How the West Was Won

By Nathaniel Smalley

The American Southwest, a land of raw elements and rugged terrain, a place where only the hardiest wildlife and plants survive. This corner of the world has captivated the imaginations of people for centuries. Once known as the great frontier, it drew settlers from all corners of the world seeking to make it their home. Today we read in history books about ‘How the West was won’, but my recent travels throughout Arizona and Utah would indicate that the wild west is anything but tamed. While crowds of tourists surely pour down its main highways in the summer months, just over the distant hills remains a land of unexplored beauty and silence. There the sun rises and sets over a stunning landscape, painting shadows in the corners that act as a supporting cast to the elaborate sandstone formations.
This was the first year since moving to Arizona in 2007 that I have not been in some remote corner of the world for the season of Spring. I took full advantage of this opportunity and spent the past three months chasing the light throughout the American Southwest. I was recently asked by Arizona Highways to lead a Best Of The West Photo Workshop for them in April of 2018, this was the perfect opportunity to scout for that upcoming itinerary and fill out my portfolio in those areas of the State.

My adventures of the season took me to countless iconic destinations across the gorgeous Arizona landscape. Monument Valley has long been known as the back yard playground of some of Hollywood’s greatest actors, most notably John Wayne. Standing there overlooking the vista dominated by towering rock buttes that are illuminated by the setting sun one quickly realizes why many have been so easily drawn to this magical place.

The beauty of this region extends below the earth’s surface as well, deep into narrow slot canyons that have been forged by flood waters rushing over the sandstone for centuries. These powerful torrents carry rocks, logs and other debris with such force that they carve out fantastic underworld realms that are incredible places to explore and even better to photograph! During the Spring and Summer months sunbeams occasionally make it down through the top of the canyon walls painting the walls with light and revealing their amazing textures and patterns. Walking through the chasm one can often hear the call of a Raven perched by the top echoing through through the passage, or that of a Great Horned Owl if you’re lucky!

The plant life in the Southwest is unlike anywhere else in the United States. Gigantic Saguaros and other varieties of cactus decorate certain sections of the landscape while other parts support species that dominate a specific region as is the case in Joshua Tree National Park. I happened to be there during the season when these ancient trees bloom and found some wonderful subjects. This image of one bowing down to the earth burdened by the weight of time was one of my favorites due to its unique shape.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share one of the wonderful shots I captured of the Grand Canyon during this adventure. Here is a place that is impossible to put into words or offer an image that dose justice to the majesty and glory of gazing out at one of the seven wonders of the world. When the sun cuts across the ridge line at sunset and casts beams across the vast opening it is truly breathtaking.

Another location that I photographed during this whirlwind tour was the beautiful Canyon de Chelly. Here a towering sandstone spire rises up 750 feet from the canyon floor reaching to the sky. The Navajo Nation has a fantastic legend about Spider Woman surrounding this formation that would impress even the most dedicated comic book enthusiast. Sunset overlooking this valley is unforgettable.

No trip in the American Southwest would be complete without walking around under the cover of darkness in the shadow of ancient rock formations, so I returned to do just that last weekend. My travels took me north where there is limited light pollution in order to photograph the Milky Way. Here in the wee hours of the morning the galaxy explodes above and leaves one feeling incredibly small. It is therapeutic, it puts life in context and heals your tattered soul. The adrenaline that courses through you standing there can not be duplicated. What a wonderful world.

The simple reality I discovered is that the West will never be won, it is a wild and free land for those who are willing to go out and seek its raw dimensions. If you would like more information on my upcoming Best Of The West Photo Workshop you can find complete details at this link. Three spots filled the day it was announced and space is limited. I can’t wait to return to these exceptional destinations next year with my group and look forward to sharing our images with you at that time. I am now off to lead my Ultimate African Adventure Safari, I’ll put together an in depth trip report from our experiences once we return. Thanks for reading!

Nathaniel Smalley is an Instructor with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops


A Short History on Canyon de Chelly

author:  Meng Tay

As we begin our trip to Canyon de Chelly with Navajo photographer LeRoy DeJolie it is important to understand the archeological, historical and cultural signficance of this sacred canyon.  Here is a short history of Canyon de Chelly.

Following millions of years of land uplifts and rivers cutting through the area, Mother Nature has endowed on us today one of the most beautiful landmarks in Arizona.  When you visit a place as significant as Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d’SHAY), it helps to understand its history.  This is a place that has been inhabited by humans for almost 5,000 years but many visitors to this National Monument came only to admire its beauty, unaware of its contribution to mankind, the state of Arizona and native American history.


The first known settlers in Canyon de Chelly were the Archaic people about 5,000 years ago, from 2500 to 200 BC. They did not build permanent homes but lived in seasonal campsites.  They hunted and gathered for their food in the area.  Their stories were told through remains of their campsites and images they painted and etched on the canyon walls.

Then came the basket-makers who lived in the canyon from 200 BC to AD 750.  They were farmers instead of hunters and gatherers.  Over time they built a farming community complete with large granaries and public structures.  Life was good but that slowly changed.

