Backpacker Magazine Interview: Conservation Photographer Philip Hyde Part 2

March 31st, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

McClure Meadow, Evolution Valley, King's Canyon National Park, California, 1951 by Philip Hyde. "The Evolution Country" was one of Philip Hyde's all-time favorite places to backpack.

Continued from the blog post, “Backpacker Interview: Conservation Photographer 1.”

See also the blog post, “The 1970s Backpacking Boom, Conservation and Photography.”

This interview republished by permission of the writer Gary Braasch and Bill Kemsley, Jr., founder of Backpacker Magazine.

BACKPACKER MAGAZINE:  You have not only made your creativity into a successful way of life but taken photographs that have been instrumental in battles for very important wilderness areas. How can other photographers—skilled amateurs—use their creativity for conservation?

PHILIP HYDE:  Off the top of my head, they’d do a lot better by going to law school because it looks to me as if the fight is now in lawyer’s hands. But on a local level, an individual can do a lot by becoming familiar with a place that needs protection and by studying the issues. The camera can be an important tool to him. The person can make himself an ad hoc committee on a project and carry it along until something gets done. The weekend photographer may have an even more important role in such cases than the professional, who is always hung up on having to make a living from photography. There are thousands of causes I could donate my photographs to if I were only privately endowed.

BACKPACKER MAGAZINE:  How did your career evolve?

PHILIP HYDE:  I started in photography through nature, rather than vice versa, because of an early interest in mountains. Like everyone else, I carried a little camera around to take pictures of my favorite mountains, and one thing led to another. That was before World War II. When the war ended, just before I got out of the service, I wrote to Ansel Adams. He said he was starting a school of photography; that’s where I spent the next three years. Ansel knew I was interested in conservation and nature, and helped me get acquainted with people in the Sierra Club. My first major published photos were in the Sierra Club Bulletin of May, 1951. Making photographs of Dinosaur National Monument was the first conservation project I did for the Sierra Club. Even with that beginning my wife, Ardis, taught school for 12 years to support us.

BACKPACKER MAGAZINE:  There’s a lot of Ansel’s influence showing in your earlier work.

PHILIP HYDE:  Yes, some people have always said that. But I don’t think I ever imitated him. That picture of Yosemite is a good example of my evolution. Twenty years ago, I had great difficulty making photographs in Yosemite because all I could see was Ansel Adams, and I was sure I didn’t want to duplicate his pictures. Now I can go to Yosemite and see it through my own eyes. I have a tremendous debt to Ansel—not just for having taught me technique but for having inspired me, introduced me to the Sierra Club and helped me get on my way. I want to acknowledge that debt, but I don’t agree that my pictures have ever been more than superficially like his pictures.

BACKPACKER MAGAZINE:  Let’s discuss taking photos for straight illustration to show other people what a place is like, versus an artistic, creative image done to please yourself. The difference seems apparent in comparing many of your shots in The Wild Cascades with those in Slickrock. For instance, the photographs in the first book have much less emphasis on small detail.

PHILIP HYDE:  Several things happened between books. One was my own development. I think I started out with the idea of showing people what an area was like. When I went there I was very conscious of it as a place. Through the years as I visited more and more places, I began to realize that the PLACE, in capitals, is not really what we’re looking for after all; PLACE has become a commercial object more than anything else. To illustrate: There is no difference between Capitol Reef National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park. The place is the same, but the name change was sponsored by Utah’s industrial tourism because the term “national park” puts the place on the map. If the current wilderness proposal goes through the way it should, a very large percentage of the park will be preserved as wilderness, and the place will remain pretty much the same. Practically every book project I’ve ever worked on has had a very strong conservation aspect for saving a place. Another difference between the two books you mentioned is not the photographer’s approach but the editing. For The Wild Cascades and The Last Redwoods I produced many of the photographs, and I certainly edited them. I didn’t just dump the takes on somebody’s desk. But working with David Brower, he pretty much decided what ended up in a book. Practically all the exhibit format books were crash projects; that was Dave’s way of working. When he got an idea, he wanted to see it in a book as fast as possible. I was sympathetic to that wish because some of the places were threatened, but it often meant that the people involved didn’t really have time to do their best work I think that shows up in the photographs as well as the texts. Slickrock is a more finished book because I took all the photographs and I worked on the project a lot longer. I worked on it for several years before I ever talked to anyone about a book. I helped with the photo selection; the design and sequence of photographs were worked out by the book’s editor and a designer.

