Landscape Masters Through Time

Photography’s greats must find philosophical constants while embracing change
Dykinga’s vision has evolved such that many of his current images like this feel more immersive for a viewer by having detailed foreground objects and an overall feeling of being in the photograph.

The history of landscape photography is closely tied to the history of exploration in the American West. Photographers since the birth of the medium have explored wild lands for art as well as science. Much has changed in a century and a half, yet surprising similarities remain between the first landscape masters and those working today.

Photographers like Eadweard Muybridge and Carleton Watkins utilized the wet collodion process. Difficult even in ideal circumstances, it required the mixture and application of a light-sensitive emulsion to a mammoth 16×20 glass plate, with the corresponding exposure and development before the emulsion dried. Thus the term “wet plate” was born—as was 150 years of constant technological challenge and innovation that marks the interaction between talented photographers and the landscapes they explore.

Ansel Adams And Early Landscape Photography In America
Though 50 years of work preceded him, Ansel Adams is the spiritual father of American landscape photography. Not only is he perhaps the most recognizable name in all of photography, but his work transcended art and science to make him an icon of popular culture as well.

“It’s rare to find a landscape photographer,” says Carr Clifton, “or any photographer who hasn’t been touched by Ansel Adams’ black-and-white work of the exquisite landscapes of the American West.”

Like Watkins and Muybridge before him, Adams made many famous photographs of Yosemite National Park. What set him apart was his work’s timeless quality. Technologically innovative and advanced enough to surpass much of the printing done today, Adams’ photography was simple enough to maintain a direct connection to the earliest pioneers of the medium.

As a teen, Adams came to nature before photography and ecology became a driving factor throughout his life. That conservationist thread still runs through landscape photography today and perhaps is stronger than ever. Adams’ exquisite black-and-white prints were only possible thanks to the photographer’s innovation of the Zone System, a technique for exposure and processing to provide the utmost control over every tone in an image. His technical curiosity, as reported by those who knew and worked with him, as well as a habit of reinterpreting prints on modern equipment throughout his career, inspires “what if” questions about how the master would work today.

Adams’ quest for beauty and preservation of the natural world with a love of innovation would serve him well were he working today. No matter how the tools change, today’s masters want the same things Adams did: to provide the public a glimpse of the unique beauty of America’s wildest places, and in so doing, protect those finite natural resources.

“What Ansel wanted to do was to make you feel what he felt when he pushed the button,” says Jack Dykinga.” To do it, Adams refined not only his skills as an artist and outdoorsman, but his ability to work wonders in the darkroom. Today, that skill would likely be considered “postproduction.”

A trained musician, Adams often is quoted as saying, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance.” Whether or not today’s landscape masters hear his words as they make choices about cameras and film, printers and postprocessing, one thing is certain: They step out of his shadow to stand on his shoulders every time they take a picture.

Jack Dykinga
Reinvention is required for creative success
Jack Dykinga’s career is one of continual rebirth. He was once a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist in Chicago. He left that life to start a new one—pursuing a passion as much about a purposeful life as it was about photography. “If you don’t have a reason for your photography,” he says, “then you shouldn’t take pictures.”

Dykinga’s purpose of preservation and protection has remained one of few constants in his long career. Changes are now afoot, though, bigger than a switch from the journalist’s 35mm to the landscape master’s 4×5 and the incorporation of digital capture into his workflow. Dykinga says the huge change he’s now dealing with is a complete shift in the business of stock photography.

“It’s not like there’s 10 David Muenches out there,” he says of the competition. “There’s maybe a million guys who make one sale a year. If you give anybody enough film and time, they can win a Pulitzer. Everybody in their lifetime is going to get a couple of great shots, but now you can send them over the web. Some people, in their eagerness to break into the business, will do anything. But they don’t realize that this has huge consequences.”

Adds Dykinga, “Professionals can’t afford to just flit around the country as they did before, knowing that they would generate a certain amount of income. Everything is planned carefully: This is going to actually result in a sale.” The business shift has allowed Dykinga to pursue a more introspective path. Instead of working for clients, he can focus on work that resonates personally. Funny enough, in the end, that’s better for business.

