Veni. Vedi. Selfie. For those who do not speak the local tongue, that’s Navajo for “Meh”.
Obviously, I’m not referring to the landscape, which is sublime, but to the whole photographic experience surrounding it.
Driving into Monument Valley, you queue up to pay your (reasonable) entry fee, walk up to the visitor center, climb a few steps and face this monumental panorama. One of the most recognised and photographed on the planet. The natural world’s Eiffel Tower of sorts.
And then that’s it. End of story. No build up, no exploration, no step-by-step discovery.
You can even take in the view from the comfort of your bedroom.
And that’s the triple problem here:
Honestly, this is quick shot and tacky souvenir heaven. Jewellery sold at 10 times the price. You get it.
The real draw / issue is that the scenery is gorgeous, famous and almost impossible to photograph poorly. There even is a designed area for photographers.
So, let’s face it, this is selfie-stick heaven. A whole park organized not towards hiking, learning or exploring but towards herding visitors towards a single view, then the gift shop.
Slightly sad, right ?
After 30 minutes, we left and I regretted not going to Shiprock instead. I didn’t even wait one hour for the sunset. The recent rains had added a touch of green to the scenery and there was no way I was going to let evening red light wash that away.
But I think 2 things really make this place come alive: variety and time.
Spice up the mittens
For one thing, the area surrounding Monument Valley is fabulous.
The road South, all the way from Holbrook is eye-poppingly beautiful (more to come on that story), for instance.
And the immediate vicinity of the park packed with photographic entertainment.
So be sure you allow for plenty of time to explore the roadside shops (yes, they’re touristy as well, but some look great) and settlements in the vicinity for more varied shots.
Meditate, Young Grasshopper
Let me repeat: as disappointing as the experience is, the sublime scenery really deserves better. It has meaning, scale, history and culture.
But the visitor center is set up in a way that just won’t let you search for interesting angles in a short spell. Indoors, you’ll get reflections on the glass (see below) and even outdoors, from the RV park on the left to the viewing platform right of The View hotel, the panorama doesn’t change that much.
It is one of these static landscapes that is difficult to explore and imposes the conditions.
My suggestion for photographing it is to apply one of the techniques tought in drawing school: sit around and stare. Let it sink in. Leave the camera in the bag and only take it out after a while.
This not only creates a connection but also destroys the mental construct associated to the scene (John Wayne, mega famous scenery, compulsory sunset …). All that is left are shapes, shadows, edges, highlights … The fanboy disappears, the photographer emerges.
I had no idea before coming, but 1 hour on the spot is a bit frustrating. If I had to do it again, I would (1) try to spend a day sitting in one out-of-the-way spot waiting for the right moment and (2) go to Shiprock as well 😉
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