Darkroom Photography Magazine: Masters of the Darkroom Series Presents Part One Of An Interview With Philip Hyde By Merry Selk Blodgett
At Home In The Wilds
One of this century’s premier interpreters of the American wilderness, Philip Hyde has carried his 4X5 to places no camera had been before. Famous for Sierra Club books like Island In Time and The Last Redwoods, Philip Hyde is also a dedicated darkroom “do-it-yourselfer” who uses the complex and beautiful dye transfer process to make color prints. (See the blog posts, “The Legend Of Dye Transfer Printing 1,” and “The Legend of Dye Transfer Printing 2.”) Together with his wife and son, Philip Hyde lives far up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in a house he built himself…
“When I first chose photography, I knew I was choosing the pleasures of creativity over the consolations of wealth.”
DARKROOM PHOTOGRAPHY: It’s very beautiful up here in the mountains; the view from this window could be a Sierra Club calendar. But you’re also very far from any large towns, not to mention cities. Do you ever feel isolated up here?
PHILIP HYDE: I don’t think it’s isolation, I think it’s insulation. We’re insulated from a lot of urban influences that I’m not all that interested in. Don’t get me wrong…I like people. I’m very involved in the photographic workshops I’ve been doing. But I guess I like people best in small quantities. For me, the urban environment is too much of a man-made kind of thing. What’s most important to me is to be able to look out the window and see the changes of the seasons, or the rain pouring down, or the stars at night.
DARKROOM PHOTOGRAPHY: You’ve got a reputation as one of the top nature photographers in the country. Has your photography made you financially successful?
PHILIP HYDE: I’m not really trying to play the money game. Photography has provided a living, not a bad living at all. But when I left the city in 1959 to come up here, I knew that I was leaving behind the opportunity to make lots of money. I think that when I first chose photography, I knew I was choosing the pleasures of creativity over the consolations of wealth.
DARKROOM PHOTOGRAPHY: What is your personal definition of success?
PHILIP HYDE: I define success for myself in terms of my lifestyle. Success is freedom and opportunity to do what I want to do. I would say I’m a success in that respect. But some people seem to think that once you’re successful, you can just coast from then on. That’s certainly not true for me; I have to keep working hard, which is a good thing, or I might sit back on the oars and float downstream.
DARKROOM PHOTOGRAPHY: Anyone who makes his own dye transfer color prints certainly isn’t resting on his oars. Frankly, I was surprised to discover that someone as closely associated with outdoor color work as yourself would be spending so much time indoors. Dye transfer color printing is notoriously difficult and time-consuming; it’s usually done only in specially-equipped labs. What made you decide to tackle such a formidable process?
PHILIP HYDE: The beauty of a well-made dye transfer print, for one thing. It’s permanence, for another. I don’t know, maybe it’s lunacy. Or maybe it’s self-punishment and that’s part of my philosophy too. I think that you don’t get something for nothing in this world, and that perhaps struggling for it is a good thing. I’m saying that somewhat facetiously, but I’m not joking. I think there are a lot of aspects of photography now that are so automatic and so easy, and I think that explains the fact that there isn’t an awful lot that’s significant, from a long-term standpoint, being produced.
“Success is freedom and opportunity to do what I want to do.”
DARKROOM PHOTOGRAPHY: I take it you’re not partial to motorized, auto-everything 35mm SLRs.
PHILIP HYDE: Well, do you know that old saw about the bunch of monkeys? If you set a bunch of monkeys up at typewriters eventually they would end up typing the Encyclopedia Britannica. That’s a lot of nonsense really, but it’s certainly true that if you run enough film through a camera, sooner or later you’re going to make a significant image. I think an awful lot of people are using 35mm that way. On the other hand, there definitely are people whose work is suited to 35mm…people who can exploit the freedom and flexibility of that format.
DARKROOM PHOTOGRAPHY: But you’d rather carry around a 4X5 camera and 30 pounds of gear as you hike through the wilderness.
PHILIP HYDE: Yes.
DARKROOM PHOTOGRAPHY: Why?
PHILIP HYDE: For one thing, it would be very hard for me to make high-quality large dye transfer prints from 35mm originals. But deeper than that, I like the 4X5 format because it disciplines you to see carefully. By the time you’ve made the exposure, you are aware of little things you wouldn’t notice in a 35mm viewer. And it’s a discipline in not being profligate with materials; when you’re carrying 30 pounds on your back and have a limited supply of film, you look at everything very critically. You’re less apt to bang away and ask questions later.
DARKROOM PHOTOGRAPHY: Let’s return to your current work with the dye transfer color printing process. How long have you been doing it, and how did you get started?
PHILIP HYDE: I began dye transfer printing in 1974. I had been mulling it over for a few years before; my photographer friend Dennis Brokaw tipped the scales when he said he would help me begin. I can still remember the first dye transfer print I made. I was so excited, after years of seeing bad color prints made from my transparencies.
DARKROOM PHOTOGRAPHY: Doesn’t the process require a lot of skill and care on your part?
PHILIP HYDE: I suppose so, if you define skill as a reasonably precise manipulation of the material, and having your head together enough so that you do all the intermediate steps in the right order. Dye transfer is a rather complex process, especially when your originals are transparencies, as mine are. But there’s one nice compensation for all the complexity; there are a tremendous number of adjustments and controls at each step of the process, so you can alter the color balance, intensity of colors, and contrast along the way. Even after five years, I haven’t been able to get into all the refinements of the process.
DARKROOM PHOTOGRAPHY: How does your dye transfer printing relate to your primary objective of portraying nature?
PHILIP HYDE: I have always wanted to interpret and express the beauty of what I see in nature. My major objective is…
CONTINUED IN THE UPCOMING BLOG POST, “Philip Hyde At Home In The Wilds 2.”