“I’m in the process of reinventing myself,” he says. “If you don’t adapt to the changing times… I’m going in a different direction. I think more than ever, if you don’t have a personal vision, a distinctive type of photography, you’re doomed. For me, it’s really always been about the image. I’m increasingly aware of which ones are really good for me and which ones I really like. And now I’m able to just take the chance.”

masters masters masters
A classic Dykinga big landscape that shows his older approach to creating extreme depth with a long leading line through the subject. This newer landscape is an example of his current approach, which is less about a big vista and focuses more on details. Dykinga’s vision has evolved such that many of his current images like this feel more immersive for a viewer by having detailed foreground objects and an overall feeling of being in the photograph.

With personal work, too, Dykinga’s ecological mission remains. His current project involves the ILCP, the International League of Conservation Photographers (, an organization of photographers working to protect threatened wild lands along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Essentially, we’re going to produce a virtual photographic wall that will document why this border barrier is harmful to migrating wildlife in very sensitive areas,” he explains. “It’s cause-oriented—basically photojournalism. A photograph really rises or falls on the number of ways you can approach it. And when you can approach something that’s a work of art, it’s beautiful, it’s well composed, it’s got great color, but then it also tells a story about a place and piques your interest to act in the cause of preservation or conservation, then you’ve really hit one out of the park.”

Dykinga’s ILCP work also represents a new shift in technique—shooting entirely digitally with Nikon’s D3. The camera’s knack for low-noise, high-ISO shooting has opened up new avenues for creativity in the landscape—especially after dark.

“I’m excited about taking the Nikon D3 out into the field and shooting things in the moonlight,” Dykinga says. “For instance, on this project on the borderlands, part of the story is [that] the area is untouched and pristine, and there are these dark and wonderful skies. I’m able to shoot the Milky Way, overexposing it, so I can silhouette cactus. I still prefer film for much of my work, but for some situations, like my ILCP work, this digital camera is proving to be well suited. Nevertheless, there’s a certain vibrancy and shimmering quality to film that I just can’t let go of. I shoot both; it just depends. The right hammer for the right job.”

A long-time 4×5 large-format film and camera user, Dykinga has recently added the Nikon D3 to his bag. He finds that it’s an ideal solution for some images although he continues to shoot film for many of his landscapes.

To see more of Jack Dykinga’s photography, visit

masters A newer image that reflects Clifton’s current approach of not preconceiving photographs. He gets to a location and takes what’s offered.

Carr Clifton
A consistent vision in an ever-changing landscape
Ask Carr Clifton for the most influential photographer in his life, and he won’t hesitate to answer. It’s Philip Hyde. A photographer’s photographer, Hyde’s name often is dropped as the underappreciated master of 20th-century landscape photography. Clifton also is cited by his contemporaries, who appreciate both his beautiful work and his pioneering spirit—the very things he credits Hyde for nurturing within him.

“As a friend and neighbor, Philip Hyde’s influences on my approach to photography and life have been enormous,” Clifton says. “Philip was fortunate enough to learn from many greats—Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Minor White—and has passed down the cumulative knowledge, approaches and sensibilities of the 20th century’s greatest masters to photographers like myself. His insistence on staying true to your own vision and to never emulate or copy anyone has been the basis for my career. Philip’s photographic contribution to conservation is unparalleled in the history of America and has impacted a generation of photographers.”

Conservation has been paramount for Clifton since day one. Earlier photographers set the stage for today’s public acceptance. “One of the important touchstone moments in landscape photography,” he explains, “was the public’s realization that our wild lands are finite, and the remaining wild lands are being assaulted by our government, industry and special-interest groups. The environmental movement and a new appreciation of what we might lose was brought to the forefront of society. Imagery became a tool to educate the public—thus the Sierra Club pioneered the publication of the full-color, exhibition-format photography book, used to sway politicians and public opinion.”

Clifton shares his predecessors’ passion for ecology. What’s surprising, though, is his view of the advantages those old-timers had over shooters of today. “We have access to excellent cameras, lenses, films, digital sensors,” Clifton says, “and we have artistic control over color imagery unimagined by the 20th-century greats. But they had unlimited access to the landscape, free from overregulation and overpopulation.

The feeling of discovery must have been very intoxicating. Originality wasn’t a problem. I truly envy the early photographers because it really is for me about wildness, solitude and discovery. I would gladly sacrifice the computer and digital world in a second for their place and time in history.”

masters This older, traditional Clifton landscape shows a grand vista. masters Another traditional Clifton image from the desert southwest. masters This newer image shows Clifton’s ability to combine a dramatic mountainscape with a foreground subject with which one immediately connects.


