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‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ photographer Russell Munson: Eye in the sky

Russell Munson is a photographer and pilot who has been making a living furthering both of his passions. He has been taking aerial photos of Long Island while flying between 500 and 1,000 feet since he got his pilot's license in 1962. On Jan. 22, 2016, Munson spoke about how grateful he is to be doing the work he loves. (Credit: Ken Spencer)

Russell Munson arrives at East Hampton Airport in a little plane that might have been borrowed from a child’s dream of flight and fancy — bright yellow with blue and red trim, slender wing struts, shiny aluminum spinner on the propeller, engine gargling and popping as if catching its breath after a good midday gallop.

The plane is a 2006 Aviat Aircraft Husky A-1B built in Wyoming, which seems perfect. Like its owner, who was born in Texas and grew up in Colorado, the Husky hints at a don’t-fence-me-in DNA. It’s tough, dependable, ready to ramble. “The aerial equivalent of a Jeep,” Munson says.

He cuts the engine. Munson climbs out. The Husky is a two-seater — pilot in front, passenger behind — and those who complain about tight quarters on modern airliners might keep in mind that things can always be worse.

Munson, 77, is 6-foot-1 yet emerges easily, no complaints about creaky knees or aching back, his three weekly gym workouts evidently paying off.

He’s an accomplished pilot and a noted aviation and nature photographer, too — Munson took the cover shot and inside pictures for Richard Bach’s 1970 blockbuster novella, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” then for a 2014 expanded version. Now, gripping his Canon EOS-1D X camera, he squints at the sky.

Overcast conditions on this winter day made it difficult to spot East End ice floes, subject of a book Munson has in the works, but he snapped a few decent shots, anyway — frozen ponds and lakes. “I’m always trying to get something,” he says.

Ready to park the Husky, Munson opens the sliding doors of his 40-by-40 corrugated steel hangar on the edge of the airport. Inside lies the carcass of a Volkswagen bug stored for a pal who rebuilds autos, two old bicycles — male and female models — and, on the wall, the registration number, N7789P, of his previous plane, a Piper Super Cub, “an old friend,” says Munson affectionately, as one might recall a favorite dachshund who one day wandered off.

Also there is a wooden bin bearing a bumper sticker that says “It’s great to be a Long Islander.” Munson must mean it.

He has been flying out of East Hampton since 1968. These days, Munson and his wife of 26 years, Linda Hackett, 76, a fashion designer, photographer and painter, split time between an oceanfront house in Southampton on a site once owned by Hackett’s family and their East 51st Street apartment in Manhattan.

The very best of both worlds, in other words, but still Munson is restless, an elder “sky bum,” as he says, always ready to fetch the Husky, rev the engine, and fly. “I know of no pursuit that comes closer to my concept of freedom. . . . ” Munson said in his 1989 book, “Skyward.”

It is Munson’s constant theme — freedom is in the journey.

“How did I get this way?” Munson asks in his narration of “Flying Route 66,” a 2003 DVD video tour of the fabled highway. “This feeling that being on the road is normal and that what most people call home was for me the place to prepare for the next trip?”

Yes, absolutely, Munson says, he cherishes day-to-day life with Linda — it is a second marriage for both — but “my real home is in my mind and in that place I am still a transient, and a wanderer, looking to learn more.”

After graduation from Yale in 1960 with a graphics design degree, a two-year stint in the Army, and a teaching fellowship at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Munson opened a commercial photo studio in Manhattan.

Photography was a passion since boyhood but flying also made a claim. Munson’s father, the late Russell Sr., was a United Airlines pilot who served with the Army Air Corps during World War II, and, no surprise, the wild blue beckoned his son. “I gazed at the sky and watched every airplane that flew by, and wondered what the view would be from the cloud drifting over the earth,” Munson recalls.

Richard Bach, also a pilot, captured that sense of liberation in stories for Flying magazine. Munson was a devoted reader. He corresponded with Bach. The two became friends.

In 1968, and again five years later, Bach and Munson barnstormed the Midwest in single-engine planes. They scooted low over small towns and landed in farmers’ fields. Folks paid $3 for a ride. At night, the flyboys snuggled into sleeping bags beneath airplane wings and, next morning, moved on. Pecatonica, Illinois. Osgood, Missouri. Amana, Iowa. Horton, Kansas. Rio, Wisconsin.

Bach had written a short novel — a sort of meditation on self-reliance that starred a talking seagull named Jonathan Livingston. Coincidentally, Munson had a collection of seagull photos taken years before in Massachusetts and on Long Island. The publisher wanted artwork for the book. Bach offered Munson a 50-50 split on royalties for the seagull shots.

“Too much,” said Munson, thinking Bach overly generous, and agreed, finally, to a 20 percent cut. The book had a slow start. Then it went gangbusters — 40 million copies sold — and it became a ’70s pop sensation. Bach hit the jackpot. Munson didn’t do badly, either. Through his publisher, Bach said recently: “I love and have always loved the photos that my friend and fellow pilot, Russell, shared for ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull.’ ”

At the same time, Munson’s business was growing. He had prestige commercial clients and a reputation as a superb aviation photographer. Now he is counted among the best. “The beauty of flight — he has a way of telling that story,” said Larry Grace, president of the International Society for Aviation Photography.

In 2014, the organization gave Munson a lifetime achievement award. Making the presentation was Caroline Sheen, photography and illustrations editor of Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine, which has published Munson’s photos. The recipient, she said, did not merely make pictures but “images of our aspirations and our dreams.” In an interview, Sheen added: “A rare breed.”

Three years ago, Munson stopped magazine work — at one point, he, like Bach, was a regular contributor to Flying — and commercial photography. Now he focuses on nature — slipping through the skies, entering what he calls the “sheer zone” where, Munson says, the reality below gives way to something less definable.

Two of Munson’s ice floe photos are in the permanent collection of the Parrish Museum in Water Mill ( “What I find so appealing and important is that he is creating abstract expression from the existing conditions he observes from the air,” said museum director Terrie Sultan. “They’re great pieces.”

The unorthodox shots are typical of Munson. “Everything Russ does starts out as a mystery and ends up making sense,” said Jay Miller, a founder of the aviation photography society.

* * *

At East Hampton Airport, Munson was almost done with the post-flight routine. He pushed the Husky into the hangar, wingtips barely clearing the sides, and blocked the wheels. On the tarmac, Munson mentioned that a major storm was on the way. It was winter, what would we expect? He headed for lunch at a local barbecue joint.

On schedule, the blizzard arrived and brought 2 feet of snow. The East Hampton airfield closed but, next afternoon, opened again. Munson said he shoveled around the hangar to free the doors. He eased the Husky into position. The frozen world summoned. “I took off.”


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