Monument Valley, Arizona

When movie director John Ford changed Marion Morrison into John Wayne, dressed him up in a cowboy outfit and stuck him out in this arid, forbidding corner of the Arizona desert, he created the defining image of the American West.

The first time you come into Monument Valley, you’re enraptured. It’s instantly recognizable; the red sands, the soaring mesas, the impossibly blue sky.

Taking pictures, you feel like a genius. Every click of the shutter is remarkable. It only slowly dawns on you that it’s all been done before.

I still stare out at this landscape with a feel of awe, but I despair at the prospects of creating something truly original here.

I maneuver the VW truck down a rough track to the valley floor, passing more economical compacts as they scrape and gouge oil pans in a manner directly in contravention of their rental car contracts. The sun burns the desert hot and dry, and open wheel Navajo Jeep tours pass by encased in clouds of dust. I stare at the changing geometry of light and shadow, sand and rock.

Sunset ignites the red mesas to the color of flame, and with dusk the color leaches away like a coal growing cold. The moon rises full and fat behind the cliffs. I return to the overlook, watching the twilight fade to moonlit night.

There are no cowboys and the Indians have all gone home for the night. It’s just me, standing on a cliff, staring out at the desert.

Photographed July 9, 2009 with a Hasselblad 2000 FCM and Rodenstock 3x loupe on Neopan 400 black and white film.

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