Posts Tagged ‘Charles Cramer’

Lessons in Composition From “Monet: The Early Years” and “Monet: The Late Years” at De Young Legion of Honor, San Francisco Art Museums

December 3rd, 2020

Art Show Review: Lessons in Composition

From “Monet: The Early Years” and “Monet: The Late Years”

De Young Legion of Honor, San Francisco Art Museums

Are You Rehashing Reductive Rules?

Indian Rhubarb and Reflections, Spanish Creek, Fall, Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 2017 by David Leland Hyde. (Click 3X to enlarge.) A few people have said this photograph looks like a Monet painting. I do not make photographs to look like paintings intentionally, but if one does, so be it. I like abstract subjects and photograph them whenever possible. Paul Strand’s straight negatives were not altered in any way, but many of them were abstract and their subjects unrecognizable, though they were straight out of the camera.

Everything you have learned about composition is wrong. Most “tips” in workshops and on photoblogs are either purposely or by default overly simplistic, unnecessary and even melodramatic as presented by some teachers today. Many of the “secrets” like “never split the frame with a vertical” or “with the horizon,” “use leading lines to draw the viewer’s eye into the image” and so on, are reductive and often broken by the masters of painting, photography and other visual arts.

Today a painter or photographer starting out may turn to books or more often magazines or blogs to learn craft and technique. Contemporary art publications, online schools and forums, especially in landscape photography, teach composition as a series of logical, “left-brain” methods and techniques. They discuss the merits and limitations of the rule of thirds and drop nuggets of wisdom about foreground interest, emphasizing the subject, eliminating non-essential distractions, sweeping the edges of the frame, simplifying the image, filling the frame, finding background contrast and on and on. Some blogs have devoted large portions of content to discussions on how well participants have applied these techniques to various example photographs. Others get into dissecting and analyzing “composition conundrums faced by landscape photographers,” as one popular blog post said.

All of these serve a purpose and act as a starting point, providing some value in the early stages of learning photography. Beyond that however, if you pack all of this stuff, rattling around in your mind, out into the field and consciously attempt to apply it while making images, it will be like hauling a backpack full of rocks. It will provide little in the way of nourishment or comfort, will slow you down and more often than not result in dead, unimaginative photographs.

Many teachers today, besides presenting formulaic material, follow each other around to the same locations that have been on the landscape photography bucket list for generations. Fifty to seventy years ago, many of these scenes were fresh, but today most landscape photographers are missing one of the obviously lesser known fundamentals of seeing: great art is not necessarily about the subject. The pervasive mentality is that to make a name in landscape photography you must pursue certain views and certain types of scenes. This often sends new camera owners on a far-flung tour, with little thought other than, “I can do it too, or maybe even better if I am lucky to have dramatic light or weather.” Some photographers get hooked on travel and years later are still jet setting all over the world, when they could just as easily find great photographs closer to home, use less petroleum and develop a deeper connection to the culture and land. No wonder most of what we see online and across the industry is starting to look the same.

Throughout the history of art, examples abound of the greatest works breaking the rules of composition, while at the same time maintaining a sense of equilibrium and balance or dynamic off-balance that grabs the viewer’s attention and holds it. Which brings us to the next logical question: How did the masters learn to make successful art without enslaving themselves to rote techniques and guidelines? There are probably as many possible answers as artists, though there are also common patterns among renowned artists.

Straight Photography, Pictorialism and Photography as an Art

Abstraction, Porch Shadow, 1915 by Paul Strand. Paul Strand’s negatives were straight, not post-processed in any way, but many were abstract and their subjects unrecognizable. (Click Twice to See Large)

Like today, in the early 20th Century, until about 1930, clichés proliferated. Technique and gimmick-heavy Pictorialism ruled the day because many thought making photographs look otherworldly, unreal or like paintings was the best way to get photography recognized as an art. It did not work then and is still questionable now. What did more than anything else to establish photography as a fine art was the crisp, fresh, precision craft only possible with a camera, as made by Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and many of their students and kindred spirits such as my father Philip Hyde, William Garnett, Brett Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Minor White, Dick Arentz, Al Weber, Dave Bohne and those still living from the same lineage such as John Sexton, Bob Kolbrenner, Jack Dykinga, Charles Cramer, Carr Clifton and a few others.

