Enduring Images: An Interview with Celebrated Nature Photographer and 2017 NANPA Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Jack Dykinga by David Leland Hyde
Including Previously Unpublished Interview Sections and Materials
Jack Dykinga won the Pulitzer Prize in photojournalism while documenting the turmoil of 1960s Chicago. In 1970 he read a Backpacker magazine interview of my father, conservation photographer Philip Hyde. The article by environmental photographer Gary Braasch inspired Dykinga to move West and begin photographing landscapes. He eventually met and became friends with Dad, who mentored him in the ways of conservation photography. They even photographed together on a number of trips, some with a few other photography friends around the Southwest U.S., as well as on mainland Mexico and Baja California.
Jack Dykinga over the years also become a pillar of Western nature photography, working with the acclaimed International League of Conservation Photographers, National Geographic, Arizona Highways and other renowned organizations. The North American Nature Photography Association plans to honor Dykinga with a Lifetime Achievement award this year, much as they did Philip Hyde and David Brower back in 2000.
My interview with Mr. Dykinga touched on how he made the transition from a Midwest urban setting to photographing the wide-open wilderness spaces of the West. It also revealed the sensibilities he discovered were necessary to photograph nature and wildlife for conservation purposes. Our discussion ranged from his experience at various well-known magazines to the refinement of his approach over the years with input from Dad. Dykinga gave insights into a number of conservation projects and the making of a number of his successful books for various causes, including the upcoming new release of A Photographer’s Life: A Journey from Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photojournalist to Celebrated Nature Photographer, in which Dykinga wrote an entire chapter about Dad.
My interview ran over 26,000 words, but I kept only 2,800 for the Outdoor Photographer interview. Some of the remaining 23,200 words will go into my book, but a few sections I will share with readers here. In one section I asked Jack Dykinga about Eliot Porter and Robert Glenn Ketchum. In another, Dykinga shared his experiences with National Geographic and with obtaining more personal images.
David Leland Hyde: John Rohrbach in Regarding the Land: Robert Glenn Ketchum and the Legacy of Eliot Porter, made the exaggerated claims that Eliot Porter invented color nature photography and “almost single handedly saved the Grand Canyon.” Rohrbach also wrote that Robert Glenn Ketchum was the primary photographer carrying on Eliot Porter’s legacy. It was common knowledge among those who were there and widely known thereafter that Dad led the charge spiritually and produced the most photographs for the Grand Canyon campaign. Dad’s photographs illustrated three large format Sierra Club Books and were the cornerstone of Time and the River Flowing: Grand Canyon, the one book specifically produced to prevent two dams above and below the National Park in the Grand Canyon. Eliot Porter’s Glen Canyon book enjoyed wide readership during this time mainly because the campaign to prevent the Grand Canyon dams took on global proportions. The book Time and the River Flowing landed on the desk of every member of Congress and other Washington leaders, as well as quickly fulfilling significant international demand and distribution. As Time and the River Flowing went out all over the world, it effectively advanced the momentum of the global letter writing campaign that ultimately swayed American politicians and stopped the dams. Not all of Philip Hyde’s books in the Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series sold as well as Eliot Porter’s In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World, but Island In Time: Pt. Reyes Peninsula came out the same year. Several other photographers including Litton, Brower, Adams and others were nearly as prominent as Hyde and Porter in bringing color to landscape photography. As far as any photographer taking over Eliot Porter’s legacy, late in Porter’s life when he was ill before a Truckee Meadows Workshop, the organizers called in Hyde to take over Porter’s teaching position, not Robert Glenn Ketchum or anyone else.
Jack Dykinga: Eliot Porter was a great photographer. I will say that right off the bat. Right almost in the second line of his autobiography, without even taking a breath, it says he was a medical doctor who gave that up to be a photographer. Your dad was a self-made person who wanted to be a photographer. He wasn’t a doctor that wanted to be a photographer. He didn’t have either the baggage or the promotional ability that Porter did. A guy like Robert Glenn Ketchum had Ketchum, Idaho named after his family. He lives in Bel Air and Hollywood and he’s done a lot of good conservation work, but the hardship that your father had to go through, made him stronger. Your dad was the kind of person who had to really work for everything he got. I don’t think he had time to blow his own horn. He was trying to make a living. If I had it to do over again, I sure wish I had a lot more money. I wouldn’t have to worry about the next check. But, I think that lack of money also gives you an edge, I don’t mean a winning edge, I mean there’s a certain edge to your life where you’re really having to push pretty hard to get things done and it helps you. Porter’s work had a totally different look, whereas your father’s strength was that he gave you the monumental look of the American West. Your father did a lot more trail hiking than Eliot did and really showed us the land without showing himself.
Hyde: In the early 1960s, the whole direction of the large format books shifted. At first there was the big black and white sensation, This Is The American Earth by Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall, but then suddenly everybody was really excited about color.
Dykinga: Your father’s was more of a documenter of wild places. He would look at things as more of a narrative and a project. That’s more akin to what I do. A lot of my friends that I go camping with are what I call single image photographers. They go out and want to get the most powerful shot that day, where I’m more likely to be wrapped up in a concept. That’s because I’m the journalist. You get publishable shots every single day. They may not be the art you want to hang on your wall, but you may want to put them in a book to tell somebody a story. If you try to submit only those that whisper, you’ll never get published, but you can hang them on the wall and live with them and love them.
Hyde: With National Geographic are you doing more or less what Joel Sartore does?
Dykinga: I am a contract photographer. He is a contract photographer on their first list. I used to be on their first list. I have a deep connection with the magazine, but their overall view of landscape is erratic. We have different opinions.
Hyde: Their idea of landscape is always putting a person in the frame.
Dykinga: There you go. You hit it perfectly. The classic example would be the last issue on Yellowstone National Park with people, butchering animals, traps and cowboys. There’s not one sense of place in the whole article. Here we are in this dramatic, incredible landscape that just gets really short shrift with the tact they have taken. The current editor is a journalist. She was the editor of Time Magazine.
Hyde: Would you say that National Geographic goes after the culture more than the place or the wilderness?
Dykinga: You could say that. That’s sort of subjective. I was there when Chris Johns was editor and he loved my approach to landscapes. That went away when he went away. It changes all the time. I still work for them occasionally. A full feature is a 100 day contract and it’s pretty good money, except when you have things blow up it maybe not as good as you thought.
Hyde: You were in Stephen Trimble’s book, Lasting Light: 125 Years of Grand Canyon Photography. I don’t know that he necessarily found all of the “Who’s who” of Grand Canyon photography, but he included many.
Dykinga: I spend less and less time in cliché locations. They may be visual touchstones for most people, but they’re not interesting to me because even more than the place the solitude is important to me.
Hyde: Like Ansel talked about with the experience?
Dykinga: Yes, a deeper connection. You can’t do that if you’re on a crowded boardwalk in Yellowstone with about 30 Chinese guys with selfie sticks like I just experienced. People now are interested in showing “me there,” more than “there.” I think there’s a profound shift with people being more anthropocentric.
Hyde: We have less and less connection to nature as decades go by and more and more words and noise surrounding ourselves when we do get out there.
Dykinga: I see it all the time where people really go on and on explaining their work. Your father’s message and his voice came through the image. If you go on and on about divinity and God and everything else, that’s maybe what you’re reading into it. A lot of us are just very happy when people see the place and make their own decisions based on their own divinity or lack thereof. That’s as good as you can go. It’s more of a Buddhist approach.
To read the best published portions of the above interview pick up the Outdoor Photographer September Special Issue still on newsstands now for a few more days, or available online soon.