A beautiful image that shows Clifton’s current approach to making intimate images.

Clifton’s environmental mission has remained a constant, but the subjects and techniques are constantly changing. He was once, like many, beholden to stock agencies that provided a sustainable living for landscape photographers. The advent of microstock and other Internet market factors made that aspect of the business a much greater challenge, but it also has freed Clifton to focus primarily on the images he’s interested in making.

Clifton’s career has seen technical adaptations, too—first a transition to Fujichrome Velvia, then a more recent switch from large-format to medium-format cameras. Soon he expects to take up digital capture, but only when his reserves of film are depleted and quality and price make replacing a finely tuned film system a practical proposition.

“We have the tintype of digital right now,” Clifton says, “and it’s evolving very quickly. I feel that straight large-format photography as it has been practiced for the last 60 years is coming to a close. The detail and sharpness issues with smaller formats have been solved and will continue to evolve. No longer will our images look stiff from using a giant tripod and wooden camera, exposing images on hand-loaded sheet film. The tripod as we know it will be reserved only for timed exposures, and photos will become much more fluid in their composition. Creativity is exploding with the instant feedback of seeing the image right after exposure. I think photography is still in its infancy; we’ll see truly amazing imagery being created in this 21st century.”

From 1978 to 2002, Clifton used a Toyo 4×5 field camera. Since 2002, the majority of his images have been made with the Pentax 67II using Fujichrome Velvia 50 and 100. After processing and editing, these images are scanned and fine-tuned in Photoshop CS4.

To see more of Carr Clifton’s photography, visit

From Till’s “Eliot Porter” phase. The lighting is flat, and Till was using a 4×5 to create an intimate landscape.

Tom Till
Finding inspiration in the work of others
Tom Till recently shifted from tradition when he moved from film to digital. “Thirty years of carrying a 55-pound backpack finally caught up with me,” he says.

Till doesn’t take such a dramatic change lightly. He feels a direct connection to landscape’s pioneering photographers and he’s proud to continue their tradition. Three innovators have been tremendous influences throughout his career.

This photograph was made from the same place, but this one was shot in 2007 with a digital camera, and Till was able to use Photomatix software to better control the dynamic range. Digital technology has fundamentally changed how Till envisions the landscape.
Created in 1987, this image was shot with a Cokin graduated ND filter to help control the contrast between foreground and background.

“The three landscape photographers who were most influential to me are Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde, and David Muench,” he says. “I’m purely a color photographer, and these three, with the addition of maybe Ray Atkeson and Josef Muench, really invented color landscape photography. To me, they’re the creators of our art form. Each one of them taught me a couple of important things.”

Says Till, “From Eliot, I got the idea that ‘intimate landscapes’—not really close-ups, but tighter compositions than the standard big scene—could be powerful statements for nature. His travels around the world inspired me to drag a 4×5 camera all over the planet. From Philip, I learned to try to push the envelope with lighting. He thought shooting just at sunrise and sunset was a cliché, and trying to communicate the feeling of a 110-degree day in the desert had as much value as using magic-hour light on his subjects. Probably most important of all, Philip’s images were always in service of environmental causes. I’ve really tried to emulate him in that regard.

“David is a really imaginative and original photographer,” Till continues of his contemporary. “One of the things I took from him was the idea that bad weather was really the best time to shoot, which is totally counterintuitive but absolutely the beginning of a whole new realm of spectacular landscape work.

Second, David’s work ethic is second to none. Nobody, with the exception of Art Wolfe, has worked harder in the field than David—and it paid off for him. His library is unmatched in size and coverage, and most of the images are magnificent.”

It’s clear that Till carries the mantle with pride. “I think I would have had quite a lot in common with the early photographers,” he says. “I probably have a better light meter, and a better backpack, and better boots, and I have FedEx to get my film to the lab and back, but in many ways, I’m part of a long American tradition, which I’m proud of. I see threads from all these seminal landscape photographers in everybody’s work that has followed.”

A 2008 digital image shot with a long lens and fast shutter speed.

“Aesthetically,” he continues, “I think Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter had a big impact on color landscape photographers in freeing them up to work with classic art compositional techniques. For me, this means being able to shoot images without sky, and using texture, pattern, rhythm, balance and other tricks to make compositions come alive.”