During the heyday of straight photography, galleries, museums, auction houses and the art establishment had the most interest in photography. Today, the exposure of landscape photography is expanding in certain types of magazines and in tourist galleries in some of the world’s most popular destinations, but the art establishment has left behind contemporary landscapes, especially in color. Galleries, museums and other fine art venues look down on the genre with disdain. This does not have to be.

Attempting to attain dynamic balance in your work through following someone else’s tips, will mainly bring derivative results, whereas through ongoing immersion in a variety of genres and by studying the masters in many disciplines, you can develop an innate sense of what works and what does not. There are no shortcuts to mastery in art and no short list of 10 secrets will take you where in-depth study can. When Ansel Adams founded the world’s first college level photography program to teach creative photography as a profession at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Arts Institute, he and lead instructor Minor White and the other organizers required students to take a well-rounded set of electives from many of the other art departments at the school including music, ceramics, sculpture and others.

My father applied to the program and at first his application was misplaced and delayed a year. In response, another mentor and guest lecturer at CSFA, Edward Weston, suggested that since Dad had the G.I. Bill paying his tuition anyway, he might as well take some elective art classes at UC Berkeley while he was waiting to start photography school. Dad signed up for Interior Design, painting and calligraphy. His professor for calligraphy turned out to be the eminent Japanese painter Chiura Obata, who had recently been released from the World War II Japanese concentration camp at Manzanar on the East Side of the Sierra. Learning from Obata turned out to be an unforgettable experience that deeply influenced the way Dad saw any given subject. Through the example and influence of his mentors, both at UC Berkeley and CSFA, Dad became a student of a wide range of types of art. He often explained to his students in turn that Ansel Adams and Minor White hardly talked about composition, at least not in terms of quantified rules, but in the context of the relationships, forms and arrangements found in many forms of art and photography.

Before Impressionism Became Impressionism

The great Impressionist Claude Monet broke more of the rules of composition more often than almost anyone else, while producing a completely new kind of art that still soothes, calms and delights the world. During his early career, when he struggled to keep his family from starving, Monet had already begun to make the innovations that would shake up the art establishment.

Monet enjoyed early success when the Paris Salón accepted his first submission, but many rejections followed. He had to rely on his parents and others to survive, while despite his clear mastery of technique, critics labeled him and the group of painters he associated with revolutionaries and troublemakers. In time he would reinvent how textures were applied, develop new brush styles, specialize in portraying the effects of light like no other painter before him and play a central role in the development of Impressionism.

Monet’s departures from tradition were vividly evident in two contemporary exhibitions of his paintings that toured before the Coronavirus Covid-19 Pandemic began. “Monet: The Early Years” and “Monet: The Late Years,” curated by George T.M. Shackelford of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas and originated there in partnership with San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums. Both shows toured nationally and made a stop in San Francisco at the De Young Legion of Honor Museum.

Fountain and Sunburst, de Young Legion of Honor, San Francisco, California, 2017 by David Leland Hyde. (Click Twice to See Large)

My friend Ronald Schmidt and I saw “Monet: The Early Years” at the Legion of Honor. Mr. Schmidt was my 8th Grade English teacher, but moved to San Francisco years ago and became a member of many of the best museums. He invited me to see both Monet shows, but because unfortunately I never made it to see “Monet: The Late Years,” I will refer to online and book reproductions of the paintings. These paintings from Monet’s later career will also be the most accessible in some ways, though they also most dramatically break the mold of art before Monet. Having pored over picture books as a boy and become partial to the Impressionists, I was enthused to see “Monet: The Early Years,” because while both shows promised to include paintings I had not seen before, the first exhibition would tell the story of how the French master got started, long before he became one of the founders of the movement that became Impressionism.

