From News To Nature

A landscape great turns his eye on the Grand Canyon

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Even Jack Dykinga, a veteran explorer of the Grand Canyon, was surprised to find lush greenery surrounding the rim rocks after what had been a particularly long rainy season. This view is near Swamp Point.

First, Jack Dykin> ga won the Pulitzer Prize, and then he found his calling. As a young photographer in the 1960s and ’70s, he used the gritty streets of Chicago as his background to photograph the news. Trading skyscrapers for the wide-open desert, Dykinga has become one of the most respected landscape photographers working today.

The force driving Dykinga is the same as when he covered daily news. He uses what he sees from behind the lens to bring about change. When he won the Pulitzer in 1971 while working at the Chicago Sun-Times, he helped expose the poor conditions of state-run hospitals caring for mentally handicapped children. His work helped to get the state to deliver more funding and make improvements. With that same spirit, he has turned his attention from people to places for the last 30 years, hoping to inspire within others the same deep sense of connection that he feels to the land surrounding him.

Using a photojournalistic, documentary-style approach, Dykinga makes large-format landscape photographs that focus on environmental issues in North America. His latest book, Images: Jack Dykinga’s Grand Canyon, shows the much-photographed landmark in a fresh light by concentrating on some of the more obscure viewpoints, like the Kaibab National Forest, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Navajo Nation and Hualapai Indian Reservation.

North Canyon Rapid at the confluence of North and Marble canyo

“I had been inside the canyon, but I hadn’t ever made it all the way around,” Dykinga recalls. “So I was there photographing on speculation.”

Though the photographs represent some 35 sites, there are a couple of images that pulled the trigger to really get the book moving. After a particularly rainy season, Dykinga went to the Grand Canyon and was surprised to see hillsides that reminded him more of South America than the eroded layers of rock that epitomize the gorge.

“This was a really wet time of the year,” he explains. “It looked very ‘un-canyon like’—lush and covered with greenery—and reminded me of the jungles in Venezuela. It was so out of character for this area, and that’s what started the project going.”

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The watchtower at Desert View catches evening light as rain blurs the distant horizon.Dykinga’s new book, Images: Jack Dykinga’s Grand Canyon, showcases some 35 sites, including Kaibab National Forest, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, lesser-known areas managed by the BLM, Navajo Nation and Hualapai Indian Reservation. The photographer has said that he has been typecast as someone who does deserts. “Deserts do it for me,” he explains. “There’s a starkness and emptiness combined with vibrant life that can explode at any time.”

From verdant coniferous forests to desolate rock, Dykinga’s visual trek shows the Grand Canyon through all of the seasons, with close-ups of lichen-covered stones and patches of agave tips poking through snow, to sweeping vistas of rock formations and ridges taken from various points along both rims.

A sense of solitude is instrumental in how he takes pictures. Landscape photography isn’t just about capturing place; it’s also about expressing the emotional experience of being in that place. This helps explain why Dykinga remains loyal to the Arca-Swiss F-Field camera in this digital age. Aside from the technical advantages of better controlling perspective and plane of focus, the camera requires the photographer to take a more contemplative approach.

“With a view camera, it’s made to go slow,” Dykinga explains. “It’s almost a meditative process. I put a focusing cloth over my head, shut out the world, and I have a canvas to compose on. It’s very Zen-like. Large format lets us see.”

In Images, Dykinga gives readers a comprehensive look at the Grand Canyon as he traveled to areas he hadn’t explored previously. The photographs are accompanied with personal reflections by essayist and longtime collaborator Charles Bowden, with a comprehensive scientific description of the landmark by geologist Wayne Ranney.

Over the years, human activity has greatly affected natural resources in Grand Canyon National Park. Among several other issues, the introduction of non-native plant and animal species has taken a toll on the native flora and fauna for space, food and water. Air pollution from nearby coal-fired power plants can sometimes spoil views from scenic vistas, and waste has tainted some of the streams.

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A scene from Marble Viewpoint at dawn looking eastward toward Navajo Mountain in the background. Images is Dykinga’s ninth nature advocacy book. He says that raising awareness about conservation issues and causes is the highest calling of nature photography. His photography was instrumental in establishing Mexico’s Sierra Alamos National Park, a United Nations Biosphere Reserve, and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.

A number of laws have passed and programs put in place to protect and restore the Grand Canyon. Just this past February and March, volunteers helped to remove one of the most aggressive, invasive plant species. Nearby power plants are now required to place scrubbers in smokestacks to reduce pollution, and fences have gone up along the park boundaries to keep out cattle and reduce waste.

Dykinga’s ability to take pictures that evoke a sense of wonder, yet are based on fact has made him a favorite of numerous publications, including Arizona Highways (the publisher of Images), Audubon, Harper’s, National Geographic and OP. He has said that advocacy is the driving force behind his photography, leading him to publish nine books that mostly draw attention to the western part of the United States and Mexico.

In the field, he carries two 4×5 Arca-Swiss F-Field cameras, a Wista DX2 4×5 camera, three Gitzo carbon-fiber tripods and Really Right Stuff ballheads. He uses an assortment of Fujinon, Nikon, Rodenstock and Schneider Optics lenses that range from 58mm to 720mm. In total, he packed some 50 to 60 pounds of equipment into a Four Wheel Camper, which was mounted to his Toyota 4×4.

The catalyst for his switch from news to nature was twofold: a climb up Mount Rainier while doing a photo essay on a middle-aged man pursuing his dream and an article in Backpacker magazine by Gary Braasch on Philip Hyde, who was working to create national parks with the Sierra Club. Years later, Dykinga met Hyde who later served as his mentor.

Dykinga’s Tips
About five million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, and most probably go with cameras in tow. So how do you capture such an iconic landmark? Jack Dykinga shares some advice:

1 Slow down and become a student of light.
2 Commit to a composition and wait for the magic.
3 Don’t try to show the whole canyon—you simply can’t.
4 Avoid the images others have done.
5 Be content to just be there.
6 Best place: in spite of the tourists—Cape Royal on the North Rim.

“At different times, different issues sort of rattle my cage,” he says. “My journalism background serves me well because I immediately create a narrative. A lot of photographers don’t do that, but I start with a concept to get people’s attention.”

Over the years, he has turned his lens on the Texas-Mexico border, showing the biological richness and diversity of protected areas along the Rio Grande River corridor, the Arizona desert and the Sonoran Desert, which stretches from Arizona and California into Mexico. He serves on the board of the Sonoran Desert National Park Project, an effort to create a binational park on the border of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. His striking images were instrumental in creating Mexico’s Sierra Alamos National Park, a United Nations Biosphere Reserve, and Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

“This is such a powerful medium for affecting change,” Dykinga concludes. “Transforming the way people view things is the highest calling of nature photography.”

To see more of Jack Dykinga’s images, visit