“Yá’át’ééh”. Pronounced yaateh it is ‘hello’ in Navajo explains my Navajo guide Tom. I am such a huge Star Wars nerd I immediately think ‘cool that is what Princess Leia disguised as a bounty hunter says to Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi!’. Choosing not to say this out loud I merely smile and repeat yá’át’ééh, and I click my remote release to capture another magical image. I am in Monument Valley.
Eternally etched in my mind ever since watching John Wayne westerns as a child, the buttes of Monument Valley are iconic and instantly recognizable. For as long as I remember I have dreamed of visiting Monument Valley in Arizona/Utah, USA. Long before I even knew where this magical place was. This huge wide open valley of towering red buttes, sand dunes and tall skies. One hot, dry and dusty afternoon in April I slam the brakes in my ‘spaceship’ and jump out, eyes fixed on the horizon. My eyes tell me dreams have become reality. My view of the real world suddenly features the buttes of Monument Valley. I grab my camera and must snap a snapshot of first contact. Memories of movies and images come to a crashing convergence with reality. I am looking at Monument Valley.
Dawn of Time
“It’s not gonna look good” Tom tells me. It is still almost pitch black before dawn at the Totem Pole in the valley and Tom disagrees with my use of 17mm wide angle. “Too much space” he smiles looking at my LCD screen, “needs clouds”. “But I really love space” I laugh back. Tom is my Navajo guide and a great photographer himself. He was born and grew up in the valley, knows the place like the home it was. He knows exactly where the light will go. At times he directs me “stand here” because he knows exactly where every light beam will hit as the sun awakes and creeps up behind the Totem Pole. Tom was right about the 17mm, too much space without clouds, my cloud summoning skills having failed this morning. This is my version of Totem Pole dawn at 40mm:
We move closer to the Totem Pole and I explore a well known subject – sand dunes. The strong side light produces wonderful ripples and the beetle tracks dot the i. I create one of my favourite images from USA:
While not particularly original I am very fond of this image and the fantastic four hour morning shoot with Tom. He is a treasure trove of information and jokes and a fellow photographer in Sedona was right in recommending him to me. To capture sunrises and go off the track in Monument Valley you must go with a Navajo guide and I highly recommend Tom Philips and his photo guide service. He is extremely passionate and knowledgeable about photography and offers great insight into Navajo culture and suggestions for your shots in the valley. All served up with a splendid sense of humour. I captured Tom playing the flute in the image on the right.
The dawn and sunrise shoot with Tom was quiet bliss being at one with Mother Nature in the valley. Soon after that the valley becomes busy, it is a popular place and gets crowded during the day. Nothing like Yosemite but with quite a few tours and tourists. No matter. I am happy to see the Navajo Nation benefitting and sunset in front of the View hotel is still gorgeous. The View hotel is named after the most incredible view but was booked so I stayed in the charming village of Mexican Hat. Great food in the local saloon. Back to the view which is simply breathtaking no matter how many times you have seen this. I spent hours here just staring and taking in this ancient timeless view. It is hard to capture something different at this very well known location, need extraordinary light here to stand out. The clouds did not quite obey me but then there is something nice about a simplistic primary colours view of the buttes and the sky:
The following day my clouds arrived. With a vengeance. A sandstorm hit the valley, gorgeous but slightly unfortunate. Quite a few photographers were waiting with me for the sunset as there was a full moon rising just behind the buttes. With my weather wielding skills out of sync we never saw it but I created a dramatic storm image in black and white. I still have yet to shoot my definitive image of The View.
Valley of changes
Josef Muench made more than 160 visits to Monument Valley and is a legendary photographer. It is his photographs that brought John Ford to Monument Valley. One of Josef’s famous images captured a Navajo woman guiding her sheep over the sand dunes. Tom smiles and tells she is actually still around. And still guides her sheep across this particular beautiful dune at sunrise. “But you better get a big group together” laughs Tom. “She now charges 300 dollars to do it!”.
Monument Valley has seen huge changes over the past 70 years since Hollywood and the tourists discovered this ancient magical Navajo home. Countless Hollywood westerns from Stagecoach, The Searchers (watch the incredible opening scene) to Back to the Future II and City Slickers II and countless visits by tourists have changed life in the valley forever. Fortunately the landscape is still quite untouched and if the long suffering Navajo’s can benefit some I am very happy.
Decades after first dreaming of Monument Valley my first visit was even better than expected. The valley is much larger than I thought, the scale and the huge wide open spaces spellbinds me. Looking back I wish I had stayed a week here. I was so overwhelmed I found it hard to focus on just my craft. I was spellbound and spent a lot of time just staring. Writing this I replay the scenes in my head of this magical place anxious to return. I look at my many undeveloped images and I watch Philip Bloom’s great video to relive the magic. There are many more images to be created here, much more magic to be experienced and captured.
Monument Valley – and Tom – I look very much forward to saying yá’át’ééh again.