Continued from the blog post, “Backpacker Interview: Conservation Photographer 1.”
See also the blog post, “The 1970s Backpacking Boom, Conservation and Photography.”
This interview republished by permission of the writer Gary Braasch and Bill Kemsley, Jr., founder of Backpacker Magazine.
BACKPACKER MAGAZINE: You have not only made your creativity into a successful way of life but taken photographs that have been instrumental in battles for very important wilderness areas. How can other photographers—skilled amateurs—use their creativity for conservation?
PHILIP HYDE: Off the top of my head, they’d do a lot better by going to law school because it looks to me as if the fight is now in lawyer’s hands. But on a local level, an individual can do a lot by becoming familiar with a place that needs protection and by studying the issues. The camera can be an important tool to him. The person can make himself an ad hoc committee on a project and carry it along until something gets done. The weekend photographer may have an even more important role in such cases than the professional, who is always hung up on having to make a living from photography. There are thousands of causes I could donate my photographs to if I were only privately endowed.
BACKPACKER MAGAZINE: How did your career evolve?
PHILIP HYDE: I started in photography through nature, rather than vice versa, because of an early interest in mountains. Like everyone else, I carried a little camera around to take pictures of my favorite mountains, and one thing led to another. That was before World War II. When the war ended, just before I got out of the service, I wrote to Ansel Adams. He said he was starting a school of photography; that’s where I spent the next three years. Ansel knew I was interested in conservation and nature, and helped me get acquainted with people in the Sierra Club. My first major published photos were in the Sierra Club Bulletin of May, 1951. Making photographs of Dinosaur National Monument was the first conservation project I did for the Sierra Club. Even with that beginning my wife, Ardis, taught school for 12 years to support us.
BACKPACKER MAGAZINE: There’s a lot of Ansel’s influence showing in your earlier work.
PHILIP HYDE: Yes, some people have always said that. But I don’t think I ever imitated him. That picture of Yosemite is a good example of my evolution. Twenty years ago, I had great difficulty making photographs in Yosemite because all I could see was Ansel Adams, and I was sure I didn’t want to duplicate his pictures. Now I can go to Yosemite and see it through my own eyes. I have a tremendous debt to Ansel—not just for having taught me technique but for having inspired me, introduced me to the Sierra Club and helped me get on my way. I want to acknowledge that debt, but I don’t agree that my pictures have ever been more than superficially like his pictures.
BACKPACKER MAGAZINE: Let’s discuss taking photos for straight illustration to show other people what a place is like, versus an artistic, creative image done to please yourself. The difference seems apparent in comparing many of your shots in The Wild Cascades with those in Slickrock. For instance, the photographs in the first book have much less emphasis on small detail.
PHILIP HYDE: Several things happened between books. One was my own development. I think I started out with the idea of showing people what an area was like. When I went there I was very conscious of it as a place. Through the years as I visited more and more places, I began to realize that the PLACE, in capitals, is not really what we’re looking for after all; PLACE has become a commercial object more than anything else. To illustrate: There is no difference between Capitol Reef National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park. The place is the same, but the name change was sponsored by Utah’s industrial tourism because the term “national park” puts the place on the map. If the current wilderness proposal goes through the way it should, a very large percentage of the park will be preserved as wilderness, and the place will remain pretty much the same. Practically every book project I’ve ever worked on has had a very strong conservation aspect for saving a place. Another difference between the two books you mentioned is not the photographer’s approach but the editing. For The Wild Cascades and The Last Redwoods I produced many of the photographs, and I certainly edited them. I didn’t just dump the takes on somebody’s desk. But working with David Brower, he pretty much decided what ended up in a book. Practically all the exhibit format books were crash projects; that was Dave’s way of working. When he got an idea, he wanted to see it in a book as fast as possible. I was sympathetic to that wish because some of the places were threatened, but it often meant that the people involved didn’t really have time to do their best work I think that shows up in the photographs as well as the texts. Slickrock is a more finished book because I took all the photographs and I worked on the project a lot longer. I worked on it for several years before I ever talked to anyone about a book. I helped with the photo selection; the design and sequence of photographs were worked out by the book’s editor and a designer.
BACKPACKER MAGAZINE: It seems more and more nature photographers and editors are using images that suggest an area or give an impression of it without being specific about the exact location or subject, such as your exquisite photos of small details in Slickrock and here in Backpacker Magazine. Do you see this as a major trend in outdoor photography?
PHILIP HYDE: I think that aspect is coming out more and more. You know, there are common elements to any scene. During the gasoline shortage I thought; “What can I do? I’ve got to go where the wild places are and make pictures of them.” But if the subject were the little common things of nature, I wouldn’t have to travel very far. Maybe, conservation-wise, that’s what we all must do. Instead of flying off to another part of the world and burning up all that fuel getting there, maybe we should just look down at our feet. I’m fond of quoting what John Ruskin said: “There was always more in the world than a man could see, walked he ever so slowly. He will see no more for going fast.”