From AD 750 to 1300, a new group of settlers called the Pueblos, started to build stone houses above ground. They connected the stone houses and built multi-story villages with household compounds and kivas with decorated walls.  They are often referred to as the Anasazis, or the “ancient ones.”  Most of the ruins that you see today are from these settlers, including the well-known White House.


The Anasazis left the area probably because of poor farming conditions.  Then the Hopis started using the area for seasonal farming and occasional lengthy stays until the early 1700s’.  The Hopis then encountered the Navajos, who were pushed from their homelands by their adversaries.  The Navajos brought with them domesticated farming that they have learned from the Spanish settlers.  However, this was not a peaceful time for the Navajos, as they continue to fight with other Indian tribes and the Spanish colonists.  In 1805, a Spanish military expedition fought with a group of Navajo people at the Canyon del Muerto.  At the end of the day-long battle, 115 Navajo warriors were killed.  The rock shelter where they took cover is today called Massacre Cave.

In the 1800s’ the United States military started pushing westward and claimed the area as its territory.  They tried to relocate the Navajos to eastern New Mexico.  Colonel Kit Carson forced 8,000 Navajos to walk 300 miles from the area to Fort Sumner, NM.  Many died and this is sadly remembered as “The Long Walk.”

After four years they were allowed to return to Canyon de Chelly.  Today, it’s a living community of the Navajo people.  A visit to this National Monument not only brings you back to 5,000 years of history but to see first-hand how our fellow citizens live today.  It’s a unique and special place, jointly managed by the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation.

Visiting Canyon de Chelly as part of an Arizona Highways Photo Workshops trip is even more special.  First, you are led by acclaimed Navajo photographer and author, LeRoy DeJolie.  LeRoy knows the people, speaks the language and knows where all the best places to capture the most memorable photographs.  Along the way, you will get lessons on Native American customs and culture, and showered with Navajo hospitality.  This workshop is usually offered only once a year, and it’s almost always fully-booked.


Navajolands and People – An Amazing Journey to an Award Winning Photo

Author: Ken Brown

Navajolands” with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops is the trip of a lifetime ! There are so many components to this adventure, and in addition to understanding and exploring key places and activities of Native American history and people, there are exciting photographic opportunities at every turn…

For me personally, I walked away with both a huge increase in knowledge of the Navajo culture, and a major award winning photo – my first in 40+ years of photography.

_DSC2073r2We started off the workshop with a Navajo model shoot, up on a hilltop at sunset. This concept of combining location, landscape, and people is a common thread in this workshop and provides so much more than “just” the landscape photo. Leroy DeJolie is truly expert at combining these elements, and gives freely and openly with his experience and teaching.

Here’s my own hilltop, sunset image, of a previous “Miss Navajo” award winner.

It was a lovely day, and with Leroy’s guidance, the participants used a reflector or their own off camera flash, to expose for the model and for the background. Learning techniques like this, mixing lighting, was part of the instruction.

In my case, this image also ended up being used by AHPW for their own advertising purposes. Students do occasionally have their images _DSC2717-2used (with their permission and with photo credits of course), so this is a great way to find yourself in print.

We spent several days after the shoot exploring Canyon de Chelly. A truly iconic location, photographed extensively by Ansel Adams. We had an opportunity to follow in his footsteps, see what he saw, and try to capture our own vision of this amazing location.

We had a cloudy and slightly rainy day, which just added to the atmosphere, and really allowed us to better capture the colors of the rock. We didn’t mind the rain at all, and walked through the drops.

Here’s a scene that you might recognize, one that Ansel Adams had perfected.
What a feeling to follow in his footsteps…

During our exploration of Canyons de Chelly, our local Navajo tour guides shared _DSC2651-2lots of history and stories of their culture and people. One of our guides had particular expertise, and we had a live demonstration crafting hand made stone arrowheads.

We then decided to make an impromptu stop in the Canyon to visit a local Navajo woman who hand weaved rugs. What was really unique about her craft is that she managed the entire process herself, including raising the sheep that would supply the wool. They were curious about our cameras and posed quite nicely for us.

What a great way to end our visit to the Canyon.

Then we loaded up the van and headed to Window Rock to spend _DSC2461-2several days at the yearly Navajo Fair. Having Leroy, a local Navajo, as the Photography leader of our group gave us unparalleled access to the Fair. We were able to get everywhere, behind the scenes, and right up close and personal into all of the events. As you know with any event photography, having this type of access presents opportunities that would be completely impossible under other conditions, and being in the right place, at the right time, in the right venue, was what ultimately helped my capture my award winning image. I’ll tell you all about it in the next Blog on “Navajolands and People”. But if you – want to learn more about the Navajo culture, see and photograph iconic locations and people, and have your own opportunity for award winning photos, this is the workshop for you !!


Ken Brown is a portrait and nature photographer and an Arizona Highways Photo Workshop Trip Leader.