Toward a Sense of Place by Philip Hyde 1

February 9th, 2012 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Marble Gorge, Grand Canyon National Park, 1964, by Philip Hyde. From Navajo Wildlands, Sierra Club Books. Two miles from proposed Marble Canyon Dam site.

(See the photograph full screen: “Marble Gorge, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.” To view other photographs from the same Exhibit Format book see the photographs: “Stormlight, Canyon De Chelly National Monument, Arizona” and Navajo Wildlands Photographs In The Deserts Portfolio.)

From Navajo Wildlands: As Long As The Rivers Shall Run, Text by cultural geographer Stephen C. Jett, Photographs by Philip Hyde, with Selections from Philip Hyde, Willa Cather, Oliver La Farge and Navajo Myths and Chants, Edited by Kenneth Brower, Foreword by David Brower, Sierra Club—Ballantine Books 1967–Exhibit Format Series

*Landscape Photography Blogger Note: Clarence Dutton was like the ‘John Muir’ of the Grand Canyon and Colorado Plateau. As you look to explore the Colorado Plateau yourself, please be aware that the areas where people are allowed and the approaches to them have changed since 1965, especially in Canyon De Chelly National Monument. Also note that the politically correct term for the native people now is their own word, “Dineh,” in its various spellings, rather than the Spanish word “Navajo,” in common practice then.

Toward a Sense of Place By Philip Hyde

When Clarence Dutton explored the Plateau Province a hundred years ago, he saw that a visitor conditioned to the Alps, if he stayed long in this new country, would be shocked, oppressed, or horrified. While in Dutton’s days emotion about scenery was still all right, today, indifference is popular, and we tend to take someone else’s opinion about what is beautiful and flock to the recommended places. Noting this, Aldo Leopold, in A Sand County Almanac has identified the “trophy recreationist,” and urges that recreational development is “not a job of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the…human mind.” Indeed, a great increase in individual sensitivity might be achieved if park authorities spent as much effort on interpretation as on road building.

Dutton lead the way, and his insight about what would happen to a traveler in the Plateau Province certainly worked for me in the Navajo Country. The traveler needs time enough, he wrote, and: “Time would bring a gradual change. Someday he would become conscious that outlines which at first seem harsh and trivial have grace and meaning, that forms which seem grotesque are full of dignity, that magnitudes which have added enormity to coarseness have become replete with strength and even majesty. The colors which had been esteemed unrefined, immodest and glaring, are as expressive, tender, changeful and capacious of effects as any others. Great innovations, whether in art or literature, science, or in nature, seldom take the world by storm. They must be understood before they can be estimated. They must be cultivated before they can be understood.”

A woman we met at the gas station in Newcomb volunteered that she and her husband had just driven through the Navajo Reservation and that, “there’s nothing there but little round shacks. We’re headed for Colorado!”

We had reached Newcomb, about halfway between Shiprock and Gallup, crossing the Chuska Mountains on a magnificent little dirt road. It wandered in the pine forest on top, discovered little aspen-ringed ponds, and found us a superb view of Shiprock, fifty miles to the northeast. It also climaxed our afternoon with an enormous thunderstorm we watched from an eminence above Two Gray Hills. I wanted to tell the couple something about what our old road had let us see, but they were off with their tank full of gas, to collect place names in Colorado like a good trophy recreationist should, ever hurrying over the ever-increasing highways that penetrate lovely country and either lacerate it or pass it by unseen.

John Ruskin said, with the invention of the steam engine: “There will always be more in the world than a man could see, walked he ever so slowly. He will see no more by going fast, for his glory is not in going but in being.”

(See the photograph full screen: Click Here.)

Mitchell Butte from Mitchell Mesa, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Utah-Arizona, 1963, by Philip Hyde. From Navajo Wildlands, 1967.

Do you see Monument Valley now by whizzing past its monuments on a paved road, taking lunch in Tuba City or Kyenta, and spending the night in Moab? Or are its greatest rewards still reserved for those who take the dusty little dirt road that goes down among the great buttes and who feel the rocks and sand under their wheels and feet? I recommend especially the great reward of winter time, when there may be a light skiff of snow in the dune shadows. This reward is even greater if you have also experienced Monument Valley in the heat haze and dust of mid-summer. The crisp winter air is then a special elixir.

To me, Canyon de Chelly is another scenic climax of Navajo Country, and at its best in the fall. The cottonwoods lining the canyon’s fields and sandbars glow with their own inner light, and the sun arrives with that low-angled brilliance that drives photographers into ecstasy and exhaustion. Canyon de Chelly is perhaps the most Navajo of all the park areas on the Reservation. It speaks eloquently, in the present tense, of the Navajo and Anasazi past. Here is probably the Reservation’s most spectacularly beautiful combination of colorful rock, canyons, and ancient ruins. You can drive on pavement to its fringe and soon will be able to drive the rims on high-standard highways; but travel in the canyons, where the most exciting visual action is, is subject to nature’s whims. High water, or sand quicker than usual, can stall the most ingenious mechanical substitute for feet.

There is still a lot of foot travel in the canyons. The White House Trail that drops over the rim from an overlook on the rim road crosses the wash and leads to the area’s best known ruin, perched on a ledge above the canyon bottom, with a great wall sheer above it.

In the Spring of 1965, when heavy runoff in the canyons kept even the Park Service vehicles out…

(Originally posted January 17, 2010)

(CONTINUED IN THE BLOG POST, “Toward a Sense of Place 2“)

RELATED POST: “A Sense of Place and A Changing World.”

