Monument Valley, Utah
Sitting in a quiet restaurant in Taos, New Mexico. We’ve got one more day before we need to be in Albuquerqe. Some of you have expressed anything from wonder to shock to consternation at how fast I’m travelling. It won’t always be this way. Sadly in order to do this trip at all I needed to front-load some of the travel and that means less time in some places that deserve much more time to explore, like Taos for example. We’ll eat, we’ll breeze through. Anyways…
One of the constraints of this trip is the incredibly limited time I’ve got at locations that deserve much, much more time. One of those places is Utah’s Monument Valley, nestled in Navajo country on the border of Arizona. Like so many places in the Americas the location itself is iconic, seen in so many films you feel you know the place by sight even if you’re not sure you can name it. The downside of such little time in one place is simply the lack of time to go deep, to really see and experience, but I’m not convinced the solution to that is to simply put your tripod in the same holes as others and resort to the postcard shot from the so-called viewpoint or lookout that inevitably sprout up around these places, most often within a couple feet of the parking lot.
A couple nights ago I had one evening to photograph in Monument Valley. So I focused not on my options but my constraints. I knew I wanted to shoot well into twilight hours, and I knew I wanted to photograph one of the more iconic spires. I also knew I wanted to use my 24mm tilt-shift and get well beyond the throngs I suspected would show up if the sun cooperated, which was looking iffy. So I wandered out into the desert on the marked trail and eventually ended up only a few meters from the trail, but a good kilometer away from the viewpoint, which as it turns out gathered quite a crowd of tripods and expensive gear and people making the exact same photograph. I found a great tree after doing iPhone test-shots with a couple others, and hunkered down for close to three hours. I took a chance. I might have wandered and found nothing at all and gone back to the truck without even the postcard shot the others got. But more and more that postcard shot doesn’t feel worth taking to me, so it’s no real loss. It’s the same reason I didn’t go to Antelope slots canyon. I’ve seen some gorgeous light there in hundreds of beautiful photographs, but I’m not sure I’m going to bring anything new to the table.
This trip is teaching me a great deal, not the least of which is the revelation of what it is I really want to be photographing. It’s giving me the freedom to leave the rest to others.
I had a funny moment in Death Valley; we were alone on the Racetrack playa and I was sitting down at my tripod after working for an hour or two to find and frame one photograph for which I was still awaiting the light, when one of the only other people within miles walks up to me, put his camera literally over my shoulder and fires off a frame. He chuckled and said his best shot of the day might just be the one I was taking. No sh*t it was, with an approach like that. But rather than make me angry it made me laugh and reminded me of the difference in approaches. For some people it’s enough to buy the gear and put their tripod in the holes of Ansel Adams, for others it’s a process that involves discovery, risk, and great reward. These days I’m happy with one single photograph from my time out in the field, if that; I’m learning I’m happier with that one hard-earned frame than I am with 20 mediocre photographs I rushed to get.