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.

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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.

 

A Photo Master Class with David Muench

I just finished a 4 day desert landscape photo class with the great David Muench. He was doing his workshop as part of the Palm Beach Photo Festival, a large venue for folks to take master classes from some of the better known pros in the business.

David is a big name if you follow landscape photography in the West and his stuff is a feast for those of us into landscapes. Here’s one of his shots taken in the Coachella Valley.

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The Festival had plenty of other respected photographers: Mark Seliger did a lot of the famous musician and actor images:

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Mary Ellen Mark did important reportage photos for Life and Look and now is doing more personal projects.

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There are about 12 long workshops and a bunch of hour long sessions. But I’m focused on landscape stuff now after spending most of the last year photographing and writing a book on the Utah Parks. (Coming soon to an on-line publisher near you.) So this session with David was perfect.

Working with David

I didn’t expect David to revolutionize my style. I’ve been doing this work for years and in the last few years I’ve done more and more stuff that feels right. I did expect him to help me dive deeper into my craft. And I think I’m walking away with that. I also picked David’s brain for shooting locations to use for my next landscape photo/travel book. I’m targeting Arizona for that book and he knows the area like it’s his backyard.

An added benefit, I spent 4 days with 15 creative photographers. And that’s made me realize how much of the value of these advanced classes is the creative interactions with the other participants. Ray, Sandy, Barb, the Beths, Steve, Chris, they were all great. All doing their own unique exploration.

But the core of the sessions was David and in a week or so I’ll add an in-depth piece on what it’s like working with him.

We Begin Our Journey

The first Sunday late afternoon was our first group meeting. Now, this is Palm Springs at the tail end of April which means high 90s. So that first afternoon each of the groups had their first meeting outside. So we were all trying to find some shade. Our two coordinators, Darlene and Taya were there with the paperwork.

And at 79, David instantly reminded me of everyone’s favorite granddad. White beard, a weathered look, soft-spoken but with an intimate knowledge of every photo location from Texas to Alaska and an amazing portfolio (www.davidmuenchphotography.com). Kinda like Ansel Adams meets Mr Chips. Later I realized that my perception of the man was only scratching the surface.

The next morning David took us though a pile of his slides. I’d studied a bunch of his shots already from his web site. But David walked us through them from his personal POV, explored some of his techniques, using examples from spots we’d be shooting on this trip. Turns out that David has shot the parks on the area (Joshua Tree, Anza Borrega, 1000 Palms Oasis, etc) tons of times. That afternoon we all piled into a couple of vans and headed to our first location.

Indian Canyons

Indian Canyons is on tribal lands owned by the Agua Caliente indians. The park is just a few miles south of the Hilton and we headed up to the Andreas Canyon trailhead. The small stream is fed by an aquifer and the water supports a grove of palms. The contrast of lush grove and bleak desert, palm fronds and water are what make the shoot interesting.

David loves playing with form and color. Juxtaposing patterns, creating different visual elements that generate a visual dynamic. And we used the palms for that.

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For this shot, I wanted to play off of the color and form of the three distinct palm frond areas.

The spring that feeds the grove was hard to get unique shots of. But I liked this blend of the dark light in the stream pool and the sun entering from the side.

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Further up the trail I noticed a high cliff just north of the trail with some Cholla cactus catching the sunset light. It was a pain in the butt to get up the canyon wall, there was no trail and and the heat was stifling. But it was worth it.

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Shooting With David Muench: Thousand Palms Oasis

On our second day of shooting we headed up to Thousand Palms Oasis, a spring fed oasis surrounded by, yes, lots of palms. In the hundred degree heat of the Coachella Valley this oasis is a wonderful contrast. The oasis is on  Thousand Palms Canyon Road just off Ramon Road in Thousand Palms, less than an hour’s drive from Palm Springs.

The oasis is also one of the only spots in California where native palms grow. Quoting their web site:

The palm encountered in the oases within the Preserve is the California fan palm, or Washingtonia filifera.  It is the only indigenous palm in California.  There is anoother palm used widely in the southern California area, the Mexican fan palm, or Washingtonia robusta.  It is a native of Baja California.

This native palm is only half as tall and thicker in the trunk. The tall ones you see all over LA are the import.

We got there just before sunrise to catch the sun as it hits the oasis in first light. This pano was stitched out of 6 shots, click on it to see it in its full glory.

AN8A1689-PanoThe palms are a great abstract pattern and one that David uses to get photographers thinking in terms of abstract form and color. Here’s one from the swampy area of the oasis.

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Shot of some driftwood-like roots in the area (below). The trick here and in the shot above is to eliminate all elements that detract from the formal patterns you’re trying to capture. Allow distractions or bad light to pull the eye and the dynamics of the shot are weakened.

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McCallum Grove

Just up McCallum Trail from the main oasis is the McCallum Grove and a perfect little pond. I lucked out and got a dragonfly sitting on a reed. Shot at 300mm, F-5.6.

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Anyone who’s in the Palm Springs area and wants a break from the golf should check out the oasis:

http://www.coachellavalleypreserve.org/Home.php

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