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A Photographic Challenge

Monument Valley, Utah. © Charles & Mary Love

Our recent viewing of director Sergio Leone’s classic western film, One Upon a Time in the West (1968), reminded us of one of our own photography experiences in Monument Valley (www.utah.com/monumentvalley).

Leone is the Italian director who made Clint Eastwood famous with his “spaghetti” westerns, produced in the 1960s. He was strongly influenced by the famous American director, John Ford, who pioneered shooting Hollywood features on location and filming actors in front of dramatic, Western scenery.

In classic movies like Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956) and others, Monument Valley was his location of choice, an area on the Utah/Arizona border known for its enormous sandstone buttes that rise above a vast, desert floor. Inspired by Ford, many other photographers and filmmakers have photographed the valley. Today, the area is a Navajo tribal park.

As photographers, we were drawn to Monument Valley nearly 20 years ago. Escorted early one morning by a Navajo guide, we drove in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle across the dusty, desert floor and looked out over the valley’s panoramas. Sensing our enthusiasm, the Navajo took us to a viewpoint that he said “neither John Ford nor any other photographer ever knew about.”

Thirty minutes later, at the top of a mesa, he pointed down a steep slope covered with boulders and loose rocks, “ There,” he said. “go down there for a view no else has ever seen!”

We must admit, “there,” roughly 100 yards away, seemed nearly impossible to reach. But Mary Herbert, who once lamented, “I wouldn’t know a landscape if I saw one,” was undaunted. Camera in hand, she slid down a rocky slope, scrambled over large boulders and momentarily balanced herself on a sandstone outcrop, just long enough to release the shutter. In the subdued morning light, she had to capture the image at 1/40 second, 100 ASA, without a tripod—a challenge in those days that would make strong men weep! This was, of course, the pre-digital era without the electronic camera features that would make such a photograph somewhat easier today.

The result was the photograph shown above—perfectly framed, great depth of field, and with excellent details and tonal range.  I’m certain she would have made John Ford, Sergio Leone and Ansel Adams proud!

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