“Kevin, you have two minutes… starting now!”
The guide’s words echoed throughout the narrow sandstone canyon. I’m sure everyone — at least 50 people — heard. Those words were a notice to other guides to keep their tour groups back and out of the scene I was photographing. They also put me on notice that I had to work fast.
Antelope Canyon had certainly changed since the last time I photographed it more than 17 years ago. The physical changes to the slot canyon on Navajo land in northern Arizona are relatively minor. Its floor seems to be a foot or two higher than I remember. Gorgeous swirls I once photographed just above the floor now appear to be buried. It’s carved by flash floods and over the years they have left behind a fair amount of sand.
The bigger change, however, is the experience.
“Kevin, you have one minute left!”
On my previous visit, I also needed a guide, although his role then was much more limited. He took me and a few other photographers into a section of the canyon where a shaft of light would briefly appear as the sun passed overhead. Almost all the photographers left once they captured that beam. A friend and I were practically by ourselves as we hiked up and down the quarter-mile canyon for a few hours, finding abstract patterns in the fading light until sunset. I shot three rolls of slide film that day.
Today, Antelope Canyon is the primary reason people visit Page, Arizona. About eight years ago, the canyon had a starring role in a Britney Spears music video. More recently, Instagram introduced it to an audience that extends well beyond the people who visit art fairs and galleries. People are no longer satisfied with buying photos of the canyon, they want to make their own, usually with the camera built into their phone.
It is a place that has to be seen to be believed. In many places, the canyon is so narrow that you can touch both sides at the same time. It’s also 120 feet deep. Because it has both attributes — few canyons do — almost no direct light reaches the canyon floor. The light that does has bounced repeatedly from wall to wall on its journey down, losing some wavelengths at each bounce. By the time it arrives, it’s dim, but pure color — red, orange, pink or purple. It looks artificial but is totally natural, and every day several hundred people travel to see it with their own eyes.
“Kevin, you have 30 seconds left! Thirty seconds!”
The light is so dim at the end of the day that it takes about 30 seconds for my digital camera to collect enough light to make an image. By the time the guide has issued that warning, I’ve already shot two images and am in the process of capturing my third and final in that location. I finish before my time is up and give the guide an all clear so he can release the masses. Within seconds, the narrow stretch of canyon is flooded with people.
A month ago, I had not planned on photographing Antelope Canyon ever again. I have fond memories of my time in the canyon and wasn’t inclined to ruin them by seeing the spectacle it has become. But weather had scuttled other photography plans and I thought I had some responsibility to see what can happen when I help popularize photogenic areas. When I published my photos of the canyon many years ago, I named the location. I was by no means the first to do so, but I also didn’t try to keep it secret.
Seeing Antelope Canyon today, I’m torn. On one hand, I’m sad. I’ll never be able to wander the canyon again, taking my time exploring to discover new images. The few pictures I took on this trip had to be carefully negotiated in advance to minimize the disruption to large tour groups. (I didn’t ask for the guide to keep people out of my way; I was going to try to shoot over people’s heads. But the photography tour is designed to protect the other guests from tripping on my tripod and to get me out of their way as quickly as possible.)
On the other hand, the canyon remains as beautiful as ever. I’m hopeful that the hordes of people who have now shared in the experience will be inspired to advocate to preserve our planet’s special places. We need their help.
While the Navajo people are doing their best to protect Antelope Canyon, numerous other canyons are threatened not by tourism but by government. When President Trump slashed the size of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah, he eliminated protections for dozens of similar slot canyons. It’s my sincere hope that people who have had the privilege of experiencing Antelope Canyon will join in fighting that travesty. You can help by donating to and supporting groups like The Wilderness Society and the Conservation Lands Foundation.