Why and How: Photographing Death Valley in California in Black and White
Do you like Westerns and the freedom of the atmosphere of the Southwestern United States? If the answer is yes, then you will love Monument Valley.
The buttes and mesas that line the valley are forever associated with the old films recounting the conquest of the west.
It is beautiful, impressive, and grandiose. But photographing the landscapes of Monument Valley is not so easy because photographs of this kind quickly fall into the postcard category.
In this article, I propose a different photographic approach: the use of black and white.
The Little Story of This Article
Every year in the fall, I spend at least two days at Monument Valley. It is like an annual pilgrimage of mine. I think this is where my passion for the United States was born.
On every trip, I ride on the stony tracks covered with orange dust. I take about sixty pictures. I spend some time with a Navajo family with whom I have become good friends. We always talk about the same subjects: the passing of time, the challenges of education for the children living on the reservation, and the upcoming pow-wow which will be even better than the previous one. I retrace the ancient dusty trails and recharge my spiritual batteries. Even after I leave and continue west, a piece of my heart remains in this special place.
Each pilgrimage follows the same rhythm. Monument Valley is the praise of the slow pace of time, the slow rhythm of nature. The landscapes are gradually eroding. Every year I can see a large rock protruding off a butte, which will one day erode to the ground. As the father of the Navajo family would say: "That is the way time goes.” He is a fatalist, and he is right. There is nothing we can do to stop such a phenomenon. I understand his way of being.
This place is truly inspiring. However, I had never been able to create a collection of interesting art photos before. I have accumulated hundreds of photos that are privately stored in my collection, but I do not believe they will ever be developed.
This is a strange concept to me. Even though all of the right lights, forms, and techniques were perfect, something was missing. After taking the pictures of this place I love, I would simply stare at the images and ponder.
The problem is that every time I tried to share my emotions and feelings regarding this magical place, I felt like I was replicating what others had done. Every time I took a beautiful photo, I realized that it could quickly be categorized as a postcard picture.
However, this year, I made a big resolution. I decided to create a true collection of fine art photos of Monument Valley. I pondered for hours and hours to try and imagine the perfect solution to this goal.
Finally, I chose to consider what it would be like to take on the role of a pioneer journeying from the east to the west to acquire his fortune. I decided to forget all the previous experiences I had had in this region. I imagined that it was the first time my eyes had fallen upon such a sight. I tried to think like a pioneer who was travelling through this barren desert with little water and food. I acted as if I was entering a new chapter, a fresh start.
The Choice of Black and White
It could be said that everything has already been done in terms of photographing at Monument Valley. And yet there is an endless universe of possibilities left to accomplish.
If you want to give an original perspective of this desert region where the dominant color is orange-toned, then the use of black and white is ideal.
It may seem paradoxical, but if you make color photographs, you will quickly fall into the postcard category. Your photos will only remind you and others of the cheap images that you carry back from your holidays. Your colored photographs will be beautiful. Everyone will be captivated by the exceptional lights and colors of the region. But there will be nothing truly original or personal.
Monument Valley is made up of mineral landscapes. The whole valley is covered with massive sandstone and shale.
To capture textures and details, the use of black and white is a perfect match.
The Use of the Foreground
Many photographers take pictures from afar trying to capture the general atmosphere of the valley. I can perfectly understand this way of proceeding. Only one road leads to Monument. When we arrive, the car park is located on an overhang overlooking the valley. It is breathtaking. The landscapes are grandiose. Immediately, the memories of the western films and epic tales of the American pioneers come back to mind.
If you want to photograph Monument Valley's landscapes with far away shots, this will only be possible at certain points of view.
Another way is to add a strong foreground that will add an extra dimension to your composition. The meadows of Monument Valley are littered with dead trees or juniper trees, each one more fantastic than the other.
For an exceedingly long time, I refused to photograph dead trees. I love life and energy. I found that a dead tree evoked death and gave a morbid dimension to photographs.
It was during a photo workshop devoted to the bugle of the deer that a spark of change occurred. During a discussion with Eric Bornet, a trainee, he explained to me that a dead tree or a dead branch could be used as a photographic element to enhance the reading of a photo. He gave me the example of the leopard lying on a branch. Our discussion lasted an hour. His argument was unstoppable. I finally agreed that he was right.
It is since this famous training course that I understood the importance and the interest of a dead or emaciated tree in an art photo. This was perhaps the reason why I did not develop any Monument Valley photos before. The absence of this famous foreground prevented me from expressing myself totally.
If you are photographing Monument Valley landscapes, feel free to use a tree in the foreground. It is a real asset.
The Choice of Focal Lengths
All photographic lenses are usable at Monument Valley. The range is from 14mm to 200mm. The shorter your focal length, the closer you will have to get to the mesas or mounds. The longer the focal length, the further away you can get.
Be careful if you want to get close. You are on a Navajo reservation. Monument Valley is sacred land. You cannot simply walk wherever you want to walk. The Navajo name the place Tse Bii' Ndzisgaii, meaning "Valley of the Rocks". Ideally, you should pay a Navajo guide to take you to places where you cannot go yourself. The incredible sights are definitely worth the few dozen dollars you will give him to share this place with you.
Framing and Formats
Anything is possible at Monument Valley. It all depends on what you want to convey and express. Personally, I adopt the 3:1 and 3:2 formats because they allow me to create airy photos evoking the great outdoors and the freedom to move around.
However, the square or 16:9 format is also well suited. Your imagination is power. Above all, take your time to choose your scenes and photographic points of view.
How else can you showcase Monument Valley without becoming a postcard photo? That is the challenge you are going to have to face because everything has already been done.
Personally, I chose the great outdoors, the journey of a pioneer who was seeing the region for the first time. A dead tree in the foreground of an open stage shows that life goes on despite all the misfortunes that can happen to us. It is unstoppable. Time goes on despite everything. That is what I learned from the Navajo. Something may get in the way of our lives. Yet we must keep moving forward. That is why, in some of the pictures, I have placed a tree directly in front of a mound.
I have photographed junipers with a few leaves even though they are skeletal and seem to be on the verge of drying out. For me, these trees evoke an adaptation to the circumstances of our life. It hardly ever rains in this area. Yet they are hardy and have leaves. They have adapted to their surrounding challenges.
If you know how to look at Monument Valley and venture beyond landscape photography, you will see and photograph real life. You will understand why you should always move forward, progress, and learn in your primary interest of photography. Ultimately, you must never stop fueling your passion for your work and art.
The Black and White Photo Gallery of the Landscapes of Monument Valley, Arizona
Click on a thumbnail to enlarge the image.