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‘Phantom’ Stunned Artistic World, But Didn’t Tell Story of Antelope Canyon

A recent picture of Antelope Canyon broke sales records, but didn't tell the story of the canyon from, what does it mean to the Navajo?

When renowned landscape photographer Peter Lik aimed his camera at a beam of light shining into Antelope Canyon, he proved that a picture is not worth a thousand words, but rather millions of dollars in hard currency.

Lik’s black and white photograph, titled “Phantom,” in December broke the world record for the most expensive photograph ever when an anonymous buyer shelled out $6.5 million for it. The photograph has an eerie, almost supernatural quality to it; a misty figure appears inside the beam of light, an ephemeral phantom formed of sand suspended briefly in time.

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“Phantom” by Peter Lik sold to an anonymous buyer for $6.5 million making it the most expensive photograph ever.

“The purpose of all my photos is to capture the power of nature and convey it in a way that inspires someone to feel passionate and connected to the image,” Lik said in a press release.

But while it may have stunned the artistic world, the picture didn’t capture the story of the canyon itself, which for generations has served as a source of beauty and inspiration for the Navajo, not to mention its utilitarian purposes.

Antelope Canyon is actually two canyons—upper and lower—formed over thousands of years as rainwater worked its way through the rock from a higher altitude, said Leonard Nez, a Navajo tour guide who grew up near the canyon in LeChee, Arizona. Nez now leads visitors year-round into the canyon, which is located in the northwest corner of the Navajo Nation.

“Rain comes into this canyon like a whirlpool,” Nez said. “Think about it like sandpaper. The sand mixes with water whirling through the canyon and sculpts the walls.”

The result is a meandering slot canyon; a series of miniature cathedrals with floors of soft sand and walls that curve toward the sky on either side; a place to commune with nature.

Lower Antelope Canyon, where Lik shot his photograph, is called Hasdestwazi or “spiral rock arches.” The canyon’s English name came from the herds of pronghorn antelope that once roamed freely through the area.

The animals entered the canyon to seek shade during the scorching summers, Nez said. Navajo also used the canyon to hunt antelope.

Alysa Landry

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Navajo tour guide Leonard Nez, plays a triple flute on the far end of Antelope Canyon. A self-taught flutist, Nez incorporates music as part of his tours through the canyon.

“The Navajo would send people in one side and chase the antelope out the other,” he said. “The canyon was used as a place to herd the antelope in, then they could easily shoot them and butcher what they needed.”

Oral stories reveal that the Navajo also used the canyon as a place to hide. When Kit Carson brought his cavalry to round up the Navajo and march them to Fort Sumner in the 1860s, some of the people hid in Antelope Canyon and adjacent areas, Nez said.

Various legends also surround the canyon, Nez said. Kokopelli, often referred to as the fertility deity, went into the canyon and played his flutes, using the canyon’s acoustics to lure women in from both ends.

Nez started leading tours into Antelope Canyon in 1989, eight years before it opened to the public. The canyon gained recognition when photographers started publishing pictures, Nez said, and the Navajo Nation began overseeing it as a way to accommodate all the visitors.

The canyon has appeared on the covers of National Geographic and Arizona Highways. Now, visitors come from all over the world to experience the canyon and photograph it for themselves.

Although the canyon is only 1,400 feet long, it can take an hour to walk through, and it’s almost impossible to take a bad photograph, said Murray Lee, senior planner at the Navajo Parks & Recreation Department. On a daily basis, dozens—if not hundreds—of tourists stand in the same spot Lik did to shoot his famous photograph.

Alysa Landry

Tourists and photographers visit Antelope Canyon year-round to snap photos like this one, which resembles a flame.

“Tour guides take you to a certain spot and point out where to stand and how to hold the camera,” Lee said. “Photographers buy permits and stand there at certain times of the year to get the right angle of the sun. When it hits a certain spot, the sun creates radiance. The sandstone takes on certain colors. That’s what everyone is waiting for.”

Photographically speaking, the canyon is like no other, Nez said. Every time the sun moves, the colors on the canyon walls change.

But that still doesn’t answer the $6.5 million question, Nez said. Every day, tourists ask him how Lik took a photograph worth that much money.

“I tell them it’s not the picture, it’s the name,” he said. “I could take the same picture, with black and white film, and put my name on it. If they put the photos next to each other, even if mine was better, I’d be lucky to get $25.”