Think Stagecoach; think The Searchers; think The Eiger Sanction; think Forrest Gump. What do they all have in common? Answer; the spectacular backdrop of Monument Valley, the iconic red-sand desert region on the Arizona-Utah border, with its instantly recognisable towering sandstone buttes. Why have quite so many films used the Valley in that way? After all, the US has plenty of other spectacular landscapes to offer. The answer begins in Schweinfurt in Bavaria and links the Navajo Indians to the Great Depression to John Ford and John Wayne and the Hollywood industry, as I discovered by chance on a coast-to-coast trip.
Having done the plouk stuff of seeing the ‘mittens’ and standing in the road just where Forrest Gump had stopped running, I called in at a nearby trading lodge, Gouldings. A storm broke – yep, a storm in the desert. A sign by the steps pointed to a museum. Needing shelter, I followed the sign and came to a small sandstone block building. And there, in the former trading post, transformed into an idiosyncratic museum, lies the story of one of the more obscure but arguably more influential immigrants from Europe, and the enduring influence he was to have on the Hollywood movie industry.
A first strand in the story began in Schweinfurt on 8 February 1904, with the birth of Josef Muench. When he was eleven his parents gave him a camera for Christmas and launched a lifelong passion. In his late teens, Muench worked as an apprentice landscape gardener, but he knew already that he wanted to be a photographer. In 1928, at the age of 24, Muench followed his older brother across the Atlantic to Detroit, Michigan where, despite having little English, he found a job at the Ford Motor Company. He studied English at night school and worked the assembly lines for two years, saving as much as he could.
In 1930, Muench bought a Model T and travelled north to Canada, along the Canadian border and down the Pacific coast to Santa Barbara.
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His savings spent, he found work in landscaping, but he continued to indulge his passion for photography in his spare time. He started to make journeys east and so discovered the strange landscape of the Arizona desert, with its photogenic wind-sculpted sandstone formations. Though difficult to believe now, in the 1930s Monument Valley was virtually unknown in America – except to the Navajo, who called it ‘Valley of the Rocks’. Muench’s photographs would change all that.
A second strand in the story began with a trader and sheep herder, Harry Goulding, from Durango, Colorado. He’d fought in the First World War in Europe, returned to Durango and in 1923 married a local girl, Leone Knee, whose first name he couldn’t pronounce properly. He called her ‘Mike’ and the name stuck. Goulding had ambitions to open a trading post, but limited means. His work as a sheep inspector for the federal government took him all over the Four Corners region (where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet). He discovered the Monument Valley area and fell in love with it. He took Mike to see. She, too, was struck by its beauty. Though the area was isolated and thinly populated, they thought they could make a go of their trading post dream there. However, at that time Monument Valley was part of the Paiute Indian Reservation and property ownership was reserved to the natives.
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The Gouldings’ break came in 1923, when Utah State made an offer to the Paiute to move north to more fertile land. They accepted, and the land they had vacated became Utah State property. Harry and Mike bought a 650 acre plot at Big Rock Door Mesa for $320 and hired a diviner to find a well. This would be their new home. In 1936, a presidential decree extended the Navajo Reservation north into Utah, including the Monument Valley area. And so the Gouldings and their trading post ended up being a private island in the middle of the Navajo Reservation.
At first, the Gouldings lived in a tent and traded from another, but after a few hard years they hired some skilled quarriers who helped them build a more permanent structure from sandstone blocks to serve as the trading post, with their living quarters upstairs (that structure is now the museum). Harry and Mike traded a lot with the local Indians and became friendly with them. They also traded more occasionally with passing prospectors and wranglers and, from time to time, sold goods to an amateur photographer who was fascinated by the rock formations – Josef Muench, or ‘Joe’ as they called him. Whenever he came to the Valley Harry and Mike put him up and in return Joe gave them plenty of his photographs as mementoes.
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Gouldings We left our home away from home this morning. Our time here was very special. Memories that will last a lifetime. Thank you everyone at Gouldings that made our trip so great. We will be back! #monumentvalley #roadtrip #homeawayfromhome #tripofalifetime #heatwave #campground #acrylicart #artistofinstagram #createeveryday #artistslife
The Navajo had already been hit hard by the Great Depression, but in 1934 the region suffered a major drought. Another occurred in 1936. The Gouldings became increasingly worried about their Indian friends, whose lamb and wool livelihoods had been destroyed and who faced the looming menace of famine. In 1938, Harry and Mike had an idea. Hollywood, they’d heard, was a profligate industry, particularly when on location. And they’d somehow heard that celebrated director John Ford was thinking of returning to a genre he had made famous – the Western. In the summer of 1938 the Gouldings got into their car and headed for Hollywood. In the car with them was a binder of Josef Muench’s spectacular 8 x 10 inch photographs of the unknown Monument Valley.
