Philip Hyde Speaks Out About Respecting And Defending The Five Deserts of North America
By Jane Braxton Little
Note: This article originally titled “Philip Hyde: Exploring World In Photos” by Jane Braxton Little appeared in the Feather River Bulletin on October 7, 1987 just before the release of Drylands: The Deserts of North America. Jane Braxton Little now writes for the Sacramento Bee and magazines such as Audubon, American Forests, Scientific American, Nature Conservancy, Sierra, Native Peoples and many others. She is a full-time freelance writer who travels the world on environmental stories. Drylands is out of print but readily available through used booksellers. See Drylands: The Deserts of North America on Amazon.
Traveling The West
Philip Hyde glanced around his studio lined with full-color landscape photographs in various stages of framing and confessed a yen to travel.
“I haven’t taken any kind of trip for 18 months and I’m beginning to feel it,” Hyde said. “My feet are itchy.” The Mojave, Chihuahuan, Sonoran, Great Basin and Painted Deserts are what have kept Philip Hyde, age 66, at his studio in his home in the Northern Sierra. His new book, Drylands: The Deserts of North America, will be published this month.
Sculpted sand dunes, multicolored lava flows and the surreal cracks of a sun-parched mud patch are among Philip Hyde’s 95 photographs that convey, often with stark simplicity, the complex beauty of North America’s five deserts. Hyde also wrote the text of the new large format coffee table book.
Hidden Complexity In Deserts
“To the casual eye, deserts look like simple places: scattered sage brush, the occasional lizard, bare rock…” Hyde wrote in his introduction. “Yet deserts are not really simple places and the bareness can be deceptive.”
With the publication of Drylands nearly behind him, Hyde has been kept in his studio readying the photographs reproduced in the book for shows at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, opening October 23, and at Lightworks in Sacramento, scheduled to open December 2.
Drylands is the most recent of the many books and calendars that have helped to establish Hyde as one of America’s most respected and experienced landscape photographers. His work has been exhibited nationwide and is represented in major photography collections. While Hyde’s work reflects the diversity of vegetation and topography from Alaskan tundra to the mountains of central Mexico, it projects a singular attitude towards his subject.
Reverence And Discovery In Nature Photography
“I photograph nature with great respect for it,” Hyde said. “I want people to appreciate wilderness and I would like to think that I have had a hand in making them more conscious of nature.” A perfectionist, who chooses his words with precision, Hyde refolds his lunch napkin into its brass ring and labels his studio typewriter with the date he installed a new ribbon. His photographs are the products of a fine eye distinguished by an appreciation for the subtly unusual.
“Photography for me is a discovery process,” Hyde said. “I don’t go to a place and wait. In a place that’s full of pictures, it doesn’t make sense to wait for them to happen. There are too many other pictures waiting to be taken.”
Philip Hyde and his wife Ardis spend an average of three months a year on photographic trips. They have climbed the mountains of Baja California, Mexico, rafted through the Grand Canyon, Rio Grand and many other river canyons, and camped on a glaciated beach in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. Before each trip, Hyde studies the geology and geography of the area and researches it pictorially. Hyde explained, “Basically I’m dealing with the land. I find out what I can about it in advance. When I get there I explore it—and see what happens.”
Environmental Activism And Politics
His travel far from the conventional tourist beats is in step with his environmental politics. An outspoken conservationist, he served as a photographer for the Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series that originally popularized the large format coffee table book. Hyde produced numerous books for the San Francisco based Sierra Club and worked with many other environmental organizations. He was a major contributor to the first Sierra Club desk calendar and his work continues to appear regularly in new editions, as well as numerous other publications. His pictorial record of Glen Canyon before it was flooded by Lake Powell is just one example of his use of photographs to make political statements.
“My photographs are my voice,” Hyde asserted. “They haven’t hurt people as much as I would have if I got mad and hit them over the head.” He is generally critical of the direction of national politics and specifically critical of the Reagan administration and James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior.
“The whole idea of conserving things is more liberal than conservative,” Hyde said. “Conservatism, as practiced in this country is exploitation. It’s big business privilege. It doesn’t jibe with conservation or true conservatism.” Hyde has devoted a lifetime to photography out of a belief in communicating conservation ideals.
Art As Communication More Than Expression
“My philosophy of photography is communication,” He explained. “That rules out getting too far out and too personal—where the communication is so obscure you go to a show and the most banal photograph has three paragraphs of text to explain it. That’s not the true medium of photography. If it needs to be explained, it’s something else.” He also does not advocate art that is different merely for the sake of being different.
“There’s so much talk about creativity,” Hyde said. “Philosophically, I don’t know about creation. It seems to me there is no real need to make nature into something else. If you make a tree into something other than a tree, that’s not photography.”
“The picture doesn’t have to communicate just what the photographer is thinking,” said Hyde. “Let people play around with it. That’s part of the fun.” The best of Hyde’s photographs leave space for the viewer to complete the scene.
Self Made, Self-Reliant And Simple
Hyde does almost all of his own photographic printing in his studio, keeps all of his own clerical records and markets the bulk of his work by himself. Despite the challenges of running a one-man business, he prefers the simplicity of being self-contained to the complexities of being an employer.
“The hardest thing I do is to make things simple,” he said. Hyde recently simplified his printing process by replacing color dye transfer printing with Cibachrome, a color printing process manufactured in Belgium and marketed by an English company. Cibachrome has complexities in the chemical and manufacturing process, not in the print making methods.
When he is at home in the Sierra, Hyde maintains a disciplined schedule, working regular hours in his studio. The house where he and Ardis have lived since 1959 is decorated with clean, understated elegance: hand-made earthenware, Navajo rugs, books, rugs, wall hangings and brass trays from when the Hydes lived in Morocco for a year. Their food is often picked from Ardis’ garden just up hill from Indian Creek, complimented by her homemade whole wheat bread.
His photographs bear a quest for simplicity, conveying a strong sense of the individuality of a single stone or the moment of a sunset over the Grand Canyon. They are images that may accurately reflect a point in time selectively plucked from a world in constant flux.
“Every day different things are happening. Every day the sun is in a different position… Photography is an exploration more than anything else.”