Photographing Monument Valley

Monument Valley has been the embodiment of the American Southwest in the popular culture since John Ford began making his Westerns there (starting with Stagecoach).  And the visual impact of the place has been drawing photographers even since. To fully access these unique shoot locations, a tour is a necessity.

The landscape photographer Josef Muench photographed the area in the early days and throughout his career with Arizona Highways magazine. Muench’s images of the place were what Harry Goulding used in the 1930s to convince John Ford to shoot his next film there. Ansel Adams photographed there. David Muench (Josef’s son) just put out a nice Monument Valley photo book that’s a useful overview for anyone who wants location ideas.

There are several unique shooting spots to Monument Valley: 1. the “View” location is on the hilltop where the hotel of that name is located. 2. The dirt road that goes into the tribal park takes general visitors to several other classic spots including John Ford Point (below). 3. Monument Valley tours go to places like Big Hogan and Ear of the Wind not on that main tourist road. 4. Locations like Mystery Valley, Tear Drop Arch and Agathlan are not in the main valley but are equally representative of this sacred place. For more images of Monument Valley.

Key Park Areas

The View

The View, Left Mitten, Right Mitten and Merrick Butte

John Ford Point

The dirt road into Monument Valley as seen from John Ford Point.

Big Hogun

Big Hogun, a location that’s covered on many of the tours.

Mystery Valley locations (above) are just south of Monument Valley in a separate section of the park. This area includes that has some of the best ruins, ones originally built by the ancient Puebloans. This area also requires a tour to access.

Creative Approach

Creatively, the sweet spot for Monument Valley is to break the shot down to its simplest visual components, earth, monolith, sand, sky. Then remove every extraneous element.

Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Essentials of Monument Valley, monolith and sand.

Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Totem Pole Silhouetted by Sunrise

Three Sisters, Looking West

Three Sisters, Monument Valley, Sunset. Shot out the back of the tour jeep.

None of these compositions is too complex. But hopefully, the visual journey is clear. The huge stone columns and buttes carry much of the visual interest simply by being so iconic. That’s one reason so many of the structures seem recognizable, the Sisters, Totem Pole, Mittens, etc. Because each is so definitive, even archetypal, when strewn across this ancient valley.

Of course, the photographer has to bring their own vision to the Valley, put elements into relationship, throw the monoliths into relief as light works its magic. Part of this skill is just showing up when the light is more distinctive, part is weighing the compositional elements thoughtfully.

Framing the Chess Pieces

To me, Monument Valley is like a chess board populated by monolith, butte, mesa. As you cover the park, different elements come to the fore or retreat into the middle distance. Your work is to put these archetypal monuments into the context of a composition.

Cedar and Sunset

The sand dune section, just west of Totem Pole, has the softest textures in the Valley, especially at sunrise or set.

With photograph above, I found a spot where the mesa anchored a line of buttes receding into the sunset.  To balance that relationship off, I shifted my location to include a twisted cedar, rooting the foreground into the composition.

Agathan, After. Breaking down the image not components, clouds, mountain, road and fence, field. But using differing LR tools for the differing sections, the structural elements take on their own unique dynamism.

Agathlan. To emphasize the compositional elements (clouds, mountain, fence, field), I used differing LR tools for the differing sections.

Agathlan, a volcanic plug on 163 between the Valley and Kayenta, has its own quiet power. I used the fence line and a simple Rule of Thirds structure to provide context.

Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Here the foreground is a flat sand dune juxtaposed with receding monoliths. The sunset  side-lighting adds depth.

Weather

The Valley is high desert and if you go in the spring or fall, you’ll often find one “weather event” after another bearing down on you in the course of a day. That can make for less comfortable photo experience, maybe even damp clothing (oh, no). But harsh weather makes for a far more powerful image than the typical summer day — the image emerges out of wind, snow, light.

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Snow blows off Merrick Butte

This shot of the Valley “View” and the image of Ear of the Wind (below) take on some mystery because of the stormy conditions.

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Bare tree branches tear into a foreboding sky at Ear of the Wind.

The image below is a solid composition but the dark clouds focus the eye towards the direction of the sunset, as does the play of light on the sand dunes and buttes.

Bending towards Sunset

The storm blew over just soon enough to get a few images with attitude.

 

2 Comments on “Photographing Monument Valley

  1. Thanks Steve! That means a lot coming from a photographer like yourself — I’ve been checking out your blog and got a huge kick out of your insights on the Moab experience.

    Personally, I think Monument Valley is as iconic a location for landscape photographers as any of the Utah parks. To me, that’s saying a lot, I’ve just published a book on shooting at Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef that’s for photographers. And my book on Bryce Canyon and Zion will be on Amazon in a couple of weeks.

    Check out my book link here: https://www.amazon.com/Photographing-Arches-Canyonlands-Capitol-National/dp/1514457962/

    And keep an eye out for my next blog post, I visited Canyon de Chelly just after Monument Valley and that’s a total jewel for landscape photographers. My idea is to make those two parks and Page/Antelope Canyon the center piece of a new book I’m researching now.
    Tim

    Like

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