One of Till’s favorite tricks is an unassuming little filter. It worked with film, and it still works with digital. “The graduated neutral-density,” he says. “I think when I switched from Kodak film to Fuji, it was a lot more contrasty, especially the Velvia. So I started using them a lot. I’m guessing I used them on 75 percent of my shots, and I had a special four-stop made that I used a lot in the Canyon Country. I still use them sometimes with the digital camera, and I’ve found that if you use a four-stop grad-ND and the HDR plug-in, you can get eight stops of contrast control easily—and there are times when I need it.”

To see more of Tom Till’s photography, visit

Muench has always been known for the dramatic looming foreground and shrinking background composition. He continues to use it to immerse the viewer in an image, but the overall look of the landscape tends to have a subtlety that earlier work didn’t have. This newer and stunning vista has a decidedly subdued feel, created by the mist and the flat light.

David Muench
Honoring the landscape with photography
When you speak to David Muench about photographing landscapes, he won’t tell you about his camera, or his technique, or even how it feels to make a picture. He’ll tell you about the land.

It’s a nuanced way that Muench sees his work. Instead of using the landscape to create something, he feels an obligation to render his subject truthfully—uncluttered by the emotion a photographer may otherwise choose to hang on it. Yet clearly he realizes the subjects he chooses to photograph are based on an emotional response. It’s an approach he has used since his black-and-white beginnings in the 1960s, but he has honed it more deliberately in recent years.

“I have always had the thread that has held me together, right up to this morning,” he says, just back from a hike, “essentially rendering my response to the landscape in a true form. In other words, not so much an inner response—although it is emotional, of course—but it has been to be true to form to the landscape. The planetary subjects and the forms… The light—and what the light does and is in the landscape—has been the actual guide. It’s always out in front luring and exciting to new adventures and new seeing.”

“That doesn’t mean just a collection of detail,” Muench continues, “but to bring the things that really will speak to people of the landscape. Not just a sterile inventory—that’s one whole direction, too, that can be headed in, but that isn’t what I’m trying to do.”

Muench’s lifelong obligation stems from a desire to appreciate and protect the earth. Not content to simply make pictures, showing his work is as important as making it. It’s a crucial part of the process—to teach about the wilderness.

“It’s important to reach people and not just do it and get your work completed and put it in the closet,” he says. “I really have a strong need to impress people with the importance of our landscape. That’s where the trick is: to make it impressive, or important, so people will take note or feel a need to either take care of it or to be a part of it and need to bring us back to where we came from.” These days, Muench is concentrating on showing a wilder landscape. In lieu of returning to over-photographed locations, he’s now venturing farther off the beaten track.

“I’m leaning more toward showing wildness,” Muench says, “rather than beautiful and dramatic subjects. Harmony needs yin and yang both; the opposite is some of the chaos, some of the rough-hewn kind of subjects—logs and streams, fallen things… To show the sense of wildness that is not necessarily just me seeing subjects that are beautiful that might be wild, but really to look at wilderness and to look at wildness. It used to be the bold and the dramatic; I wanted to impress you. It was evolving all the time. I’ve gotten much more intimate subjects; work with the intimate so that it connects.”

masters masters masters
The top two images give a sense of Muench’s continued evolution as an artist. The newer image uses the arch as a shape echoing the mountains behind it compared to the the older image with the “keyhole” effect. An older image that shows the more typical Muench near-far composition.

Muench has used a 4×5 camera to connect with landscapes his whole career. He may be well established in the film world, but he doesn’t discount new tools. “I’m 72,” he says, “but I feel very strong in a forward way. I don’t like looking back; I’ve always looked forward. Most of my work is 4×5, and it has carried that way through. I have now progressed—or digressed to the dark side—with the digital work. Because what it has offered that is new and gives me another layer: the spontaneity of responding to the landscape. It is just great; it’s really fun. But is it serious enough yet? I don’t know. I’m still going to mix the two and probably work with both. But it is coming right there. So don’t put me down in there as someone to stay with film or not go digital—because that’s the way it is. It opens up new opportunities.”

Muench continues to shoot mostly with a 4×5 and film, although he does also use Canon EOS digital cameras now.

To see more of David Muench’s photography, visit