By Dale O’Dell
Earlier this year, I found myself guiding a group of photographers to some of the more obscure photographic locations in Arizona. They wanted to photograph the well-known sites, too, including Antelope Canyon. It had been years since I’d been to Antelope Canyon — so long ago that I’d photographed it on film — so I joined the guys for an Antelope Canyon photography tour. I’m glad I did, and I wish I hadn’t. Compared to my previous visits to Antelope Canyon, this time it was uniquely unpleasant. Popularity isn’t always a good thing.
Even if you’re not familiar with the name Antelope Canyon, you’ll recognize the photos. The images of the undulating sandstone walls and light beams of the slot canyons near Lake Powell have become iconic. Pre-2000, few people had ever heard of the place, which was also known as “the slot canyon” or “the corkscrew.” Post-2000, it seemed as if everyone in the world knew about Antelope Canyon and had to go there. In a very short amount of time, photographs of Antelope Canyon transitioned from rare and beautiful to commonplace — beauty gone banal.
My own discovery of Antelope Canyon was via photographs in a book by photographer Bruce Barnbaum. His 1986 book featured a chapter of photos from an unnamed slot canyon. Although Barnbaum didn’t discover Antelope Canyon and didn’t disclose its location, he did inadvertently popularize the place. I looked at Barnbaum’s photos: I wanted to go there; I wanted to shoot that. But where was it? It took some pre-internet research — hey, this was in 1988 — but I eventually figured out the location and set out to photograph Antelope Canyon. I had a topographic map, a compass, and a pickup truck.
The truck was two-wheel drive and it wasn’t long before I was stuck axle-deep in sand as I attempted to drive to the slot canyon. After abandoning the truck, I managed to find one of the lesser-known canyons in the area and got some good photos. I never found upper or lower Antelope Canyon because the rest of my day was spent hiking out, finding a wrecker, and going back to get my truck unstuck. By the end of the day I was dehydrated, exhausted, and pissed off. “Damn,” I said to the wrecker driver, “Why don’t the Navajos just manage the place and charge everyone twenty bucks a head to drive them there in a four-wheel drive?!”
Twelve years later, they’re doing exactly that. At the tail end of the film era (when we got the best films ever invented) in 2000, I returned to Antelope Canyon. That time, I didn’t need the topographic map, compass, or four-wheel drive. I simply drove to the location outside of Page, paid $5 to enter tribal land and another $20 to a tour operator for a ride to Antelope Canyon. I rode to the canyon in a four-wheel drive truck with about six other people and had plenty of time for photography. With only seven of us in the canyon, it wasn’t crowded at all. When the driver told us it was time to leave, I handed him another twenty-dollar bill and asked if I could ride back with the next group. That wasn’t a problem, and it gave me more than 20 minutes with the empty canyon all to myself. Only when I was alone in the slot canyon did I truly feel I was experiencing it properly. When I returned to my darkroom and processed the film, I was very happy. I got the shot and didn’t need to go back to Antelope Canyon again — that is, until the traveling photographers put the idea back in my head in 2018.
I checked into Antelope Canyon tours for them and learned that in the ensuing 18 years virtually everything has changed because of the canyon’s greatly increased popularity. The three photographers had photographed Antelope Canyon last summer, and it was very crowded. The tour operator told them, “Come back in the winter and you’ll have the canyon to yourself.” So they came back in February. Antelope Canyon has been massively commercialized and there are at least a dozen tour guide operators. They don’t coordinate with each other, which means multiple simultaneous tours crowd the canyon. Nobody had the canyon to themselves. And the prices have gone up. The tour I took eighteen years ago for $20 is now $45. That’s not too bad, but that’s for the tourist tour and no tripods are allowed. The “photography tour” (tripods required) costs $146.25. For our money, we got extra time in the canyon, but there was nothing we could do about canyon crowding from other tours.
Leaving the tour company’s downtown Page facility, Nate (our Navajo guide) drove us to the canyon — only the four of us, who were the only ones on this photo tour. Nate told us about “shooting fast” and that he’d do his best to “hold up the crowd” as long as possible for us to get our photos. We were a little concerned about his mention of crowds and his advice to shoot fast until we arrived. Then we saw more then a half-dozen tour operator vehicles and crowds lined up outside the canyon.
Wildlife and sports photography are shoot-fast situations, but landscape photography is a slower, more contemplative process. I was so rushed I didn’t have enough time to concentrate on the canyon or the photography. We were shooting fast only to clear the way for other people. It was canyon-wall-to-canyon-wall people. Packed!
Antelope Canyon isn’t big. Some passages are so narrow that you can stand in the center of the canyon and touch both walls with your hands. Imagine 50 fat guys in a hallway, all trying to squeeze past each other. I tried to make myself as two-dimensional as possible. I was Flat Dale squished up against the canyon wall as the All-Star American Beergut Band marched past followed by another 50 skinnier foreign tourists, followed by more obese Americans, followed by more and more and more people. The guides do a commendable job holding people back long enough for a photographer to get a long exposure, but it’s not a good photographic experience. And everyone takes the same photo. The guides stop and point and say, “Here’s this shot: point your camera here.” It’s become a photographic festival of slot canyon clichés. I had no time to stop, think, turn around, look, or consider a different shot. It was, “Shoot here and move on, shoot there and move on.” I was miserable. Thirty years ago, I may’ve gotten stuck in the sand, but it was a much more pleasant photographic experience than in 2018 — trying to shoot a photo among a horde in a hallway!
I liked this place better in 1988, before it was “discovered.”
And discovery is the problem. It’s just too crowded to photograph — or to be experienced properly. Sadly, Antelope Canyon is no longer special, its specialness erased by the footprints of a million tourists. The tours make it accessible, but now, commonplace. The canyon is overused and overcrowded and will suffer the inevitable human-caused wear and tear and decay. Access should be limited. But any sort of conservation of Antelope Canyon is impossible for now because so much money is being made by tour operators. Imagine 10 tour operators bringing 10 tourists to the canyon each hour, seven days a week at $45 — or even $146.25. That’s a cash canyon.
I will not return. Ever. If I want to photograph another slot canyon, I’ll hire a Navajo guide and go find one of the 900+ slot canyons scattered around the Lake Powell area. “But,” you may be wondering, “should I go to Antelope Canyon?” That, of course, is an individual choice. I wouldn’t dissuade anyone based on my experience, but if you’re claustrophobic or introverted, a tour is probably not for you. If you don’t mind crowds or a lot of people invading your personal space and you’ve just got to see it, then go. If you’re a photographer ,I can guarantee you will not get $146.25’s worth of original photos out of the place. You will get your own version of what is now a cliché. To avoid frustration, enjoy others’ photos. You wouldn’t shoot anything different yourself; it’s nearly impossible.
Antelope Canyon is a rare and beautiful work of natural art, but it’s too easy to visit and that draws crowds. It used to be a special, hidden, hard-to-find place. If you found it, you were rewarded with spectacular photographs. Now it’s just another backdrop for a selfie. A deep canyon but a shallow experience.
See more of Dale O’Dell’s photography and digital art at DalePhoto.Com.