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Canyon de Chelly - by Alain Briot

NOTE: this exhibit appeared in November 2001. Click here to visit the current showcase.

All other exhibits: Click here to access

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Spiderock Clearing Winter Storm
Linhof Master Technica, 75mm Lens, Fuji Velvia

To me this is the quintessential Canyon de Chelly photograph. All is there: the immensity of the canyon, the primevalness of the location reinforced by the fresh snowfall, the grandeur afforded by the majestic clouds parting above the canyon. It was taken a short time after sunrise on a January morning.

Living in Chinle, at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly, was instrumental in being able to record this image on film. The snowstorm took place during the night and I knew I had to get to Spiderock overlook first thing in the morning because by 9-10 am the above-freezing daytime temperature would cause the snow to melt. I was there shortly after sunrise and could see the snow melt as I was photographing. By the time I was done most of it was gone. This image was one of the first I created.


The Window
Linhof Master Technica, 75mm Lens, Fuji Velvia

The window is a large rock opening in the upper part of Canyon de Chelly. It is accessible only from the bottom of the canyon and requires a steep climb up a talus slope. This photograph was taken late in the day yet still retains details throughout the image thanks to light reflecting off the rock face behind me. It was taken with a 75mm lens on my 4x5 field camera and yet the immensity of the location make the wide angle of view offered by this lens hardly noticeable.


Tsegi Overlook, Spring Panorama
Fuji 6x17, 90mm lens, Fuji Velvia

Perhaps my first rewarding photograph of Canyon de Chelly this image may not have been created if it wasn't for a spur of the moment change of plans. I was on my way to pick-up my wife when I noticed dramatic storm light in the Chinle Valley. I realized the possibilities this light would offer if the sun was to break out of the clouds and shine into the canyon. I had a camera in the car and decided to drive right away to Tsegi overlook which is only 10 minutes from where I live. The sun broke through a few minutes after I got there. The dramatic effect depicted in the photograph lasted only a few minutes before the entire landscape was bathed in sunlight. This photograph was the second or third one I took.


Arrowhead Moonset
Linhof Master Technica, 210mm Lens, Fuji Velvia

This photograph was created along the rim of Canyon de Chelly in a location which by daytime may not generate much attention. I had photographed the canyon at sunset and had already packed-up my gear when I noticed the crescent moon setting between two buttes in the Western sky. I immediately unpacked my equipment and went back to work. I used a short telephoto lens (the equivalent of a 75mm lens for a 35mm camera) to emphasize the size of the moon and to simplify the composition. The resulting image contains only four elements -the moon, the black rock shapes, the colored gradient in the sky and the bush at the bottom of the image. It is a study in positive and negative shapes.


Blade Rock, Winter
Linhof Master Technica, 150mm Lens, Fuji Velvia

Blade rock, located just East of Tsegi overlook, is a thin band of sandstone extending from the North Rim of Canyon de Chelly. From this angle its semi-circular shape is reinforced by the line of snow-covered trees which seem to prolong it. The cloud above, which bears a shape reminiscent of Blade Rock, strengthens the composition and help bring all the elements together.


Hogan in the Fall
Hasselblad 500CM, 150mm lens, Fuji Velvia

I am fascinated by Hogans, the traditional Navajo dwelling, because they merge so well with their surroundings. This one was photographed in the fall when the Cottonwoods were reaching their peak colors. The early morning backlight added drama to the scene and saturated the color of the leaves.


Hogan Under Rock Overhang
Hasselblad 500CM, 150mm lens, Fuji Velvia

This hogan, located under an 800 foot high canyon wall, is still used as summer home by a Navajo family. It is man-made and yet does not appear to intrude upon the landscape. Built out of squared logs piled upon each other and caulked with adobe it may outlive many contemporary homes.


Riders Panel
Linhof Master Technica, 75mm Lens, Fuji Velvia

This is a little known pictograph site dating from the post-Spanish era since there were no horses in the Southwest prior to the Spanish expeditions. This panel was most likely created by a Navajo artist and may represent a Ute or a Spanish raid. It seems to have been painted only yesterday being perfectly preserved under an overhang by the dry climate and the secrecy of its location.


Russian Olive
Linhof Master Technica, 210mm Lens, Fuji Velvia

A very delicate photograph of a subject not necessarily associated with Canyon de Chelly since Russian Olives grow along streams throughout the Southwest. I was attracted by the contrast between the black branches and the lichen-coverd sandstone. I decided to place the tree off-center to create a stronger composition. I also cropped the top of the tree to reinforce the feeling that this is an intimate landscape.