The Legion of Honor Museum: American Home of Great European Art

Driving far up through the San Francisco neighborhoods intertwined with trees made for a dramatic build-up to seeing the show and the museum. After negotiating the curvy road through the dark woods, we emerged to see the California Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum gleaming a blinding white in the afternoon sun atop the highest point in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. From the Legion of Honor grounds we looked out over sweeping views of The City, the Marin Headlands across San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Arriving at the parking lot, we stepped out of the car and stared at the light patterns on the water of the aquamarine pool while illuminated spray from the fountain danced in the late sunlight and immediately changed our Monet frame of mind into a visceral real-world experience. During a long, surreal moment, I felt almost as if time had collapsed and I merged with the world of the Impressionists. Perhaps it seems a bit presumptuous to say that on some level I almost felt as though I was channeling Monet when I suddenly reached back into the car, grabbed my camera and made a burst of images. I also followed the light across the road to photograph the museum entrance draped in dramatic and shapely shadows. The tall gate and partially shaded courtyard contrasted with brightly lit people walking in and out with illuminated halos. Moving into the courtyard I captured a few couples in various poses and caught details of columns and shadows, but once inside the building there were only cool, stark white walls until we reached the entrance to the Monet Exhibit on the main floor.

Front Gate From Front Door, De Young Legion of Honor, San Francisco, California, 2017 by David Leland Hyde. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

The Legion of Honor is a smaller replica of the Louvre Museum in Paris. The grounds, courtyard and interior of the Legion of Honor are permanent home to over 70 Rodin statues. As you walk up toward the front gate, you enter another world far away from the bustle of the surrounding city. Architect George Applegarth’s massive columns support a colonnade that surrounds the courtyard. Just inside the front gate, you are greeted by one of the original casts of Rodin’s “The Thinker.” Behind this powerful statue rises a low glass pyramid, reminiscent of I.M. Pei’s installation at the Louvre. See also Greatest Hits of European Art on the Hills of San Francisco. Once inside the museum, you find yourself in a large central space with galleries extending in all four directions. The Legion of Honor is the perfect setting for two exhibitions of one of Europe’s most celebrated Impressionists.

At the entrance of “Monet: The Early Years,” my friend Ron and I were greeted initially by a large wall text. The first painting could be seen beyond the wall text. The text ran from ceiling down to the floor, all in white block letters on a white background:

INTRODUCTION

Before his success, before there was even the term “Impressionism,” Claude Monet labored to define his style and promote himself as an artist. Two forces drove him: his will to be a painter and his desire to become critically and commercially successful. During his early career, Monet struggled to provide food and shelter for himself and his family while creating innovations that would turn the art world upside down.

Just past this text wall, one of Monet’s most ambitious early paintings, “Luncheon on the Grass,” dominated another large wall straight ahead. The label identified it as, “Claude Monet, ‘Luncheon on the Grass, Central Panel’, 1865–66. Oil on canvas, 97 X 85 inches. Musée d’Orsay, Paris” It was too large to contain in a photograph, but I had already tucked my camera away anyway, so as not to be distracted from viewing the paintings while inside the show. The picnic scene splashed across the whole wall and looked almost as though you could walk into it, with bright figures as large and vivid as life sitting in front of a dark, primeval forest. The figure of Monet’s first wife, Camille, who appears more than any other character in Monet’s early paintings, in “Luncheon on the Grass” gestures toward the viewer with an empty plate, as if to invite us to sit down and join the group enjoying their wine and refreshments.

Monet Effortlessly Broke the Rules of Composition and Worked Hard to Capture the Light and Mood

Luncheon on the Grass, 1865-1866, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

The first three or four paintings were innovations in breaking the rules of composition, as it turns out so also were most of the works in the exhibition. More panels told the stories of Monet’s early painting life. Camille and the other figures in the various paintings were revealed not by detail, but by Monet’s stunning observation of detail and light, as well as a stark precision of emotion and feeling. Even though Monet’s painting style left out many details, the mood and time of day in the scenes gleamed in whites and other suggested, subtle textures. Because the shapes, colors and subjects stood out well and captured the eye, the arrangements of the figures and other subjects could be random, unusual and striking.

In ‘Luncheon on the Grass,’ it is almost as though Monet shifted the frame up and to the left. Part of this shifting and imbalance of the whole composition was exacerbated by the fact that this was only the central panel of the painting, the others having mildewed in Monet’s landlord’s basement while being held as collateral for rent, but the composition would have been skewed anyway. We see only part of the dress and arm of one lady on the left, while large areas of white space and extra forest greenery open up on the right. The picnic blanket is cut off at the bottom, but yet the open, less defined forest soars far above the heads of the figures at the top.

