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.

References:   https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/cultural_diversity/Canyon_de_Chelly_National_Monument.html



Bill Cunningham – A Gifted Street Photographer

Author:  K. Meng Tay

Bill Cunningham died last week at the age of 87.  If you have never heard of Bill Cunningham, you are probably not alone.  He was a photographer, a very successful one for 50 years.  New York City (NYC) named him a living landmark.  The French government honored him with the Legion of Honor.

His usual spot is at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, just outside Tiffany’s in NYC.  His subjects are everyday people who walk past that corner.  He tried to be invisible and discreet.  But, when people recognized him, they want to be photographed by him.  He was unmistakable in his blue French worker’s jacket, khaki pants and black sneakers riding a bicycle through town.  His subjects included almost anyone who is someone in the fashion world, whether it’s NYC, Paris or London. They included Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Anna Wintour (editor of Vogue magazine), Diane von Furstenberg, etc.

However, what makes Bill so successful was his photographs of everyday people.  He’d pick a fashion topic and take a series of pictures to highlight his focus.  Most people never noticed him and that’s what differentiated him.  Here is a playlist of some of his photographs from the New York Times:

Bill Cunningham Playlist

What can we learn from Bill Cunningham to be a successful photographer?

  • Tell a story. This is what makes Bill stand out.  While others see people walking the streets, Bill finds a theme and then spin a story around it.  Photography is just a bunch of pictures if there is no story.
  • Passion.  Not only was he telling a story but he was passionate about the story and his subjects.  You can tell by listening to his voice and it showed in his photographs.
  • Be singularly focused on one subject. It’s better to be a Master of One then be a Jack of All Trades.
  • Dare to be different. It’s easy to get carried away by all the beautiful landscape photographs in magazines and websites but Bill picked a topic that he loves and keep working on it.  Some people may have laughed at him early in his career but just read all the accolades he received.
  • Expensive equipment does not guarantee success. Bill used only a simple 35mm camera.  I don’t know if he ever upgraded to digital cameras but I don’t see him carrying a zoom lens or a tripod.  And he rides around the city on a bicycle.
  • Humility and Simplicity. Bill was a very humble and modest person.  Because of his character, he made many friends, including some in the high society of NYC.  He refused to be in the spotlight himself.  He did not think that he is better than his subjects and therefore, they willingly allow themselves to be photographed.
  • Money is not everything. He tore many of the checks that were given to him.  He refused payment sometimes.  He could’ve been wealthy if he wanted to but instead he lived in a studio apartment with one bed and filing cabinets of his photographs.
  • Patience and Timing. He must have researched his subjects and waited for the right moment.  As any professional photographer will tell you, timing is everything.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to replicate the success of Bill Cunningham, especially if photography is your livelihood.  For those of us mere amateurs, we can only hope that someone would even look at our pictures.

Here are some more articles about Bill Cunningham in the New York Times:

Bill Cunningham, Legendary Times Fashion Photographer, Dies at 87
Bill Cunning on Bill Cunningham
Bill Cunningham Looked for Subjects. And They Looked for Him.






Hunt’s Mesa: A Sacred Place

Author:  K. Meng Tay

This past week I was a trip leader on an Arizona Highways Photo Workshop to Monument Valley and Hunt’s Mesa with LeRoy Dejolie.  This workshop not only provided magical photo opportunities, it left me with a lasting impression

We disembarked from our vehicles about 100 yards from the top of the mesa. Our acclaimed Navajo photographer and author, LeRoy DeJolie, addressed the group (not exactly in these words): “This is a sacred place to my ancestors. This is where my grandmother lived without water or electricity. As we walk to the top I want you to look down and not open your eyes until I told you to do so.”

We stood next to each other at the top of the mesa, our eyes still closed. When LeRoy told us to open our eyes, there were a plenty of “oohs” and “wows” and even some tears. Before us was one of the most majestic views that all of us have ever seen.Hunts1

The above panoramic picture is a merger of 8 shots taken at 1/200 sec, f/11 and ISO 200. Post-processing with Lightroom 6.

It was about 3 pm when we arrived at Hunts Mesa. You couldn’t have asked for better conditions for photography – majestic view, interesting subjects, good lighting, plenty of clouds. The Spirit of Hunts Mesa had welcome us.

Storms clouds started to form when I took this shot below at 1/250 sec, f/11 and ISO 100. Within an hour or so, the clouds turned dark, indicating imminent rain.


