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Jack Dykinga: Enduring Images

An interview with celebrated nature photographer and 2017 NANPA Lifetime Achievement award winner Jack Dykinga
Rio Cuchujaqui by Jack Dykinga

Sabino trees with a tangle of roots lining the banks of Rio Cuchujaqui, Sierra Madre foothills, Mexico.

Documenting the turmoil of the 1960s, Jack Dykinga began his career at age 20 as the youngest photojournalist at the Chicago Tribune. He migrated to the Chicago Sun-Times, where he won the Pulitzer Prize for an incisive, graphic and gut-rending piece on the conditions in mental hospitals.

After nine years at the Sun-Times, Dykinga returned to the Tribune and became an editor. He read an article about the conservation photography of my father, Philip Hyde, by a young Gary Braasch, who later also became a famed environmental photographer and recently died photographing the bleaching of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

“The reason you become a photographer,” Dykinga said, “is to use the medium as an effective way to shape opinion and communicate what you feel and see. Gary Braasch’s article in Backpacker magazine opened my eyes to Phil Hyde basically following his bliss and doing something that was worthy of emulating.”

“Photographs need a reason for being,” Dykinga now tells his workshop students. “Most people do it for ‘self’ and self-aggrandizement, instead of looking at the collective good.” The article by Braasch helped trigger Dykinga to leave Chicago and move West, near more wilderness, with his wife when she went to college in Arizona. In Tucson, Dykinga ran the assignment desk and acted as director of the graphics department at the Arizona Daily Star. He also photographed landscapes for Arizona Highways and other publications, eventually becoming a full-time freelancer. In the early 1990s, one of Dykinga’s park ranger friends introduced him to Philip and Ardis Hyde when they were visiting Tucson. This began a lifetime friendship and trips together into Mexico’s Sonoran Desert in the Buried Range, the Pinacate and in Baja.

OP: What intrigued you about my dad and his work that made you want to meet him?

Jack Dykinga: Your father was a much more powerful force in American landscape photography than he’s ever gotten credit for. He simply didn’t have the PR people or persona that Ansel Adams had, but in terms of work accomplished, I think he was a much more potent force. Even more than Ansel, your father instigated a whole generation of photographers to care about the environment and want to do something with a camera to help save it. Many of them wear their hearts on their sleeves, but your father was largely selfless. When I told him he had influenced so many photographers, he was taken aback.

Photography is a continuum. It’s a universal language that crosses international lines and that communicates at a visceral level. When I started looking at your father’s Drylands: The Deserts of North America, it set the tone as far as the subtle palette of color. I had discussions with fellow photographers who didn’t really get it. Not all photography has to scream at you, some of it can whisper. I use that line all the time when I’m teaching workshops.

Isla Santa Catalina by Jack Dykinga

Cardón and barrel cactus in afternoon light on Isla Santa Catalina in the Sea of Cortez, Baja Sur, Mexico.

OP: Certain photographers have work all over the magazine covers, but galleries aren’t interested in them at all.

JD: The trend is for maximum exciting moments accentuated with color intensified by hours of post-production manipulation. These images lack the simplicity of quiet moments that offer counterpoint. Back when I was at that point in my career, there were about half a dozen to a dozen good creative landscape photographers. It was a pretty tight market then, but everybody knew each other. Everyone had a background either as a climber, park ranger or naturalist. Now everybody takes pictures, but not everybody has a background in caring about what it is they are photographing. Others talk about conservation, but they don’t follow through on it. When I was working more with the International League of Conservation Photographers, many of them in their 30s were confronted with problems I didn’t have at their age. It’s a very saturated market. It’s much more competitive. You can’t make a living like you used to. I tell people to persevere, and I urge them to go into other media, too—web-based technologies, videos or anything else that will work. I tell people to be a writer as well. Do both. If you are strictly a photographer, it’s really not economically feasible, unless you are at the very highest level, because everybody is giving photography away. If you look at photography as a way to feed your soul, you can make a fortune because your soul will be rich.

OP: Is it possible to find that inner wealth and even some kind of outer prosperity, without photographing the classic scenes we see over and over?

JD: There are a lot of people that just go to the same places and have a list of images that they get. To me, it’s almost better to see the pictures you get on the way to those places. Drylands really set me on fire, showing me that part of Mexico, showing the texture of plants and other details.

