Posts Tagged ‘Boojum’

Book Review: A Photographer’s Life by Jack Dykinga

July 30th, 2019

Book Review of Jack Dykinga’s “A Photographer’s Life: A Journey From Pulitzer Prize Winning Photojournalist to Celebrated Nature Photographer”

How Jack Dykinga Changed

Cover of “A Photographer’s Life” by Jack Dykinga.

From time to time, we hear of a near death experience dramatically changing a life. The NDE may instigate profound insights, strengthen intuition or lead to stardom through development of a previously undiscovered skill. Jack Dykinga, before his hospital death and return, already had the tenacity, good fortune and talent to win a Pulitzer Prize in Photojournalism, leave the newsroom and jump into nature photography, become an admired workshop leader, and co-found two of the most acclaimed organizations for outdoor photographers: the International League of Conservation Photographers and the North American Nature Photography Association.

Dykinga had also previously covered Civil Rights in the tumultuous 1960s, climbed Mt. Rainier in lethal whiteout conditions, photographed wildlife and remote wilderness all over the world and been handed a large check to explore his home Sonoran Desert. In his new autobiography and retrospective with hundreds of his best photographs: A Photographer’s Life: A Journey From Pulitzer Prize Winning Photojournalist to Celebrated Nature Photographer, Jack Dykinga described life as “a series of portals where we enter one way and emerge totally transformed.” He had been changed a number of times. He had “done it all” in his field. There was not much else to be gleaned from a near death experience, or was there?

Lying in the St. Joseph’s Hospital transplant surgery unit after transferring from the Mayo Clinic Emergency Room, in the aftermath of a race against time for a lung transplant while going in and out of consciousness, Dykinga reflected on his life before these complications. “I had always been competitive” and “eager to earn and accept accolades that reinforced my ego.” Having lived with fierce independence, he observed that his fragile life was completely dependent on others. He had been leading a photo trip in the Grand Canyon when his lungs gave out. His wife, daughter and other family had put their own needs on hold to look after him. While in the hospital, an army of medical professionals, doctors, assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, pharmacists, X-ray techs, lab techs, physical therapists and cleaning staff all had a hand in making sure he stayed alive.

This sense of gratitude and appreciation extended out to the people who filled all of his days: the muses, guides and mentors who sometimes subtly, sometimes suddenly changed his point of view and made him the man he had become. He realized that his creativity incorporated many people’s influences and that the changes others brought about in his life were often reflected in the images he made.

A Propitious Start in Photojournalism and the Transition to Color Landscape Photography

At 20 Dykinga became the youngest staff photographer at the Chicago Tribune. From then through today, in my opinion he has been one of the best at juxtaposing light and dark. Perhaps Carr Clifton, William Neill, Charles Cramer, Lewis Kemper and only a few other landscape photographers do light and dark as well.

The color landscapes in A Photographer’s Life sing and zip with strong shapes and color. I feel some are high on the list of best landscape photographs ever made. That said, I would recommend that anyone taking the study of photography seriously not miss the book’s text for any reason. It may be one of the best for learning how to learn the art.

Beginning with his high school interest in photography, Dykinga shows us his world through his mentors and advisors. The book is a string of fascinating glimpses into who helped Dykinga accomplish so much. His senior year in high school he won the National Newspaper Snapshot Award, sponsored by Look Magazine, National Geographic and the Chicago Daily News. This encouraged him to deepen his pursuit photography. After his battles with dyslexia in high school, St. Procopius College, a small Benedictine all-male school took an interest in Dykinga and inspired in him “excitement in learning.” Their attentive approach to teaching was “exactly what I needed,” Dykinga wrote. He soon made the Dean’s List and started his newspaper career.

“Contract Buyers League, Chicago, Illinois,” 1970 by Jack Dykinga.

His long background in photojournalism contributed to making Dykinga a good storyteller. He moves fluidly and with brevity through each story of his fascinating life carrying a camera on the streets of Chicago during the upheavals of the 1960s. Reading his text you get a visceral sense of his gut-wrenching failures and his uplifting successes. The pressure, chaos and competition that Dykinga learned to excel in during in the 1960s, led him to take on landscape photography with a stronger will and diligence than most ever apply to the genre.

From covering the race riots in Chicago to earning a Pulitzer Prize by exposing the conditions in mental hospitals, to climbing 14,411 Mt. Rainier in Washington in a whiteout with extra low temperatures and high winds, Dykinga weaves his tale and shares his accompanying master works.

