Largely forgotten now, there was a time when the name Josef Muench was as much associated with Monument Valley as Ansel Adams was with Yosemite. Born in Germany in 1908, Muench was later to be celebrated for making the picture-heavy Arizona Highways one of the premier photo magazines in the country. Bulk of his work, however, documented the harsh landscape surrounding 30,000 acres of Navajo tribal park starting in 1935.
Also present around the park were the Gouldings who purchased 640 acres of land next to the valley and began trading with the Navajo in the preceding decade. The times were bad for both the Gouldings and the Navajo – the effects of the Great Depression were particularly harsh on this stretch of Arizona-Utah border – but Harry Goulding had an idea. He had heard that United Artists was looking to film a Western nearby.
Goulding commissioned from Muench an album of 8-by-10 scenes of the Valley. Legend had it that he drove off to Hollywood, and insisted on camping out in United Artists’ reception area until he ran into the location manager of the film. The manager was suitably impressed by Muench’s pictures – as was the director, John Ford.
The film they were to make together in the valley was Stagecoach, one of the most influential Westerns ever made – the movie that turned westerns from cheap cinematic fares into sprawling epics; the movie that made a star out of John Wayne. Essential to the movie was the Monument Valley’s mythic landscape — “its prehistoric rock pillars framing the smallness of men” in the words of critic Roger Ebert – a place to which Ford was to return for no less than nine subsequent movies. The film transformed the Monument Valley into a tourist attraction – further movie crews came to the Goulding’s homestead, which grew and grew into a ranch, a lodge, and eventually a hotel. By the time Harry Goulding retired in 1962, the valley had been a protected area for four years.