OP: A perfect example is the cactus close-up you have on your website homepage. I love the forms.

JD: Look at the second or third picture in Drylands of a barrel cactus. You’re really speaking of the land’s harshness through the details. Your father’s work has vast seconds of quiet punctuated by brilliance, which to me is a much better narrative because you’re allowing people to get the feel of the place by whispering instead of screaming at them. I think that once you open people’s eyes to that softer approach, they appreciate it. If you’re screaming all the time, you lose the quiet notes that are part of the integrity of the story of a place. The desert is not always a thunderstorm with lightning and two rainbows. Often it’s absolutely quiet. I encourage photographers to get out of the car, walk around and spend time without a camera, get to know the place and then take out a camera and start working it. Knowledge can’t help but make you feel a place more and display that feeling in your images. I always tell people there’s nothing wrong with a cliché if it’s really a great cliché. Shoot the damn thing, but don’t let it define you. What I see a lot is just the rainbow instead of an image that incorporates the rainbow. That’s harder.

OP: I imagine you were a significant part of what improved Arizona Highways from mainly displaying touristy hot spots to the higher-caliber publication it is today.

JD: They circle back to that quite a bit still, but production quality was always the best, better than Geographic. I just did a piece on saguaro cactus. If you haven’t seen it, you might look it up or you could ask Jeff Kida, the photo editor. The heading of the article said, “Now This Is Really Different.” The difference is found in asking simple questions like, “Why do saguaro cactus’ arms droop?” All I did was just answer my own question: They get frosted in the cold winters. The sheer weight drives them down and makes all these curlicue designs. I wrote a little text. Saguaro bloom at night and are pollinated by bats. Because of the technology, I saw I could shoot the Milky Way in the background. The whole idea of the portfolio was not only to show photographs that have conservation value, because I was in the new Sonoran Desert National Monument, but to share how the cactus adapt to the harsh environment. It all begins with curiosity.

Organ Pipe Cactus by Jack Dykinga

Skeletal remains of organ pipe cactus with live organ pipe in the background, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

OP: I have most of your books from Dad’s collection. The Secret Forest advocated for the conservation of a unique dry tropical forest in Mexico, if I remember correctly.

JD: That’s right. It helped make the world-heritage site, Sierra de Alamos-Rio Cuchujaqui Biosphere Preserve. Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau helped make two monuments, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.

OP: As you know, Dad’s 1973 book, Slickrock with Edward Abbey, besides working on the expansion of Canyonlands, also aimed at protecting the Escalante River system. I believe there were other books advocating wilderness for Escalante, too. It took 23 more years of wrangling and another major conservation book, your Stone Canyons, to finally overcome the opposition to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which Bill Clinton finally slid through on the last day of his first term in 1996. Martin Litton told me that over 70 years ago, before World War II, Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior under Franklin D. Roosevelt, first proposed an Escalante National Park of thousands of square miles, roughly 8 percent of the state of Utah. It would have included Glen Canyon and stretched from Green River to the Arizona border.

JD: When we did Stone Canyons, all the marbles lined up. Harold M. Ickes, Clinton’s White House deputy chief of staff, son of Harold L. Ickes, continued his father’s legacy working on protection for the Escalante watershed. Bruce Babbitt, previous governor of Arizona and a friend of mine, was Secretary of Interior under Clinton. Sen. Bill Bradley also helped Clinton push it. The Mormons opposed it, but as a compromise, they made it a BLM national monument so they could keep ranching. It wasn’t what we wanted, but we got something. Later on they made the Vermilion Cliffs-Paria Canyon National Monument.

OP: Great that the son completed his father’s dream and your book Stone Canyons helped finish the project that Slickrock re-ignited in 1973. A lot of your books were conservation volumes. What is the difference or what was the evolution between Large Format Nature Photography and Capture the Magic?

JD: Large Format Nature Photography was more about the nuts and bolts, and Capture the Magic was more about what you’re feeling and how you’re doing it. Capture the Magic is what I do, not necessarily what you need to do. The new book is going to be even more along that line.

OP: Your new book, A Photographer’s Life: A Journey from Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photojournalist to Celebrated Nature Photographer, will come out in December this year. You said you wrote a whole chapter about Dad.