Beach at Trouville, 1870, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

“The Beach at Trouville” cuts off interesting right side features such as the stairways and buildings in favor of showing more of the open beach, ocean and the expanse of sky, which is the largest feature of the piece. In the painting, ‘Hyde Park,’ Monet slices off a quarter of his right side tree, while including significant open space to the right of the vista. If anything, rather than creating dynamic balance and following the rules of composition, in much of his early work, Monet purposely built his images out of symmetry, but not out of balance or equilibrium. His interest seems to be in disrupting our sensibilities, not in working with them.

Monet, perhaps better than any other artist ever, mastered the portrayal of mood in settings and people. Besides choosing lighter or darker tones, his ability to see and capture the effects of light on objects and scenes and his use of great expanses of sky, though often detrimental to perfect composition, enabled him to visually show the feeling of any given place. In this sense, form, subject and the arrangement of objects within the frame, were subordinate to and less important than the emotions he wanted to elicit. Examples abound in his early and late work.

Hyde Park, 1871, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

In the paintings exhibited in “Monet: The Early Years,” for example, we can compare the somber hues in “Hyde Park” to the bright, white dominated, yet also colorful scene in “The Beach at Trouville.”

Monet also used composition to indicate what was important in a painting. For example, in “The Cradle” the baby and cradle occupied the center and were depicted in bright, colorful and white tones, while Camille sitting at the baby’s side was only a little over halfway in the frame and outlined in dark olives, grays and blacks.

The Green Wave, 1866, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

In “The Green Wave,” the top third of the mast and sails of the sailboat are out of the frame. Very little space is allowed for a large sailing ship in the distance and another boat also sailing on the same Green Wave. On the other hand, a large, open space of the ocean in the foreground dominates the painting. The sailboats are not the subject of the piece, the ocean and the wave are. Cutting off the top of the sailboat and devoting over one third of the entire painting to the nearly unvaried green wave also make the creations of man small in the face of nature, another theme of the painting. “La Grenouillére,” on the surface is a painting of the lively swimming hole on the Seine in Paris. The exhibition text explained the painting:

La Grenouillére, 1869, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

“Monet’s “La Grenouillére,” portraying a popular bathing spot on the Seine, carefully captured in color brushstrokes the effects of light, rendering a feeling of pleasure. The men and women sit leisurely at the café, converse under the central tree, partake in swimming, and prepare for a boat ride out on the sun-drenched water. Yet the true subject of this painting is perhaps the river itself. While the activity of the figures is evoked through quick, energetic dashes of the brush, Monet lavished attention on the water, its multiple colors, its reflections, and its depths.”

Monet continued to break with convention in his later work, but not to the extent he did as a young master, until the last 10 years of his life. Robert Taylor described “Monet: The Early Years” in the San Jose Mercury News as a “stunning, exuberant show of nearly 60 paintings, a revelation for art lovers who think they’ve already seen everything Monet has to offer… They haven’t seen the radical Monet, the experimental Monet, the artist whose bold, dramatic paintings are in high contrast to the placid, familiar garden settings.” Read more, “Monet, The Early Years Sheds Surprising Light on Painter.”

Shakelford, the curator of the show said, “He was taking what Gustave Courbet had done with realism and pushing it forward. He was using bigger brushstrokes. His seascapes are pretty daring, pretty tough-minded.” Yet Shakelford said as viewers move through the exhibition, “we bring people around to the Monet they expected: lovely, lighter, optimistic.”

Over and over in Monet’s early paintings he not only placed objects and people in the very center of the picture, a supposed composition “no-no,” but he also gave them extra emphasis with line and color, which further accentuated their central prominence in the work. The “imperfect” compositions serve another function as well. Because nature was most often his primary subject, imbalance within the frame helped to convey the imperfections in nature, while also showing how perfect nature is anyway, even in its imperfection, just like Monet’s paintings.

Every painting in “Monet: The Early Years” broke at least one of the rules mentioned here. Some of Monet’s creations broke all of the rules. Monet’s work and that of many of the other impressionists, cubists, modernists and postmodernists are good resources for studying why compositions that break the rules often have more impact than those that conform.