BACKPACKER MAGAZINE:  It seems more and more nature photographers and editors are using images that suggest an area or give an impression of it without being specific about the exact location or subject, such as your exquisite photos of small details in Slickrock and here in Backpacker Magazine. Do you see this as a major trend in outdoor photography?

PHILIP HYDE:  I think that aspect is coming out more and more. You know, there are common elements to any scene. During the gasoline shortage I thought; “What can I do? I’ve got to go where the wild places are and make pictures of them.” But if the subject were the little common things of nature, I wouldn’t have to travel very far. Maybe, conservation-wise, that’s what we all must do. Instead of flying off to another part of the world and burning up all that fuel getting there, maybe we should just look down at our feet. I’m fond of quoting what John Ruskin said: “There was always more in the world than a man could see, walked he ever so slowly. He will see no more for going fast.”



  1. Your dad is an inspiration. I love the shot of McClure Meadow.

    We are getting more involved in using our photography for educational and conservation purposes, while still trying to maintain fine art aesthetics. I have never felt more excited about our work. I agree with Mr. Hyde that you don’t have to travel far – photographing an area you are intimate with is so rewarding.

    Thanks for another great article.


  2. Thank you, Sharon for reading. It is great that you are inspired by Dad and that you are doing more conservation work. In my experience, knowing that a creation is doing some good adds to the depth of feeling about making it.

  3. For a college student now, could outdoor photography professionals add more current practical information to this article. Photojournalism students are experiencing fewer internship oportunities and less summer job positions available in the field.

    Could you comment on career stability, benefit packages, thoughts on how to best prepare oneself with college course strategies or even general overviews? Experiential perspective from those who work in outdoor photography is what I am requesting. All serious feedback would be appreciated.


  4. Hi Julia, thank you for reading and for adding your comment. I am glad to hear from a college student such as yourself. I am not sure I can address what you are asking but maybe I can send you in the right direction. As is stated at the beginning of the first post (Part 1) in this series (this post is Part 2), this is an interview of Philip Hyde by Gary Braasch for the original Backpacker Magazine. It is presented here verbatim for its historical interest and significance. To find practical information on what it is like working in the field today, I would suggest you look to those who are doing so. I will feature some of them on this blog in profiles and interviews, or you can seek them out. In particular Jack Dykinga, Pulitzer Prize winning photo-journalist-turned landscape photographer, might be the place to start as he credits this Backpacker Magazine Article article with inspiring him to leave Chicago and start his career in the West in nature photography. It has been four years since Philip Hyde passed on, ten years since he lost his eyesight and worked actively in photography. I am a writer and a photographer on the side. I am the ambassador of my father’s photography. While Dad was way ahead of his time and photographed into the new Millenium, it would be unfair and misleading to readers to give them practical tips on working in photography today. My job, as I see it, is to inspire new photographers such as yourself to overcome your own set of challenges, by sharing how certain photographers such as Dad and his colleagues managed to meet the challenges of their day and triumph. The practical nuts and bolts are best obtained at a more basic level of a photo workshop or website geared toward technical concerns and business operations. Getting into the field is completely different now than it was in Dad’s day. How he started out is related for historical educational purposes, not for emulation, except on an attitudinal level. Though I am interested in inspiring people, I am also interested in warning them as well. A friend of mine recently asked me to participate in a career fair to tell high school students what it is like to work in photography. Some of them were taking photography and excited about it. I told her that I might be doing them a disservice to tell them how to get into the field. I might even say to those considering photography as a career, honestly, “DON’T.” It is becoming less and less viable all the time, particularly landscape photography. See the blog post “Photography’s Golden Era 2” for more on this. If you do nothing but fashion and commercial work, you might have a chance but those fields are even more glutted and competitive. I told my friend putting on the career fair that those who are doing it don’t have time to come to her fair and those who have time to come are probably not the ones doing it. She made some phone calls and found out I was right. So the serious feedback you request is: You will work and work and work and make very little income for your time invested. You have to love photography so much that you would do it for free. Then you might be at the beginning of considering it as an option, but even then, your odds of getting seen in the crowds are very slim. On this blog I am sharing with the world how charming, quaint and enjoyable photography used to be, but even then it was much more work than anyone can possibly dream that has not tried it. There was no market then and Dad had to establish it. Today, it is much easier to become a surgeon or rocket scientist, if you have the right mind for those, than to become a successful photographer. If you are attending a top notch school, that will make a big difference and probably help you get started. I hope this gives you the proper warning and if you are still interested regardless of how many people warn against it, you may have what it takes to make it and you will find the “how” as long as your “why” is bigger.

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