JD: The book is one of those great epiphanies that you have when you are hours away from dying. One of the near-death aha’s was that on a given day there were probably 200 people who were invested in keeping me alive, from people who mop the floor, to the surgeon that did the operation, the techs, the pharmacy, the X-rays and so on. I took that concept and expanded it to my whole life. At different stages in my life, different people helped a certain style appear in my work. I wrote about Phil and his roots and experiences. His work taught me about peace and quiet. The closest thing to a spiritual approach would be your father’s eye, how he traversed the landscape and how he felt when he was there. He had a real joy when we went camping in Baja.

 Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs by Jack Dykinga

Mixed-colored clays and wave patterns against canyon formation, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Arizona.

OP: Besides benefitting from the silence, you are also giving something up when you decide you’re going to use your images for conservation. You may give up recognition. Has that been your experience?

JD: Definitely, you give up a lot of things to become a conservation photographer because it’s like taking a vow of poverty. Lack of money also gives you an edge, though. I don’t mean a winning edge, I mean there’s a certain edge to your life where you have to push pretty hard to get things done, and it helps you along. In the overall values of our current society, conservation is low priority. Another picture of a mountain, for instance, does not resonate with self-centered people. It’s not relevant to an urban society. With our parks, I think the country is wrestling with, “How do we relate to these big places?” The way they try to make them into Disneyland is on the increase. Instead of preserving solitude, they are building tramways and trains that move the city into the park, instead of making the hard decisions and saying, “Only 20 can go in today.”

OP: My father, Ansel, David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club, and many other conservationists were against constantly upgrading roads and building more structures in the parks. Brower’s contribution to photography, like Dad’s, was not recognized as much as he deserved. At least both of them received a lifetime achievement award from the North American Nature Photography Association in 1996. The same award I see that you will receive next year. I can’t think of anyone who more deserves parallel recognition. You, after all, worked in large-format photography like Dad did, but also have now crossed over into digital.

JD: For large format, the knowledge of color that you had to have and the way the color film responded to light allowed you to learn about filters, color wheels and complementary colors, many things that they don’t even look at today. Now they all have the same adjustments. Lots of styles are repeated.

OP: It would be great if there were some way to measure quality.

JD: It’s strictly who has the loudest microphone, or megaphone. Wilderness has become a cartoon. Not everything in nature is lively. Some things are dead but still beautiful. You’re coming from the angle of, “They should do it this way or that way.” It doesn’t matter because they’re going to do it the way they want to do it. The question is, “Will it endure?” Remember, art is decided not by our generation but by the next one. If you’re going to make work that endures, I would venture to say that all these candy-colored tinsel-town shots are going to be in somebody’s trashcan.

OP: They already are going into landfills. Most of the galleries are looking at all of that stuff and saying, “This is terrible. We can’t do anything with this.”

JD: We both could be wrong, but at this point, I don’t care. I know what I think is good, and I don’t have to satisfy anybody else but me. I think that might be a good lesson for your readers. They want to satisfy their own sense of walking away and knowing they did a good job within themselves, instead of trying to make a cookie cutter approach match what a certain audience wants. A lot of this stuff we are talking about is soulless photography. Your father’s work had a soul and a certain gravitas, and it will last. To me, that’s the end of the discussion. It just doesn’t matter after that.

Grand Staircase-Escalante by Jack Dykinga

Western sunflowers against desert varnish canyon wall, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

OP: How do you keep your ego in check?

JD: If you make an honest interpretation of what you see, it’s pretty easy to keep yourself out of it. It has to do with respect for the land. When I’m making a print or a display or something like that, sure there’s ego involved, but that’s what wives are for. I see it all the time where people go on and on explaining their work. Your father’s message and his voice came through the image. A lot of us are happy when people see the place and make their own decisions. I think that’s what photography is about. It becomes transcendent. I didn’t say it has to be literal documentation. It could be an artistic view of the same subject. You could take a piece of it and go with a certain mood that elicits the place and still be perfectly honest. I am discouraging the amped-up color. Lots of my images that I think are my most successful are almost impressionistic and far from literal. OP

Follow David Leland Hyde’s blog at See more of Jack Dykinga’s work on his website,