The surreal experience of Antelope Canyon
On Oct. 22, 2009, Microsoft released Windows 7, then the latest version of its flagship computer operating system. Included in the stock photos users could choose for a desktop background were several staggeringly beautiful images captured in a slot canyon a few miles outside of Page, Ariz. Also that year, National Geographic Adventures featured a photo taken in the same canyon on its magazine cover.
The canyon, one of several in a complex located on the Navajo Reservation, is called Upper Antelope. And since its debut on a global stage more than two decades ago, it has become the most-visited and most-photographed slot canyon in the world. A quick online search will lead you to thousands of images of it on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and elsewhere.
When you scroll through them, you’ll notice that they almost all look alike. There’s nothing necessarily unusual about that; tourist photos taken from such famous destinations as Glacier Point in Yosemite or at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon tend to all look the same, too. But the experience of making pictures in Antelope is unlike anything I have encountered in more than 50 years of landscape and nature photography. It helps explain why so many photos made there are nearly identical. And it prompted me to reflect on just what it is I am doing, and why, when I record and share images of the places Leslie and I visit during our travels.
Geology and choreography
As is typical on the reservation, you can only visit Antelope Canyon with a Navajo guide. The tribal government has developed regulations and guidelines for commercial tour operators, and five companies are authorized to lead groups into Upper Antelope. Prices range from $90 to $120 per person, the higher level being charged for prime-time tours — those that enter the canyon at midday, when sunlight falls directly into the slot and makes the vivid colors of the eroded sandstone pop.
Leslie and I visited Antelope during our recent spring swing through the Four Corners area. I had done some research ahead of time, and I sort of knew what to expect, but the experience in Antelope still engendered a strange blend of awe and dismay.
The main reason for the dismay is that although the canyon is small, and located in an out-of-the-way corner of Arizona, tourism there operates at an industrial scale. Although many of the photos people share have no people in them, or maybe just one or two in a selfie, the canyon operates like a theme park with timed-entry tickets to keep the crowd moving.
And there is a crowd. Disregard what the photos imply: Nobody is alone in Upper Antelope, unless they buy out all the tour tickets for a given time slot. (Reportedly, this is what pop star Britney Spears did for a music video — also released in 2009, and viewed since then more than 146 million times — that was shot in the canyon and nearby locations.)
Our tickets were for an 11:15 a.m. tour, the best time for photography in the canyon. We checked in at the staging area where several companies load customers onto various types of trucks, Jeeps and other vehicles for the 15-minute drive up a wash to the canyon entrance. There were a couple dozen in our group, transported in several pickups with bench seats bolted into the beds. A steady stream of other tour company vehicles, some carrying customers picked up in Page, also headed toward the canyon.
The canyon entrance is almost undetectable upon approach, just a narrow crack in a wall of rust-red Navajo sandstone. The caravan of tour vehicles parks there, and each guide’s group gathers outside before heading in together, pausing to ensure at least a small gap between the parties of visitors.
Once inside, the tour is tightly choreographed. Each group is basically led to a series of established photo-op sites, focusing on particular erosional features with the right blend of dramatic lighting and vivid colors. At those spots everybody stops for a few minutes and takes more or less the same photographs. You don’t have very long to get the shots you want, because the guides — who also offer tips about camera settings and where to stand — also make sure their groups keep moving to make space for the next party.
The most coveted photo, only possible at midday between late spring and early fall, involves capturing the shafts of sunlight that sometimes stab down into the canyon through cracks in the rock above. They only become visible — looking like a cross between a “Star Trek” tractor beam and a column of smoke — when they encounter floating dust and sand particles. This can happen naturally, as wind often sweeps sand into the canyon from the mesa top above. But the guides helpfully kick and toss sand into the air when the light is just right, to make sure everybody gets a chance to capture that dream image.
Until recently, the only way out of the canyon was to go back the way you came, which made for some serious congestion as groups traveling in opposite directions tried to squeeze past each other in the narrow chasm. But the Navajo Nation has installed an elaborate network of steel walkways, ramps and staircases to lead guests from the exit at the upper end of Antelope, onto the canyon rim above, across the slickrock, and then back down to the parking area near the entrance. Now it’s a loop, and traffic mostly moves one way.
The entire tour lasts 90 minutes. Of that, maybe half is spent actually in the canyon.
Trophies and memories
Given the weird artificiality of the tour, it is easy to be distracted from the visual extravagance of the canyon itself. It’s just flat-out gorgeous. That’s the reason for the awe part of my awe-dismay reaction. There’s something about the way the sandstone has been eroded by storm flows into voluptuous curves, coupled with the colorful banding of the rock itself and the canyon’s relatively compact dimensions — not as deep as most slots, it is really quite short, lending it an intimate feel — that confer upon it a unique and graceful aesthetic power.
I got the shot I wanted, the same shot everybody wants and many get. But the process was so far removed from my usual approach to photography (lots of time to explore, assess, compose, experiment with settings and vantage points, to absorb the spirit of the place I’m visiting and try to capture it in the frame) that it left me unsatisfied.
Which prompted me to interrogate my own intentions and expectations when I make and share photographs from our travels.
At the most basic level, I’m collecting souvenirs. Editing my images, like writing about the journey, allows me to experience it a second time, prolonging and deepening the experience. Each December, I create wall calendars based on photos from that year’s trips, so that Leslie and I can be reminded of those great memories even as we are creating new ones in the following 12 months. And it’s enjoyable to show friends and family pictures of the places we’ve been. I assume it is enjoyable for them as well. They ask to see them, after all.
Publishing photos is a different matter. Motivation for public sharing is trickier to navigate now, when so many people appear to be using social media to present artificially constructed visual versions of their lives for public consumption. There are a variety of motives on display: commercial, psychological, emotional. For some who post an endless stream of selfies shot in iconic locations, it may be an act of appropriation, an effort to assert temporary ownership of a famous landscape feature through public association with its beauty. For others, it’s nothing more complicated than a way of saying “I was here” without committing vandalism.
Leslie and I sometimes include each other in our shots, but the photos I publish in this journal and on my website are mostly of landscapes, the plants and animals that inhabit them, and the marks that humans have left on them over the millennia. They’re intended to illustrate stories, perhaps convey some truth about the beauty and complexity of our world, and to express my feelings and thoughts about being out in it. I share them also in the hope that others will appreciate what’s out there, perhaps be motivated to visit these places themselves, and in so doing, come to cherish, value and protect them.
Or at least that’s what I hope I’m doing. And in this context, my trophy shot of a sunbeam in Antelope Canyon makes me uneasy for a single reason: It does not tell the whole truth about that place and my experience in it. It’s a lovely fiction.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t print it and hang it on a wall in my home. It is beautiful, and that’s a good reason for making and sharing photographs, too.
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Nice work, John, it's helpful to me as I consider whether to make this trip ...
There you go again, puncturing another 21st century myth that the life I share on social media is the life I actually lead. Loved this piece, John.