“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.
Thanks for taking us to Monument Valley.
Your interesting description and the beautiful images really makes me want to go there. There is so much life in your writing, compared to the quiet open spaces in the valley. I'll have to dream about going there, but who knows. Maybe someday…
I'm glad I found your blog. Cliked on your name somewhere just because it looked Danish.
Hello Carsten, welcome to the blog and thanks for commenting. Happy you liked visiting Monument Valley through my images and writing, it is one rather remarkable place. Dreams can come true.
I read a fair number of westerns, as well as a decent amount of native american literature when I was young. I was nuts about horses, and turn of the century Wild West seemed the place to be, what with the cowboys, Indians, prairies, mustang herds, appaloosas, cattle drives and all that (I've watched Dances With Wolves more times than Dan's watched Star Wars, which is saying something). Monument Valley is someplace I've always dreamed about. Hell, I've wanted to live in the US and explore that great wilderness all my life.
So of course I end up in Australia, literally half a world away from intended destination. Talk about being thrown a curve ball!
These wild American landscapes were what taught me to love geography and dream about running away into the wild, so to speak. Of course when I did study geography all through high school, it was decided that the the landforms of the Americas were irrelevant to where we were in Southeast Asia. Pretty sad.
That totem pole silhouette image is very beautiful, and to me, a little different from your usual style. Like it's been lightly brushed by magic and sealed.
Ok didn't quite mean to write an essay in your comments box… I just read your post and thought "I bet i'd feel the same way if i ever went there."
Star Wars is a western in space so it's no surprises that I loved and still loved Westerns. Usually I sided with the native indians although John Wayne was also very cool.
I am thrilled you love the Dawn of Time Totem Pole image. I really like it myself but haven't heard much about it from others. "Lightly brushed by magic and sealed" are great words, love them.
You would love Monument Valley. The entire Southwest for that matter And please write essays, very much appreciated 🙂 Oh and I look forward to some Star Wars trivia quizzes with Dan!
I'm betting I would love it, I've been dreaming about it for a long time. But one step at a time. Further and Further will start close to this base, but who knows where it'll take us!
I must see these wild west frontiers I've read about in my youth, before I die, as they have occupied so much of my imagination in my youth (especially in school when I was supposed to be paying attention to rubbish like, oh, math :D). One of the heart's great desires.
Star Wars trivia quizzes huh? Oooh boy. You watch, you'll both be quoting to each other by way of conversation before you know it!
"Do or donut…there is no try" … yeah that'll never get annoying, us quoting every Star Wars line every minute 🙂
Oh and by Star Wars I mean ep 4, 5 and 6. The 3 new eps do not count, as George Lucas clearly lost his mind.
HAHA. You'll get no argument from us here on 1, 2, 3. Personally have I witnessed the outrage. Mmmmmm.
As for quoting, I live with it, so I don't notice anymore. If there was only normal, sane behaviour going on, it would be an indication that something was seriously wrong 😀
Great story to go with some great pics as always. I love the black and white version.
Hey Jamie, thanks very much, good to see you on the blog.
I like em all mate!
I think the fav is the one with the sand lines…very cool!
Thanks Markie. That is my favourite as well, strong simple image.
hey Flemming, a great read as always mate 🙂 I dig the totem pole sand ripple image – what an insane looking place. The B/W doesn't quite do it for me and is 'too' bright/white in large areas of the frame. But not to worry as you'll get the killer light/shot next time 🙂
Thanks Tony. I love the Totem Pole image too. Yeah I kinda see what you mean about the bw image and you're right, ended up too bright. Next time the weather gods will be in sync with me 🙂
Ripper Yarn mate, the sand dune leading into the totempole is my pick, but I do like.
Good scale to the monoliths.
Thanks Thomas, glad you like the writing as well!
I've said it many times before, but that totem pole ripples image I think is my absolute fav of yours Flem. I don't really have cash to spend on buying photographs, but if I was going to- that would definitely be one of my first choices to hang on my wall. I absolutely love it hey 🙂
The B/W is really cool too, what interesting sky!
"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."
I know this feeling very well! Currently I'm doing very much the same thing here in the Pilbara haha. I just don't know where to start sometimes. It's just amazingly spectacular that sometimes all you can do is stand there and watch in awe. I'm very much struggling with the wide open space which doesn't help, I guess because the wide open space still has so much clutter that makes it difficult. I go down into the gorges though and felt at home lol. Maybe I just need mother nature to work out the compositions for me hehe. But a November tutoring on wide open spaces by one Flemming Bo Jensen is definitely something I look forward to! 🙂
Thank you Stephen, I hope I can bring a little print to you delivered personally in November! Glad you love it so much.
I second your experience in the Pilbara, but have no fear, a Wide Open Spaces Masterclass by FBJ coming right up 😀 ;D
Incredible images here Flemming!! Wicked stuff..
I was over there in December – the valley floor was covered in snow which contrasted starkly with the red earth… it's an incredible sight in winter!!
Cheers Tim! Snow must be awesome in Monument Valley, contrasting with the red rocks and soil. Must see that!
The totem pole……….WOW! What an image.
Thanks Andrew, it is rather striking isn't it!
GREAT IMAGES, love them all but love the sand ripples….just draws you in…also the silhouette.
Thanks very much Peta, really appreciate your comments!
Beautiful images as usual FBJ – the narration just adds that certain element that transforms them into things even more special. I'm guessing by your trips down under that you also watched a lot of "Skipp" as a child 😉 Have fun in November.
Hey Muzz and thanks mate. Glad you always like the writing as well! And no, never watched any "Skippy" (the kangaroo right?) at all, do not think we got that show up here. I watched a lot of David Attenborough, and all the westerns.
Ooops – "Skippy"!