Celebrating Wilderness by William Neill
Landscape Photography Bloggers’ First Guest Post
Landscape Photography Blogger Note: Coincidentally Guy Tal posted a tribute to William Neill on his blog called, “Inspiration: William Neill’s Yosemite Volume One” the same week as this post. I am grateful to William Neill for my first guest post.
Celebrating Wilderness by William Neill
On March 30, 2006, Philip Hyde passed away at the age of 84. The community of photographers and nature lovers lost a true friend and pioneer. (See the June 2006 issue of Outdoor Photographer, A Voice for the Wild). I count myself as being very blessed for having known him.
Many years before meeting Philip back in the early 1980s, I discovered his work in the Sierra Club’s famous “Exhibit-Format Series” of books. His images opened my eyes, along with those of thousands of other photographers and wilderness enthusiasts, to the beautiful and endangered landscapes he had explored. He helped us see the great potential use landscape photographs could have for environmental protection. Philip’s images spoke to me quietly yet forcefully of wild nature’s value, and showed me the impact hard work, dedication and selflessness can have.
Philip’s sphere of influence has expanded outward far and wide, quietly and profoundly. Hyde was the workhorse for the Sierra Club book series, providing images for nearly every battle of theirs in the 1960s and 1970s. When David Brower, the director of the Club and creator of the book series, needed images to help preserve an endangered landscape, Philip and camera went to work. Books in which his photographs are instrumental include The Last Redwoods, Slickrock, Island in Time: The Point Reyes Peninsula, Time and The River Flowing, Navajo Wildlands, The Wild Cascades: Forgotten Wildlands, and This Is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country and Its Magic Rivers.
I have little doubt that every published nature photographer of my generation has been inspired by Philip’s efforts. The large number of photographers, professional or not, working today to use their imagery to help preserve wild places, both locally and on national issues, owe Philip a great debt.
When I looked at those Sierra Club books as a college student, my wildest dream was to use my images in such books and other forums to further the cause of conservation, and to make photographs for a living. The success of the Sierra Club books not only gave a great boost to its own membership, but also showed publishers that such books had commercial value, thus spawning the publication of thousands of books modeled after them. The resulting nature book industry allowed many photographers to develop careers, and brought to light many issues of preservation. Even those not familiar with the full extent of Hyde’s accomplishments can trace their roots to his efforts.
Beyond his environmental contributions, Hyde has earned an honored place for his art. His photographs have a quality of serene reality. His choice of camera is a 4×5 for revealing the landscape in sharp detail. The color is not amplified. The light he preferred was understated, and he did not favor the “magic hour” that seduces most of us. He has a disdain for the redundant sunset motif. He chose Ektachrome film, over Kodachrome or Fujichrome, for its more neutral reproduction of nature’s colors. In similar fashion, Philip’s compositions and use of lenses are simple and direct. Rarely do you see a photograph where camera position or lens exaggerates any aspect of a landscape.
Commenting on his evolution from being a black and white photographer to predominantly using color, Philip wrote in his book The Range of Light, “Black-and-white lends itself to manipulation that can dramatize a subject. Color tends to record what is seen, so it is no coincidence that I use color for that purpose. I don’t feel nature needs to be dramatized: it is dramatic enough! …Color photographs that…rely too much on the shock value of color alone will not sustain interest.”
Philip’s approach, which seems at first to show the landscape in ordinary descriptive terms, is his attempt to make us realize nature’s profound beauty is always there for us to see, not just during a monumental performance of light or color. There is selflessness to this approach. In his images, his own importance recedes in the face of nature’s beauty and need for protection. He once wrote to me, “There is no limit to what a man can do so long as he does not care who gets the credit.”
Many years ago, I hiked up Mt. Hoffman in Yosemite. I walked slowly upward, alone in my thoughts. I carried all my 4×5 gear to the summit, planning to photograph the sunset and then hike down in the twilight. At the top, the views of Yosemite’s wilderness stretch out all around. There was virtually no sign of human life below. The sunset light warmed the surrounding peaks, and the Sierra Nevada displayed why it is called The Range of Light! The serenity I felt was powerful.
Thanks to far-sighted pioneers, this rare form of sanctuary exists for millions to enjoy. The initial preservation of Yosemite by President Lincoln in 1864 and subsequent the formation of the National Park System, the inspiring words and energetic crusading of John Muir, the monumental photographs of Yosemite by Ansel Adams have all contributed to the cause of wilderness preservation.
At times like this, when a great person in our field or our life is lost, we might wonder who could ever replace them? It is an important time to stop and remember the impact each one of us can have. John Muir saw threats to the wildness of Yosemite, and fought to preserve it. Ansel Adams felt deeply moved by the beauty of Yosemite and the Sierra that Muir helped preserve, and used his photographs to fight further for wilderness preservation. Philip Hyde, learning from the example of Muir, Adams and David Brower, worked tirelessly to photograph threatened landscapes. Many photographers have followed Hyde’s example. As a ripple expanding outward in a circle, more will follow those who have followed him. We must all acknowledge our mentors, and I am proud to count Philip Hyde as one of mine. We honor their legacy by following their example. Let the circle be unbroken. — William Neill
I am interested primarily in what Emerson called “the integrity of natural objects.” They express wholeness and individuality, and it is this sense of place that is the foundation of my work. My life in photography has been taken up in exploring natural places for their beauty and uniqueness. It has been a labor of love, and nature has provided me the perfect object. — Philip Hyde
William Neill’s Note: The North American Nature Photography Association offers a grant in honor of Philip Hyde. See http://www.nanpafoundation.org/hyde_grant.html for more info and for applications.
To sign up for newsletter updates, including info about his BetterPhoto.com online workshops, please see William Neill’s web page at WilliamNeill.com. For more about wilderness see the blog post, “Wallace Stegner: The Wilderness Idea.” For the story on how I learned more about my father’s work see the blog post, “Memories Of Finally Working With Dad.”