Why and How: Photographing Death Valley in California in Black and White
Do you like Westerns and 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 films recounting the conquest of the west.
It is beautiful, impressive, grandiose. But photographing the landscapes of Monument Valley is not so easy because photographs quickly fall into the postcard register.
In this article, I propose a different photographic approach: the one 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 a pilgrimage. 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 made friends. We always talk about the same subjects: the passing of time, the difficult education for the children in the reservation, the next pow-wow which looks even better than last year. I walk on the dusty trails to recharge myself. Then I leave and continue west.
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 big rock coming off a butte. As the father of the Navajo family would say: "That is the way time goes”. There is nothing we can do. He is a fatalist. 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 stored very wisely on the servers. They will never be developed.
That is very strange, because everything is there. I just have to look and take pictures.
The problem is that every time I tried, I was replicating what others had done. Every time I fell into the postcard picture.
However, this year I took a big resolution. I decided to create a true collection of fine art photos of Monument Valley. I pondered for hours and hours to find an angle.
I took the place of a pioneer coming from the east and heading west to make his fortune. I decided to forget all the journeys I had already made in this region. I imagined it was the first time. I tried to think like a pioneer who was travelling through this area without water, a desert. I acted as if I was making a new start.
The Choice of Black and White
Everything has been said and photographed at Monument Valley. Yet everything remains to be done.
If you want to give an original way of this desert region where the dominant color is orange, black and white is ideal.
It may seem paradoxical, but if you make color photographs, you will quickly fall into the postcard photograph that you bring back from your holidays. Your photographs will be beautiful. Everyone will be captivated by the exceptional lights and colors of the region. But there will be nothing truly original and personal.
Monument Valley is made up of mineral landscapes. The whole valley is covered with massive sandstone and shale.
To capture textures and details, black and white is perfectly suited.
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 westerns and epics 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 implausible 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 the click 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. The discussion lasted an hour. Finally, he was right. His argument was unstoppable. I agreed with him.
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. 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 walk where 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. It is really worth the few dozen dollars you will give him.
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 format because they allow me to create very airy photos evoking the great outdoors and the freedom to move around.
But the square or 16:9 format is also well suited. Your imagination is the power. Above all, take your time to choose your scenes and photographic points of view.
How else to show Monument Valley than with 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 inexorable. Time goes on despite everything. That is what I learned from the Navajo. Something can get in the way of our lives. Yet we must keep moving forward. That is why, in some of the pictures, I've 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 just evoke adaptation to life's circumstances. It hardly ever rains in this area. Yet they are hardy and have leaves.
If you know how to look at Monument Valley and go beyond landscape photography, you will see and photograph real life. You will understand why you should always move forward, progress, learn and never stop while enjoying yourself.
The Black and White Photo Gallery of the Landscapes of Monument Valley, Arizona
Click on a thumbnail to enlarge the image.