He began at the Chicago Tribune as the youngest staff photographer ever. At the Tribune he quickly learned the pluses and minuses of large and medium format because the paper had a rule that required either 4×5 or 2 ¼ cameras. He spent nights chasing crime and civil rights demonstrations. When the Tribune editors came down on him and heated arguments ensued for using a 35mm camera at night, he moved over to the Chicago Sun times whose editors supported his use of the smaller cameras. Switching papers was a potentially risky move when he was supporting a young wife and looking to start a family. However, it soon proved to be a successful new direction, as his work continued to improve and shine. His 35mm cameras were “unobtrusive, versatile and portable. With their fast lenses and high ISO, I could photograph in available light, which was essential to record the news without the extraneous distraction of a flash.”

Dykinga’s mentor at the Chicago Sun Times, Ralph “Frosty” Frost brought in many new gifted image makers that complimented an already talented staff. Dykinga learned from, collaborated with and competed against these associates and their rivals at the three other newspapers in town. They were young, tenacious and willing to do anything for a story. Sometimes they had to, as in one instance Dykinga describes of how he and a newsroom buddy photographed and then outran a rock and brick throwing mob when the two photo reporters became separated from police protection.

An Earlier Profound Brush With Death and Nature

“Boojum Silhouetted at Sunset, Baja California, Mexico” by Jack Dykinga.

Chuck Scott taught Dykinga a great deal from afar as his competition back at the Tribune, but he in time hired Dykinga to return and join him back at the paper where the young photojournalist had started. By then Dykinga worked on in-depth features including one out of town project that he pitched, to attend the Rainier Mountaineering School in Washington himself, train and climb the mountain himself. Once on the slopes of Rainer, he and his party came face to face with life-threatening weather. Dykinga explains in his text that it was hard to get anyone to understand later, but the experience on the remote cascade peak changed him forever. He had a first-hand encounter with the “profundity and power of nature.”

Dykinga’s interest in wilderness only deepened after his time on Mt. Rainier. He took a leave of absence from photojournalism. One excursion he made during this time took him to Tucson, Arizona, where his wife was meanwhile also looking to go to graduate school. At this point in A Photographer’s Life, Dykinga placed a 12-page section of his black and white newspaper images from the riots, protests and tumult on the streets of Chicago, not to mention a number of photographs from the series exposing the conditions in mental hospitals that earned him the Pulitzer Prize. Some people might see this group of black and white city images as out of place right after the telling of the Mt. Rainier story. However, in my view, it further drives home the point in stark reality that there was something to get away from in Chicago, as well as something to escape to in the West. It makes for good contrast and counterpoint.

“I Want to Be Like Philip Hyde”

Around this time, Dykinga read a Backpacker Article about the lifestyle and approach to photography of Philip Hyde. This sealed his decision to leave Chicago and move to Tucson, although at the time he was still committed to photojournalism. He began to see the masses of images going by as much the same. Meanwhile, “…visual reporting on the environment was non-existent…” Hyde was paving the way and establishing the need at various markets.

I began to feel that the health of the planet was the most important issue of our time. With Adams and Hyde’s works as my guide… I came to see the rate of destruction of wild places as a forecast of our extinction.

At first the plan was to visit Tucson for his leave of absence, but as soon as Dykinga discovered that he could work at the Arizona Daily Star, leaving Chicago permanently became a realistic possibility. He shares with us how his move seemed to fall into place. His hope and expectations were high that he could get into conservation photography and thus live and travel more closely aligned with nature the way Hyde did. Eventually he would meet and become friends and travel with Hyde. Hyde was the “closest thing I had to a mentor in nature photography.”

An Angel Investor, the Sonoran Desert and the Making of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

“Sycamore Leaves in Cave Creek, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona” by Jack Dykinga.

The Arizona Daily Star turned out to be more than an interim step though as Dykinga set about rebuilding the photo department. He gathered an all-star staff, most of the members of which later went on to leadership roles at major publications. In time, however, he saw more and more the limitations and biases inherent in newspapers, which are advertising funded and driven. Around the time he became most disillusioned with journalism, Ginger Harmon, the manager of a remote Nature Conservancy preserve in the mountains east of Tucson, offered him a way out by funding him to travel and photograph the area for the creation of his dream book, The Sonoran Desert, published in 1992 by Abrams, New York.

Seeking flower and cactus images for the book, Dykinga ran across Park Ranger Caroline Wilson, daughter of Bates Wilson who was instrumental in the formation of Arches National Park and the protection of other national park lands in the Southwest US. When Caroline Wilson introduced Jack Dykinga to Philip Hyde, they hit it off right away, having first sampled Mexican food together and later traveling and photographing wilderness in Arizona, Baja and Mainland Mexico together and with other photographers of note including Tom Bell and others.