Japanese Bridge, 1899, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

A good number of Monet’s later paintings are also two-thirds or three-quarters sky, or one other element, perhaps a hay field, or a beach. He often split the horizon, placed objects directly in the center or ignored other popular aesthetic preferences. What is going on here? Perhaps if your subject matter and the light on it are depicted well enough, you don’t need the “rules of composition.” That is, if you show other attributes of genius in your work, a dissonance of composition or other departures from standard practice may be possible or even desirable.

Monet Takes Abstraction Further

“Monet: The Late Years,” turned out to be laden with departures as well. The San Francisco Weekly described the show as, “An exhibit of Claude Monet’s final 13 years that included paintings of water lilies that were never publicly viewed during the Impressionist master’s lifetime.” Read more, “The Color of Monet: Get Ready for De Young’s Blockbuster Show.” Monet’s last major metamorphosis came about late in life while he painted his own estate in Giverney, France. With the help of hired gardeners, Monet kept his gardens and water features in idyllic condition. At the same time, his own eyesight began to fade. These factors combined to manifest as greater and greater abstraction in his paintings. He was mourning the death of his second wife, Alice, in 1911 and his son, Jean, in 1914. Cataracts threatened to eliminate his sight completely, just as some of the battles of World War I backed the French army almost up to his doorstep. His paintings became more and more of an escape into an unreal world. The SFist said, “Things get downright psychadelic by the 1920s, when Monet was blind in one eye and had only 10 percent sight left in the other,” in the review, “6 Things to Know Before Going to the deYoung’s ‘Monet: The Late Years’ Exhibit.”

Japanese Bridge, 1899, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

Shakelford, the curator, argued that Monet’s late paintings were nothing less than the beginnings of Modern Art. Abstract artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Ellsworth Kelly cited Monet as an inspiration. Kelly said that Monet’s late work changed him when he saw two of the paintings in Switzerland. Indeed, Monet’s “The Japanese Bridge,” one of his most abstract late paintings came as a loan from Switzerland’s Kunstmuseum Basel.

Many of his later paintings, though abstract, remained attractive to collectors because of their pleasing colors, but paintings from Monet’s last decade, made as his eyesight faded, were even more subtle and less striking. They were so subtle, there was no market for them. It took until many years later, after Impressionism took the world by storm, in most cases long after the painters themselves were gone, for some of the more obscure paintings by Monet and the others to be recognized as great and valued with the rest of the Impressionist canon. Unusual compositions in Monet’s early work did not turn off the art establishment nearly as much as the breaking of other conventions in art.

Japanese Bridge, 1918, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

We could deconstruct Monet paintings until the cows come home to eat haystacks, but regardless of the explanations, what he did in his creations worked, even if in some cases, his paintings did not please the sensibilities of the time, they brought a new awareness and eventually changed how people viewed art and how people made art. Rather than characterizing composition as merely another technique, or attainment through a series of formulas, Monet remade it. Likewise in photography, Edward Weston advised aspiring photographers that composition is merely the strongest way of seeing. Adams, Weston and the other members of Group f.64 reinvented photography by eliminating rules, not by adding to them. We don’t learn to be great artists by studying formulas or memorizing techniques, but through deep observation of our subjects, perhaps by seeing them as deeply as Monet did with failing eyesight, or as profoundly as Edward Weston did. Weston said, “To photograph a rock make it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.” We learn from how great artists before us depicted the subjects we wish to depict, even if this means, seeing beyond what is being depicted. This is perhaps why dying people wish to view Monet paintings one last time before they go. There is more in them than we readily see, perhaps a glimpse of the light beyond that Monet himself could see better near the end. We take ideas from great art and try them in our own work and ultimately in our lives. One idea works, another is a flop today, but next month, next year, or someday, perhaps an idea works in a new situation.

Japanese Bridge, 1924, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

Artists whose photography or paintings endure give us a transcendent experience. Walking through “Monet: The Early Years,” my friend Ron and I discussed feeling exhilarated and awakened by the spirit of Monet’s paintings and the force of his creativity. Being in the presence of his artwork, we experienced his psyche and took a bit of it home. I can say without doubt that Monet’s paintings changed me, just as they did Ellsworth Kelly. Seeing any great artist’s creations gathered and isolated to bring out their full impact gives us a metaphysical and tangible experience, a momentary sense of another’s life. We left refreshed and re-energized, determined and full of insight. We were enriched by our exposure to excellence and by seeking it over the rehash of mundane technique.

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.