I just got back from Monument Valley, which sits on the border between Arizona and Utah on Navajo land near Four Corners. Situated on the Colorado Plateau, Monument Valley features large rock formations and red desert sand. It’s a lonely place; there are only a few very small towns scattered nearby. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, it attracts many tourists from across the world. Monument Valley is the iconic American West landscape, and it is nothing short of stunning!
You’ve seen Monument Valley before, even if you didn’t know what you were looking at. Certainly you’ve seen pictures of it in calendars and magazines and on social media. Many different movies have had scenes filmed in Monument Valley. Forest Gump concluded his cross country run there. Marty McFly went back in time to the old west in Monument Valley. Clark Griswold drove his car off the road at this place. Many “westerns” were filmed in Monument Valley, including a few starring John Wayne. In many ways Monument Valley still looks and feels like the rugged and wild American West, so it’s easy to understand Hollywood’s draw to this location.
Monument Valley was on my photographic bucket list for a long time. I’ve wanted to visit and capture the iconic landscape for many years. I’d seen the black-and-white prints by Ansel Adams and the color pictures in Arizona Highways magazine that showcased this incredible landscape, which made me want to experience it for myself. I had to make my own images. I needed to get to Monument Valley. Honestly, though, I didn’t realize its exact location until recently. I knew it was in northern Arizona somewhere. Or maybe southern Utah. As it turns out, most of it is in far northeastern Arizona, and a little of it sits in far southeastern Utah, but all of it belongs to the Navajo Nation.
I was only able to stay in Monument Valley for one day. I had one day to capture the pictures that I wanted, or at least as many of them as I could. I planned the trip carefully, doing much research ahead of time so that I would know what to expect. It paid off because I believe I made the most of my short time there. I didn’t come away with every picture that I had hoped for, but I came away with a good group, and that means I had a good day. I’ll have to return, hopefully soon, for the rest.
Something that struck me about Monument Valley is how quiet and peaceful it was. You can set your own pace and take things slow. The wide open spaces allowed for moments of true serenity. You can find yourself alone. Monument Valley is sacred land to the Navajo, and you can feel that while there, permeating from the stone and sand. My visit was during the off season, and I’m sure the atmosphere during the summer months can be quite different.
All of the Navajo people that I met and spoke with were exceedingly friendly and helpful. They seemed quite proud of this place, eager to share its beauty with the world. One lady, who was selling jewelry along a dirt road, was happy to tell me about her favorite photograph, which had been on the cover of Arizona Highways, that featured a nearby tree, which has since died because it was struck by lightning. I felt like I was an invited guest, and the Navajo people were happy to have me there.
But I could sense another side. This is private land. Among the rock formations are little houses. There are ranches scattered throughout Monument Valley. Visitors are allowed in only very specific places, which are clearly marked, unless you have an official guide. At one stop I overheard a guide telling his group that he was not allowed to take people to one particular spot because the occupant of a nearby house “doesn’t like white people.” I can certainly understand that past hurts might still sting. The Navajo haven’t always been treated well by America. This is their home. This is their sacred land where their ancestors lived and died. They don’t have to allow anyone in. They could keep Monument Valley to themselves, and not welcome visitors. I’m sure there are some who would prefer that. I was a stranger in a strange land. I was the outsider. Gratefully, I was welcomed in and treated kindly.
From what I could tell from my short visit, the Navajo way of life is slower, simpler, quieter, and more free than my own. There are no Walmarts or McDonalds or Starbucks within 100 miles, probably further than that. I didn’t see any signs of commercialism and consumerism. I’m sure life in the dry desert can be difficult, but to the Navajo it is worth dealing with those difficulties in order to live life their way; to be who they are. Their culture is preserved by living out their traditions.
The photographs in this article were captured with a Fujifilm X-T30 and Fujifilm X-T1. The lenses I used were a Fujinon 35mm f/2, Fujinon 100-400mm and Rokinon 12mm f/2. On the X-T30 I used my Velvia (except color +4), Kodachrome 64, Dramatic Monochrome and Agfa Scala film simulation recipes, and on the X-T1 I used Velvia and Monochrome. The challenge when visiting a place like Monument Valley is creating something unique when it’s been photographed from every angle imaginable. That’s an extraordinarily difficult task, but not completely impossible. While most of my pictures have been done before by others, I think a few of them are fairly unique; at least I’ve never seen one identical. I hope that you enjoy them!
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