Spiderock Snowstorm
Hasselblad SWCM, 38mm lens, Fuji Velvia

This image was created right during a December snowstorm. The snow was very wet and by the time I was done myself and my equipment were drenched. The good news was that this wet snow clung to everything and was responsible for sticking to the branches of the dead tree.

I had seen this tree many times before but had never been inspired to use it in a photograph. On that day I decided to use it as a foreground element to bring contrast to an otherwise nearly completely white landscape. I had to wait for a break in the storm to make Spiderock visible in the picture since most of the time anything farther than the tree was hidden by the snow.


Arch near Canyon de Chelly
Linhof Master Technica, Schneider 47 mm lens, Fuji Velvia

This photograph is a good example of a near-far compositional relationship . The yucca in the foreground counterbalances the interest provided by the arch and the sky. Created on an overcast day this image represents one of my first attempts with the Schneider 47 mm lens. This is an extreme wide angle for the 4x5 and being used to the field of view afforded by the 75mm lens the 47 was quite a change. I was thus careful to use the extra angle of view wisely and to utilize every area of the image in a meaningful manner.


Dancing Rocks
Olympus 35mm, 24mm lens, Fuji Velvia

Taken at sunset this photograph carries some of the mystery that I sometimes sense on the Navajo reservation. The loneliness of the rock formations seems to be counterbalanced by their physical presence, a presence which is almost human in some way.

I went to this location only once and was asked to leave by local residents shortly after taking this photograph. Navajos consider the landscape around their houses to be part of their home and sometimes resent visitors although they may be a considerable distance away.


Pictograph in Canyon de Chelly
Linhof Master Technica, Rodenstock 150 mm lens, Fuji Velvia

Canyon de Chelly is known for its abundance of rock art sites which feature images created by both the Anasazi in prehistoric times and the Navajos in historic times. This figure dates back from the Anasazi pueblo period and may be 850 years old. It was painted on the back wall of a rock overhang for reasons which are unclear to us today. Many possible interpretations of its meaning are possible all of them debatable since the original intent of the culture who created it is unknown to us.


Sand Dunes at Sunset
Linhof Master Technica, Schneider 75 mm lens, Fuji Velvia

Sand dunes present a fascinating and ever-changing subject. This photograph was taken the day after a hard rain in the Chinle area and I was worried that the downpour had ruined the sand ripples and caused them to loose their crisp edges. When I got to this location I was pleasantly surprised to discover that such was not the case. Certainly millions of small impact points were present on the sand but if anything the rain had softened the landscape and created a scene unlike any I had seen before.

This is one of my favorite photographs. I originally wanted to create a near-far relationship with huge sand ripples looming in the foreground and leading the viewer's eyes to the mesas in the background. Instead I ended up composing a far more complex image whose elements are brought together by the beautiful golden light which bathed the scene for a few minutes that evening.


Yuccas in Bloom
Linhof Master Technica, 75 mm lens, Fuji Velvia

This photograph was created in the Spring of 2001 during an incredible display of wild flowers. Yuccas do not bloom every year this event being subject to abundant snow and rainfall. The 2000-2001 winter being rather wet we were treated to a wonderful array of wildflowers in the spring of 2001. I saw these yuccas on an afternoon visit to the south rim of canyon de Chelly and was stunned by how many were in bloom. I did not have a camera with me so I used my time to scout for a location which would afford me a view of the canyon with a spread of yuccas in the foreground.

I found three promising places to which I planned to return later that day. Unfortunately, when I went home I realized I had only four sheets of 4x5 Velvia left. I had just completed a long shoot and had almost ran out of film. Since I order my film from New York I knew the yucca flowers would be gone by the time I could get more. I thus had to do my best with the four sheets I had.

Back on the rim of Canyon de Chelly I took a second look at the three locations I had previously selected. I went as far as setting up the camera and composing a photograph at each place before concluding that only one location offered the combination of elements, light and composition I was looking for. I could see both a vertical and an horizontal image there although the horizontal photograph seemed to carry the composition better. I shot one vertical and three horizontals being careful to bracket the exposure of the horizontal image to make sure that at least one sheet of film was perfectly exposed.

