Largely due to John Ford’s Westerns featuring John Wayne, Monument Valley is ingrained in the world’s collective consciousness as the very emblem of the West and of America. John Ford first filmed in Monument Valley when he directed Stagecoach in 1939, but in many of his later Westerns, perhaps most famously in The Searchers (1956), he returned to Monument Valley. In Ford’s movies as well as in countless Westerns since, Monument Valley appears and reappears as an imagined Western landscape onto which are projected narratives of rugged individualism, pioneering spirit, unapologetic machismo, and, above all, freedom.
On four separate trips to Monument Valley, I felt that I was looking for John Wayne. As I photographed, I almost expected him to enter my camera frame. Of course the landscape is so suffused with stock John Wayne images that it is almost impossible to meander through without feeling the promise, triumphs, and defeats of a John Wayne narrative. During two trips, the weather was overcast and stormy; on the third trip, distant wildfires caused a persistent haze. The inclement weather created images that suggest to me at once a utopia and a dystopia.