It rained as we were getting ready for dinner. John Holiday, our outfitter and his team, prepared a dinner that is worthy of a Michelin star. Don’t let the anglicized name fool you. John is as native as the dirt and trees in Monument Valley. The name Holiday was given to his grandfather by a white man when he could not spell his Navajo name. His team of cousins and nephews performed flawlessly taking care of our group of 19. They drove us on treacherous terrains that required four-wheel drive vehicles and caused many of us to close our eyes.

The team prepared our meals, set up our tents, and cleaned up after us. They educated us on Navajo culture and customs. An often misunderstood and mistreated group, this team exceeded everyone’s expectations. Praises overflowed.

The rain was a blessing in disguise as we will see later. As we retire to our tents, the patter of the raindrops was trying to soothe us to sleep. As if to comfort us, a full-moon appeared. Like a night-light, it guided us to where we need to go when mother nature beckons. To top it all, the stars appeared and shined brightly at us. A glorious night indeed.


What a scene when we woke up in the morning. We are up in the clouds! A convergence of rain, temperature and other weather conditions filled Monument Valley with fog. We were in a perfect spot, up on Hunts Mesa, to see this rare phenomenon – a blessing to any keen photographer. This shot was taken at 1/200 sec, f/9 at ISO 100.

As we broke camp, the fog rolled in amongst us. The Spirit had come to hug us and say good-bye. We had come to take pictures. We left not only with iconic pictures, but with great respect for the Navajos, their land, culture, customs and as fellow human-beings. Indeed, this is A Sacred Place.

K. Meng Tay is a trip leader for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

Bangkok – Photographer Overload

Author: K. Meng Tay

Most of us, at some point, will have a chance to travel overseas, either simply for leisure or for photography-oriented trips. If it’s the latter, you are often faced with a myriad of choices and questions. Your natural instinct tells you to take pictures of those that you’ve seen in hundreds of travel magazines before: Eiffel Tower in Paris, Great Wall in China, Coliseum in Rome, etc. Sure, you want to show your family and friends that you were there but what would make a more interesting photography trip is to shoot scenes that will link your moment in time in that foreign country with those pictures.

First order of business is decide how much sightseeing you want to do and how much of that you want to capture in pictures. In a bustling and fast-pace city like Bangkok, you better be ready to shoot or you will miss your shot.

The second decision to make is what type of pictures do you want to focus on. Not many opportunities for landscape photography here unless you go to the outskirts of the city. Portraits are good. With people from all over the world visiting Bangkok, you are bound to see some very interesting faces. The Thais, in their many walks of life, is a kaleidoscope of colors. Buddhist monks in their saffron robes, street vendors cooking steaming food, shoppers at the open-air market, and schoolchildren in their school uniforms.

My favorite is taking pictures of food and fruits. The tropical fruits in Thailand are tasty and colorful durians, mangosteens, pomegranates, mangos, jackfruits, etc. Similarly, anything goes in terms of variety and taste of food. There is almost no regulation here so anything that sells is on the market. Fried scorpions and grasshoppers are available if you dare to try it.

Shooting temples is another popular option. In this very devout Buddhist society temples are everywhere. They range from super-big temples to store-front altars. Statues of Buddhas come in many shapes and sizes and different posses. Some may require a wide-angle lens to capture the entire image. Smoke from burning incense sticks give an interesting effect to the pictures.

The first picture below shows just a plain busy street with neon signs. But, look closer and you will see three languages on the neon signs: Thai, English and Chinese. This was taken in Chinatown, where a sizable Chinese population here drives commerce in the country. This popular area is where many locals and tourists come for the best seafood in Bangkok, as evidenced by the many roadside food vendors lining the street.


If you want to try pomegranate juice, you may have a hard time finding a bottle of POM here. Better yet, street vendors will oblige you by squeezing a fresh glass of juice from an exotic looking pomegranate below. An opportunity to practice your macro photography.


If you come into contact with this fruit, you will never forget its smell. It is so pungent that many hotels, planes, trains, buildings, will not allow you to bring a durian inside. However, the locals love them and in some countries, they nickname it “the king of fruits.”


What makes the following picture memorable? This woman is selling hats on a boat. Her pose and variety of hats that she sells reminds me of where I shot this picture – the Floating Market.

Floating Market Hats

No visit to Bangkok is complete without pictures of the many temples and statues of Buddhas. One must respect the local religious custom when shooting around and inside temples. Never climb on top of a Buddha to pose for pictures.

Many Buddhas


K. Meng Tay is a trip leader for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.