Note: For best viewing, set your monitor to High Color or True Color (Thousands or Millions of Colors on MacOS) and 1024x768 pixels. These images have been carefully prepared with a Gamma of 2.2 using the BruceRGB color space. This should work well with high-quality Windows monitors. If you are a MacOS user, set your Adobe Gamma control panel to "Windows Default" or, at the last resort, choose the sRGB calibrated profile in the Color section of your Monitors control panel.

Please note:  All images featured in this showcase are Copyright ©Alain Briot, all rights reserved. These images are protected by U.S. and international copyright laws and may not be used or reproduced without permission. For licensing information, or to order prints, please contact Alain Briot at

About the Exhibit:

Since 1995 I have been living in Chinle, Arizona in the heart of the Navajo Nation. This location gives me intimate access to some of the most impressive landscapes in North America. In 1998 I received the Oliver Award for excellence in Native American Rock Art Photography from the American Rock Art Research Association. This national award is given to a single photographer each year.

I find inspiration in the work of artists ranging from Thomas Moran to Ansel Adams. This blend of inspiration, coming from both the American tradition of landscape painting and of landscape photography, is mirrored in my own training which began as an oil painter at the Beaux Arts in Paris and is continued today as a landscape photographer in the United States.

To see more examples of my work, please visit my web site at:
I would like to hear from you! Please send all comments to my e-mail at:

About the Photographer:

Originally from Paris, France, I have been photographing since 1980. My original training was as a painter and from 1977 to 1980 I attended the Academie Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris where I studied drawing and oil painting. After graduating from the Beaux Arts I studied with master photographers at the American Center in Paris from 1980 to 1983. One of my instructors, Scott McLeay, taught me fundamental photographic practices which I still use today. Through his teaching he emphasized the importance that composition plays in successful photographs. The quality of the light was of utmost value for him and he constantly stressed how important it is to understand which light one likes to work with.

In 1983 I traveled throughout the Western United States for 6 months driving a car bought in Los Angeles and photographing with an Arca Swiss 4x5 view camera bought in Switzerland. The landscape of the American West both surprised and amazed me. While I was aware of the unbelievable potential it had in store for an artist I was also acutely aware that I did not have enough time to do it justice.

In January 1986 I was accepted as a Freshman at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. I chose to study at NAU because it was on the Colorado Plateau and only 75 miles from the Grand Canyon. Living in Flagstaff afforded me easy access to the landscape that had so enthralled me during my first visit.

Until moving to Flagstaff landscapes had been only one of my subjects. In Paris I photographed street scenes and worked in a journalistic style using 35mm cameras. After moving to the United States my work became focused on the landscape of the American West and I started using medium format and eventually 4x5 large format view cameras. My academic studies complimented my photographic work. Centered on the history of Landscape photography they allowed me to investigate the endeavors of the first photographers to venture in the American West as well as the importance of their contribution to photography as a form of visual communication. I received my Bachelors degree in 1990 and my Masters Degree in 1992, both from Northern Arizona University.

In 1992 I moved to Hancock, Michigan, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, to work on my Ph.D. at Michigan Technological University. The Upper Peninsula provided me with an opportunity to discover the fascinating landscapes of the Upper Midwest and the lower Canadian Shield. We lived only a few miles from Lake Superior and I became fascinated by this immense inland sea, this massive body of soft water which I had heard much about but never seen before. I was shocked by the strength of the seasons which followed each other with no apparent connection among them. To a soft and delicate spring succeeded a summer overflowing with vegetation spanning all colors in the green spectrum and filled with swarms of mosquitoes. Fall appeared one morning after a cold spell and surrounded us with rust and yellows for what seemed to be a short weekend. Then winter came and for those who have lived in the Upper Peninsula there is little need to say more. For me it was a total shock from which I emerged 6 months later somewhat bewildered by the relentless snowstorms, the never ending cold and the discovery that cabin fever was a reality and not just an element of Jack London's novels.

Since 1983, the year of my first visit to the United States, my photographs have been intimately tied to the National Parks. Besides photographing extensively in the Parks I was selected as Artist in Residence at Isle Royale National Park, Michigan, and at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin in 1994. Since 1997 I have been exhibiting and selling my work at Grand Canyon National Park. My posters, notecards, and Limited Edition prints are also sold in National Park bookstores.

Find photos of the Colorado Plateau in Land of the Canyons, the Photo Trip USA landscape photography guide book.  


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