Monument Valley and The Familiarity of the New

One of the strangest, and yet entirely unsurprising, reactions to seeing Monument Valley (my journey to which had served as occasion for rueful wonderment at the continued plight of the Native American), is a sense of familiarity: I’ve seen this before, somewhere, somehow. Among the curious welter of emotions too, that the Valley evokes is a sense of relief of finally having tapped into the source of images–moving and still alike, their provenance seemingly shrouded by mystery–that have brought that locale to my attention over the years. (Some fourteen years ago, I had driven through the American West, and on seeing signs for it, had declined to take a detour, dismissing the possibility with an arch ‘It’s just a tourist trap.’ It still remains a ‘tourist trap’ of sorts, but one you’d do well to be ensnared in for a while.)

For most, the source of entrenched Monument Valley images is the Hollywood Western, the products of which genre I have often had the pleasure of sampling over the years. This was an indulgence more often succumbed to in my childhood, but I remain susceptible, even though I have grown up, and supposedly developed a more mature and nuanced appreciation of its associated mythology. The director who did the most to stoke the Valley’s legend in cinema was, of course, John Ford whose ‘Magnificent Seven’ (Stagecoach (1939)My Darling Clementine (1946); Fort Apache (1948); She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949); The Searchers (1956); Sergeant Rutledge (1960); Cheyenne Autumn (1964)) did a great deal to establish the West as stage and backdrop for a particularly American brand of romantic, rugged heroism. (I do not recall my first cinematic encounter with Monument Valley but the most memorable one remains J. Lee Thompson’s Mackenna’s Gold, in large part because its Super Panavision 70 production ensured some wonderful panoramic shots in its opening minutes. The movie went rapidly downhill afterwards.)

The establishment of the imagery of a particular place in cinema (or coffee-table tourism book, National Geographic documentary etc) brings about the confusion that infected my first glimpse of the Valley. It was a confusion that seemed familiar; I had experienced it before while visiting Machu Picchu. There too, on reaching the ridge over the Urubamba Valley, I sensed deja vu, so iconic had those images become. Indeed, at that time, I had stood still for a few minutes after taking in my first views, just to make sure I was engendering an experience considerably different from that available via the glanced-at photograph.

Did this familiarity turn the visit to Monument Valley into a gigantic disappointment, a colossal ‘is that all there is’ moment? Not in the least. The movies and photographs leave out a great deal: the heat, the sound of the wind, the feeling of the fine, gritty, red dust beneath my feet, the glare off the sun on the rocks, the varied colors, contours, textures, splits and cracks of the rock walls visible only from up close. The two-dimensional flatness of the movie or photographs is dramatically replaced by an immersion that ensures that once the shock of the familiar has worn off, a new journey awaits.

The images you take back with you look just like the ones in the coffee books, but with a vital difference: you personally know the photographer, and that intimacy cannot but infect the visible  landscape with its own distinctive stamp. (Click for a larger image below.)

7 comments on “Monument Valley and The Familiarity of the New

  1. Satadru Sen says:

    I recall Mackenna’s Gold showing for weeks in India! So for some of us, Monument Valley is a double point of entry into the past: into the 1970s India of our childhood, as well as wider mythical America.

  2. Samir Chopra says:

    Satadru: Good point. In many ways MG was *the* iconic Western in India (and ‘The Magnificient Seven’ too, I suppose.) Indeed, one of my many thoughts on visiting the Southwest was that I felt like a kid all over again.

  3. nanc says:

    Your writing has been captivating lately. I look forward to more posts about your journey.

  4. The West does that to you. The Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Cavern. No advertising copy can ruin either. Both will exceed all superlatives.

  5. […] landscapes of these parks, like those of Monument Valley on which I wrote last year, have become iconic–captured innumerable times in photographs and movies.  Your first […]

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