Many museum curators, gallery owners and photo buyers consider the image all important and often overlook the significance of place, even in landscape photography. Do you feel a sense of place is important in landscape photographs? If so, why?


  1. Mr. Hyde expressed how I feel about photographing the small island I live on. I go to the same places here day after day and there is always more to see.

    Thank you, and I look forward to your next post.


  2. Hi Sharon, I checked out your work and as I commented, I am quite sure my dad would appreciate it, if he were still around. I’ve added you to my blog roll. Best wishes…

  3. Greg Russell says:

    As both Wendell Berry and Wallace Stegner so eloquently remind us, we cannot fully feel at home in a place until we have memories there, until a part of us becomes integrated with the land.

    Having grown up near Shiprock, I know the places written about here, and your father’s photographs have that sense of place. These words and photographs are refreshing and comforting.

    Thanks for sharing these posts!

    Greg Russell

  4. Thank you for posting your reassuring comments. There will be more Philip Hyde writings and photographs soon. Just about anywhere in New Mexico is quite a unique place. I lived in NM for nine years in Cuyamungue, Santa Fe, Pecos, and Albuquerque. The Four Corners is a wonderful place to have grown up.

  5. pj says:

    What a great way to put it — trophy recreationist. You see them everywhere… hordes upon hordes scampering from one iconic location to the next on their marathon journeys. Click goes the camera, and then it’s off to the next spot. I’m surprised the Park Service hasn’t painted little footprints on these spots with a sign that says ‘stand here for best picture’.

    Great words and thoughts from your father, and maybe even more true now than when he wrote them. I appreciate you republishing some of these older posts. This was done before I had discovered your blog and I hadn’t seen it before. Thanks.

  6. Many thanks for your comment, PJ. The National Park Service essentially does guide people around like sheep between railings and paved paths. Heaven forbid anyone venture off the paved path away from the flock. I guess this is good and bad though, because if everyone ran all over our national parks, there wouldn’t be much left of them. You and I can be grateful that the hordes don’t spend much time exploring the parks. It’s part of what preserves them for those of us who dig more deeply into what they have to offer, or just enjoy the thought of the parks being mostly empty except for the tourist attractions.

  7. pj says:

    Very true. Reminds me of those old car commercials on TV when I was a kid:

    ♫ see the USA in your Chevrolet… ♫

  8. Yes, thank you, PJ. The “trophy recreationists” either literally or figuratively have a checklist of National Parks. One time I ran into one couple at an overlook in Dinosaur National Monument and they rattled off half a dozen National Parks they had visited in the previous few days and another bunch they planned to see in the next couple of days. They were very proud and bragging about how much they had “seen” in their travels. Their bravado temped me to say something that might bring them down a notch or help them put into perspective that maybe that was not “seeing” the parks at all, but I let it go. I said something neutral like, “Wow, that is amazing,” and it was. I guess that’s what being in nature is today for many people.

  9. Jim says:

    Hello David,

    As usual, your post really hit the nail on the head. I’m often asked why I drive to locations when I have the opportunity rather than flying to the nearest airport. I drive because I see so many incredible sites along the way that I can then STOP at and loiter (sometimes to the chagrin of the locals) and that’s not an option when I’m passing over at 40,000 feet and going 500mph. I certainly don’t have the luxury of disappearing into the wilderness for weeks or months at a time as some of our photographic predecessors did, (my trips usually run between two and three weeks) but I do my best to really experience the places I’m visiting. My wife often aks why I go to the same places over and over again when I’ve “seen” them already. I give her the example that I’ve been to Death Valley probably 20 times in the past three years. It’s nearly 3,000 square miles and I’ve seen essentially nothing, even though I hike and go off-road with my 4×4 at every opportunity! The thing about nature is; it’s BIG!

    I’ve also encountered tourists as you’ve described meeting at Dinosaur NM. They tell me they’ve seen 10 parks in as many days, and I’ve spent 10 days in one park and haven’t seen a fraction of it. How slow am I?

    @pj, the NPS is pretty close to painting little footprint and tripod marks for people. They already have little signs with camera icons at most major scenic views because I guess many people have to be told when they need to take a picture of something. I remember a few years ago in Yosemite I saw a car pull off at a scenic point. The window rolled down and a hand came out holding a camera. The picture was taken, the window rolled up and the car drove away. I was in awe of how important that image must have been to the visitor, considering the immense care and consideration taken when composing and capturing the image. 😛 I also agree fully about getting off the beaten path, but remember that in some parks, Arches NP being my favorite example, if you dare step off an established path you will have a ranger scolding you about destroying the cryptobiotic crust that covers much of the desert floor. I always feel like a criminal when I’m trying to jump from rock to rock in order to stay off the sand because I’ve wandered off a path. I’ve always wondered how professional landscape photographers feel about situations like that. As nature photographers, we should be setting an example of conservation, so I always feel there’s such a stark conflict of interest. Get an original (or hopefully original) shot, or stay on the path and shoot what everyone else has shot 10,000 times in this year alone?

  10. Hi Jim, always enjoyable to read your responses. Thank you. I especially like what you wrote about setting the example in conservation.

  11. Greg Russell says:

    Thanks for reposting this David…it was really good to read it again, almost 2 years later.

    I enjoyed Jim’s response above, and couldn’t agree with him more. I definitely smiled at the humor, but also agree with both of you about photographers setting the example in conservation.

  12. Thank you, Greg, for stopping by again this time around.

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