Once in L.A., Harry and Mike found the United Artists studio. Their plan was pathetically simple. Harry walked into the studios with the photographs, made for Ford’s office and asked the receptionist if he could see the director. She told him he’d have to make an appointment. Harry said fine, I’ll wait. Security was called. In the meantime Harry took out the photographs and stood them on a couch. Serendipity arrived in the form of Ford’s location manager. He was intrigued. Harry and his photographs were hustled into the great director’s office and just a few weeks’ later the entire cast and crew of John Ford’s latest film – more than 100 people – were camped outside the Gouldings’ trading post. Harry and Mike had succeeded. Hundreds of Navajos were subsequently recruited as extras, for a daily payment of $5 ($8 for those on horseback). A means of sustenance had been brought to the parched desert.
Ford’s film, Stagecoach, was a huge success, despite entrenched industry prejudice against what was regarded as a hackneyed genre from the silent era. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won two Oscars, for Best Supporting Actor and Best Score. For his leading man, Ford took a risk on a young friend, the then unknown John Wayne. It proved to be Wayne’s career breakthrough, turning him overnight into a movie star. Another star was also born; Monument Valley. Stagecoach was the first of seven Ford Westerns made on location in the Valley (including further classics, such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers).
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How’s the view from your front yard? Well….this is @scott_laws_photography daily view from Gouldings Lodge at Monument Valley. To say we’re slightly jealous is an understatement! Head on over to his feed for many more stunners from this beautiful, spiritual area. TAG ▶️ #westbysouthwest Selected by @nicole_pino_d ____________________________ Check out our friends: @sunrise_and_sunsets @naturesmarvels @sky_marvels @instagramersnm ____________________________ #southwest #desert #desertlife #california #washington #oregon #idaho #nevada #utah #arizona #newmexico #texas #colorado #wyoming #montana #americanwest #americansouthwest #west #westernUSA #westernstates #desertsouthwest #navajo #spiritual #gouldings #gouldingslodge #monumentvalley #wbsw_scott_laws_photography
The Gouldings now had an industry on their hands and set about building more permanent lodgings and organising catering, and the Lodge was born. Between them, Josef Muench, Harry and Mike Goulding and John Ford had turned Monument Valley almost into a sine qua non of the American Western film. Henceforth, no Western would seem complete without a chase between the Valley’s charismatic buttes and pillars. (Most recently, Johnny Depp’s Lone Ranger cavorted against the monumental backdrop.) In time, the charisma would not be limited to Westerns. Director after director has filmed on location in the Valley, from Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey), to Eastwood (The Eiger Sanction), to Zemickis (Forrest Gump).
And what of Joe Muench? The 1930s marked the dawn of the age of the automobile and the open highway. Still eager to make a career as a photographer, Muench sent some of his photographs of the strange but beautiful Monument Valley sandstone formations to a magazine published by the Arizona Highway Department, Arizona Highways. In 1938, the magazine decided to run an iconic photograph of the Rainbow Bridge National Memorial. Muench never looked back, working for the magazine for more than fifty years. After the Second World War, he decided to devote himself entirely to photography and travel. He made over 160 visits to Monument Valley and visited the Grand Canyon 200 times, but travelled far beyond the American South West, visiting Africa, Asia and Europe. He published many books and in 1977 the unmanned Voyager carried a Josef Muench photograph of a snow-covered Sequoia redwood taken in Kings Canyon National Park into space and beyond our solar system. Muench died in 1998, at the age of 94, but both his son, David (an innovator in landscape photography), and David’s son, Marc (a landscape and sports photographer) have kept his passion alive.
So it was that a young immigrant from Schweinfurt, Bavaria, helped to form America’s cultural landscape and, in a sense, to this day is still influencing the country’s cinematographic and iconic image of itself. Yet when filming next gets under way in the Valley, probably nobody in the cast or crew will have ever heard of Josef Muench or Harry and Mike Goulding.
More information about Gouldings Lodge at Monument Valley can be found here