Phil had a quiet grace and understated humor. He was a great listener. Here was a man who didn’t need to brag or posture. Phil was a legend. His advocacy for the land, combined with a more subtle approach to making images made him special.

Dykinga’s stories capture the essence of Hyde “to a ‘T’.” Both with and without Hyde, Dykinga continued to travel the arid lands of the Southwest working on additional projects. Abrams committed to produce two more books: Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau (1996) and Desert: The Mojave and Death Valley (1999). Dykinga has a total of seven books to his credit overall to date. His traveling companion, writer and collaborator from Arizona Highways, Chuck Bowden, wrote the texts in the Edward Abbey tradition. He and Dykinga modeled their work together on these volumes after the famous Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series, initiated by Ansel Adams, Nancy Newhall and David Brower in the 1960s and 1970s, for which Eliot Porter and Philip Hyde became the primary illustrators when the books transitioned to color photography.

We were following a tried and true environmentalist’s tactic, initiated by David Brower, to produce the Sierra Club’s powerful large format series that documented an area while calling for its protection.

They even got Robert Redford to write an introduction to Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau. Stone Canyons struck a chord with Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of Interior and former Arizona governor, Harold M. Ickes, Bill Clinton’s Deputy Chief of Staff, whose father, Harold L. Ickes had originally proposed Escalante National Park before World War II, and with President Clinton himself. Culminating many years of work by other conservationists beginning with the Sierra Club publication of Slickrock (1973) by Edward Abbey and Philip Hyde, President Clinton established Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on his last day in office in 1996.

Emotion, Psyche, Art, Photography and Landscape

“Saguaro Cactus, Sonoran Desert National Monument, South Maricopa Mountains Wilderness, Arizona” by Jack Dykinga.

While recounting Dykinga’s life events, A Photographer’s Life lays bare the real world lessons they taught him. For anyone who loves the West, or loves the natural scene anywhere for that matter, A Photographer’s Life packs a lot more than technique or the how-to’s into it’s pages as Dykinga lays open his soul, cuts deep into his own psyche and dissects his own emotional makeup for our benefit. This is rare in a large format photography book, or any other kind of book today.

Dykinga not only organizes the book to give tribute to those who helped him develop, he mentions these influences as they came to mind while image making. Besides his chapters on each significant mentor, he sprinkles in sections on the making of various photographs. At one point in the text when he describes photographing the details of an agave plant and visually compressing the scene “to emphasize the contrasting colors,” he speaks of “walking on a trail blazed by Philip Hyde.” His reflections are on “…moments when passing bits of advice reemerge years later in the work we create.”

When he transitioned to color landscape photography, Dykinga’s work literally and figuratively blossomed. He became known for his images of cactus and other blooming drylands plants. A Photographer’s Life includes Jack Dykinga classics such as “Saguaro Cactus in Bloom,” “Rhododendron in Redwoods,” “Boojum Silhouetted at Sunset,” “Sandhill Cranes at Dawn, Bosque del Apache,” but it also treats us to more subtle or unusual images that could not be made by anyone else.

Dykinga shows us something different from what we typically see with two images of Saguaro in the snow. His open and stark compositions with a lot of extra space around items of interest give us the emotional equivalents of the desert. Often, as in his Silhouettes of Saguaro and of Boojum in Baja, he distills the image down to its simplest elements, or photographs simple subjects to start out with. While Dykinga’s small cactus details, Baja rock outcroppings and the silhouettes show the Hyde influence, they are graphically as good or better and more eye catching. Dykinga certainly did his own version of subtle well too.

“Monument Valley, Totem, Yei Bi Chey with Tumbleweed’s Wind Pattern Foreground” by Jack Dykinga.

Perhaps one of the most unusual images of Monument Valley ever made, but simultaneously telling of the place, is Dykinga’s winter landscape near-far with the tumbleweed isolated and alone in the foreground and mist-enshrouded monuments in the distance. Now and then Dykinga presents us with a documentary image of an area, no less beautiful, but certainly rooted in place. In contrast to this and the cactus, sand and desert rock, some of Dykinga’s best work happens when he experiments with water—using various exposures and focal lengths to go toward expressionism and impressionism. All in all, A Photographer’s Life, is a review of Dykinga’s mastery and range. Budding landscape artists take heed.

Currently there is a major exhibition of Jack Dykinga’s Grand Canyon prints from June 18 to September 14, 2019 at the Etherton Gallery in Tucson, Arizona. If you are near Arizona or not, it is worth making the trip to attend: Jack Dykinga – Grand Canyon National Park, 1919 – 2019.