The Classic American West: Monument Valley – Best of the West, Day 5

By Susan Snyder

This is day five of a series of six blogs about the AHPS workshop, “Best of the West”. Watch for day six on November 12th.

As you wave farewell to Page, your thoughts turn to the upcoming sunset shoot planned for tonight and tomorrow’s sunrise in Monument Valley Tribal Park.  You and your fellow travelers discuss what you all remember about Monument Valley.  The number of movies, television shows and of course photographers that have all spent time there.  You check in at the famous Goulding’s Lodge, get settled in your room and meet up with a few others for lunch.  After lunch, it is time to grab your gear and head into the Valley.  A stop at the Visitor’s Center allows you to gaze in wonder at the landscape before you.  The buttes, the rock formations, the blue sky and red sand mesmerizes and transports you into another time.  You and your fellow photographers find the place of Ansel Adam’s infamous photo and take turns capturing it for yourselves.  Then, it’s time to scout for your sunset location.  You happen to be in the Valley on a special day, the day of the Monument Valley Mitten Shadow peak. Twice each year, the West Mitten Butte casts a perfect shadow upon East Mitten Butte at sunset.  You walk around wondering what will make up your final, perfect composition.  Do you want to frame the mitten with tree branches in the foreground?  Do you want the mitten to stand alone with minimal foreground?  You make your decision and get into place.  You have more experience with the Zone method by this time and know how to set up your camera.  A tripod with shutter release cable is necessary as it will be getting darker with the setting of the sun.  You opt for a few high dynamic range images while you can.  Then after the long wait, you see the shadow of the west mitten slowly creep up the side of the east mitten.  And just like that, you’ve captured an image few visitors to Monument Valley ever get.  After sunset and a little bit of shooting during blue hour, it’s time to head back to the hotel for a good night’s rest because you have to be up very early to get into the park before sunrise tomorrow.

Image by Bloom Photography

It’s tomorrow and it’s early, very early and dark.  You find yourself in an open-air vehicle on the highway, while still wiping sleep from your eyes, heading back into Monument Valley.  You get to photograph the totems at sunrise!  The instructor, LeRoy DeJolie is helping you and everyone else get set up at your location.  He’s inspiring you to look at the compositions carefully and to slow down.  He encourages patience and perspective to not just shoot but to really feel the composition is correct.  He often says to not shoot 100 images only to have to discard 99 of them. Do you want the ripples in the sand to make up your foreground?  Do you want to incorporate the sagebrush and other flora that dot the desert floor?  You decide you want to capture a little bit of both.  As the sunrise bathes the desert in golden, liquid sunshine, the contrasts in the rock formations capture your attention and you move around getting different angles of the totems.  You move on from the totems and explore much of the remaining valley, stopping at the points that provide the best opportunities to capture the glory of the Valley. During this particular workshop you visit the East and West Mittens viewpoint, John Ford’s Point & Three Sisters viewpoint, Artist’s Point and the North Window viewpoints.  John Ford’s Point is of particular interest as this is the director’s favorite camera location; the place where numerous cavalry charges and Indian attacks were committed to film against the stunning backdrop that is Monument Valley.  You leave the Valley knowing that even though you thought you had seen Monument Valley, now you know you never really did until you arrived.   Just like the Grand Canyon, you can’t “see” it until you’ve seen it in person.  You’re back to the hotel to quickly eat breakfast, pack and load up into your van for your next destination to the south, Chinle and Canyon de Chelly.  Will it be like the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley?  Do you have to see it to see it?

Susan Snyder is a Photo Guide with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes.