and tens of thousands of frames shot.

And a lot of waiting.

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Mueller spent three weeks shivering on the banks of Fishing Branch River to get a photograph of an ice-coated grizzly bear.

Or, in the case of his efforts to capture the annual migration of the Porcupine caribou herd, Mueller travelled to the northern fringes of the territory several times over a period of summers.

During his final effort, foul weather delayed his flight from Inuvik. Then he had a week of rotten weather in the field, before having one good day.

Catching the wide-roaming herd at a scenic vantage point is never guaranteed. And clear skies can make or break a wildlife photo.

Mueller’s book opens with a shot of a gang of mountain goats grazing before the spectacular backdrop of Kluane National Park’s glaciers as the sun sets. He knew the photo he wanted when he came across the view.

But Mueller was missing goats. So he spent several days camped on the mountain top, until the animals felt comfortable enough with his presence to wander into the shot.

“I knew there’d be a picture,” he said. “But a picture’s not the same without animals in it.”

Mueller’s book features views that few Yukoners will have seen themselves, such as spectacular aerial views of Saint Elias icefields. To get these shots, Mueller waited five years, and drove pilots to frustration in the process.

On several occasions, Mueller raced out from Whitehorse to Haines Junction, after being told the morning looked clear, only to discovery clouds setting in as he arrived.

Another time was a beautiful day, other than wildfire haze. But haze makes a photograph’s focus look soft. So Mueller passed.

“But when you’re spending $1,500 per hour, you get kind of fussy,” he said.

Occasionally, a photograph falls into Mueller’s lap. He didn’t intend to photograph the northern lights one evening, when he spotted a pulsating, bright green swirl in the night sky.

So he raced to a nearby lake and captured an image of the lights reflecting off the water. It proved his best photo of the aurora borealis, after years of trying.

“I couldn’t have planned it,” he said.

Mueller, who hails from Vancouver, came to the Yukon as a biologist studying spruce grouse. But he has been interested in photography since he was a child, when he’d pore over National Geographic magazines.

“I always looked at all the pictures multiple times and read the captions.”

As a teenager, Mueller watched his first camera – a gift from his father – sink into a river after it fell from him as he dangled from a tree. He’s been careful with his gear ever since.

The only important bit of equipment he’s damaged in the field are his knees. He once harboured dreams of taking photographs from a powered paraglider, but, on his first solo trip he crashed.

Aches continue to remind him of the ill-fated adventure.

Mueller’s background as a biologist helps him plan shoots. It’s easiest to capture animals when populations are at a cyclical peak – a trick that helped him obtain intimate views of snow hare, collared lemming and deer mice.

But often animals don’t co-operate. Mueller’s sat through many failed stakeouts.

“That’s when you have real doubts about being a photographer, rather than a biologist.”

The commercial photography market has changed a lot since his entry a decade ago.

Half of Mueller’s earlier photos were shot on medium-format film. Now he shoots digital.

When he started, he’d still mail colour slides to clients. Now, he uses email.

“I can’t remember the last time I sent a DVD,” he said.

A big reason for quitting his job as a biologist was the desire to spend less time in front of a computer. So much for that: he probably spends just as much time hunched in front of a monitor now as before.

On the bright side, Mueller is enthusiastic about the potential of photography ebooks. “A photograph on a computer screen looks far better,” he said. “Printing is a big compromise.”

Earning a living as a photographer remains a “hustle,” he said. Wildlife photos comprise most of Mueller’s enterprise work, but commercial photography pays the bills.

He’s become surprised to learn that he enjoys photographing people, rather than animals.

“You don’t have to sit on a beach for a week, fighting bugs.”

The stock photography market has become glutted, with the explosion of enthusiasts carrying digital single-lens reflex cameras.

But Mueller knows he offers something special, if not simply the sheer amount of time he spends in the field, waiting for the next serendipitous moment.

Mueller’s next project is to photograph the world’s “mega-cities.” He’s already photographed the skyscrapers of Dubai, and he recently returned from London, England.

“After a decade of the Yukon, I kind of crave the opposite,” he said.

The photographic subject Mueller has yet to tackle is the one nearest to him. “We don’t have very good photos of our kids,” he said. “Or ourselves.”

Yukon: a wilder place is published by Greystone Books, an imprint of Douglas & McIntyre. It costs $50 and is available at Mac’s Fireweed Books.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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