Photographing in Monument Valley
by Bev Pettit
I am awakened from deep sleep by the sound of high-pitched squeals and the clamor of thundering hoof beats just outside my tent door. At first I feel like I must be in the path of a vicious stampede. But then I hear the commanding yips of watchdogs as they chase the feral horses back out into the wilds of the pitch black desert where they came from, away from our corralled horses. Reminding myself that this is just a normal part of life on the Navajo reservation, I slowly fall back to sleep again.
A feral horse in the early morning light.As an equine and landscape photographer based on a small ranch in northern Arizona, I long for any opportunity to spend a few days photographing in Monument Valley, a place where time stands still. My most recent trip there consisted of horse camping in the backcountry. This is truly a spectacular way to experience and photograph the Navajo way of life, Monument Valley and its powerful landscapes which encompass miles of mesas, buttes, windblown red desert sand dunes, pinnacles of tall rock formations towering straight up into the sky, scraggly and twisted wind-worn emerald green trees all combining to create awe-inspiring scenery of color and drama in every direction. My heart skips a beat whenever I happen upon a band of feral horses roaming the valleys and dry creek beds providing another dimension to my photographs and filling them with flavors of the last frontier.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world. Its 30,000 acres straddle the borders of Arizona and Utah and offer breathless scenery any time of the year and almost any time of the day and night. Though Monument Valley is one of the most photographed landmarks in the United States, its varied seasons and spectacular lighting provide ample opportunity to capture new and refreshing visions of the red desert sands, crimson mesas and sandstone towers which spread throughout the area.
The intense drama created by thousand foot spires, and the long morning and evening shadows that they cast onto the desert floor, are sublimely surreal. Every time I see them I am in awe of their beauty and spellbound by their majesty. They never seem look the same twice. If you are lucky enough to visit Monument Valley when the sky is dotted with its famous puffy-white clouds you will be blessed with the beauty that they add to your photos. Sunrises are well worth getting up at the crack of dawn for. I enjoy getting out onto location before sunrise and waiting for the sun to show its blues, purples, reds, pinks and oranges against the dark sky. Sunsets are equally spectacular. During winter months, snow can provide a blanket of white that contrasts beautifully with the red of the desert and the bluest of skies creating such intense colors and rich hues that many will think your images have been enhanced. In reality, the colors that you see in the pictures of Monument Valley are truly that strong and deep. I generally find very little need to work any of my photographs in Photoshop to increase hue/saturation or intensity during editing!
As a visitor to the park you can drive on your own along designated routes that circumnavigate most all of the renowned landmarks such as The Mittens, Three Sisters, John Ford Point, Rain God Mesa, Thunderbird Mesa, Totem Pole, Yei Bi Chei and Sleeping Dragon. However, you are not allowed to venture off the official trails and roads (which are extremely rough by the way) on your own. If you would like to journey farther back onto private Navajo lands to see ancient Anasazi ruins, 2,000 year old rock art and petroglyphs, sacred Indian sites, Navajo homes and hogans you will need to hire a Navajo guide to show you around. You would travel in their purpose-made tour vehicles, on horseback, or in your own four-wheel drive SUV, jeep or truck. The View Hotel, Monument Valley
For a stay in a modern, comfortable hotel I recommend The View. (www.monumentvalleyview.com) This is the only hotel within the Tribal Park itself. The official park visitor center is located here. Each room has a view of the valley and offers opportunities to photograph spectacular sunsets and sunrises from your own private balcony.
Susie Yazzie, standing in the doorway of her childhood hogan.After your visit to Monument Valley you will not only leave with fantastic photographs but also with a deep sense of peace and harmony for having shared time with the Navajo people. They will welcome you with their good humor, quiet, yet simple way of life, and leave you with a yearning to return. “Ya’at’eeh”.
"Monument Valley is the place where God put the West."
~ John Wayne The Mittens, Monument Valley, USA.All photographs © Bev Pettit Photography, 2013