Philip Hyde: The Art Of Making National Parks

Philip Hyde’s photography continues to inspire the conservation of America’s treasures
Redwood National Park

Alder, Redwoods, Fog, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, California, 1962. From The Last Redwoods: Photographs and Stories of a Vanishing Scenic Resource by Francois Leydet (1963), central to the campaign to make Redwood National Park. Photo by Philip Hyde.

In 1965, Harvey Manning wrote the text for the Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series book The Wild Cascades: Forgotten Parkland. My father, Philip Hyde, was the primary photographer for the coffee-table photography book, though 15 other photographers also contributed to it, including names such as Ansel Adams, Martin Litton and David Simons. The book played a core role in the campaign to establish North Cascades National Park in the state of Washington.

In Manning’s history tome, Wilderness Alps: Conservation and Conflict in Washington’s North Cascades, his editor Ken Wilcox observed how Manning’s perception of conservationists evolved over time. “As his boots carried him across the landscape,” Wilcox wrote in the editor’s note, “he experienced first-hand the damage that was being done to wilderness.”

“They’ve logged my memories,” Manning wrote in 1980. “They’ve cut me adrift from my human youth, they’ve left me no changeless wilderness to connect the ‘Whatever-I-was-then’ to the ‘Whatever-I-am-now.’”

Dad’s purpose in making photographs was to help people see both the beauty in wilderness undisturbed and man’s destruction of nature. The comparison, he hoped, would help people make the shift that Harvey Manning did in a short time rather than having to observe the degradation of loved places over decades before having the conviction to join protection efforts.

 Glen Canyon, Utah

Escalante River Near Willow Canyon, Glen Canyon, Utah, 1964. From Glen Canyon Portfolio (1979). Photo by Philip Hyde.

In this spirit, editor, mountain climber, pack trip leader and the Sierra Club’s first executive director David Brower, with the help of Ansel Adams and photo historian Nancy Newhall, started the Exhibit Format Series to help preserve national parks and other wilderness by showing the world places that were worth keeping wild. The first book, This is the American Earth, when released in 1960, became a sensation, as did its accompanying exhibition that toured worldwide.

This is the American Earth made a splash as the first book in the series, but as color reproduction quality improved and the books shifted to color, Dad and Eliot Porter became the primary photographers of future volumes. The Exhibit Format Series went on to popularize the coffee-table photography book, which paved the way for subsequent generations of photographers to make a living in photography. The series also “put the fledgling environmental movement on the map,” Dad said. Brower, Porter, Wallace Stegner, John McPhee and many other authors and critics made similar observations about the photo book series.

The template for the Exhibit Format Series was an earlier Sierra Club book from 1955, This Is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country and Its Magic Rivers, edited and with a chapter by Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner, with photographs by Martin Litton and Dad. Environmental writers including Litton, Jon Cosco and others have credited it as the first book ever published for an environmental cause. Before the Sierra Club sent Dad to Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah-Colorado border up near Wyoming in 1951, Adams and photographer Cedric Wright had published images on behalf of conservation campaigns, but Dad was the first photographer sent on a conservation photography assignment.

Dusty, remote dirt-road-accessed 1951 Dinosaur was the perfect proving ground for Dad. The year before, he had just begun photographing under Brower on an annual summer Sierra Club pack trip in the High Sierra. Also in 1950, he had finished the program at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. It was the first school to teach creative photography as a profession, founded by Ansel Adams, instruction led by Minor White, with guest lectures by luminaries such as Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Lisette Model and others.

Steamboat Rock, Dinosaur National Monument

Steamboat Rock, Echo Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Utah-Colorado, 1955. Cropped vertical for This Is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country and Its Magic Rivers, edited and with essays by Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner and others (1955). The first book ever published for an environmental cause. Photo by Philip Hyde.

The canyons of Dinosaur reveal even more geological time than the Grand Canyon, more than a billion years of rock layers. Today, the majority of tourists visit only the Dinosaur Quarry, but the national monument consists of over 209,000 acres of shale, slate and sandstone bluffs, outcroppings, rolling hills and deep, narrow canyons. Despite the singular geology and scenic beauty of the Yampa and Green River canyons in Dinosaur, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation saw it as the strategic location for two dams that not only would store water, but could act as “cash registers” by generating electricity and funding other planned dams downstream along the Colorado River and her tributaries. The proposed dams, one at Split Mountain and one in Echo Park, would flood 96 out of 104 river miles within the national monument.

The Sierra Club sent Dad to this remote corner of the West for photographs that showed the board and club membership that Dinosaur was worth saving in its own right, beyond the membership’s strong desire to maintain the sanctity of the National Park System. These points drew the Sierra Club to venture outside its previous limits of influence in California.

The early preservationists, led by John Muir at the turn of the century, lost Hetch Hetchy, the second most beautiful valley in the Sierra, to damming for San Francisco’s water source. At that time, such a water source was considered a good reason to invade Yosemite National Park, but by the 1950s, the national parks had grown in prominence and popularity. Brower and other Sierra Club leaders brought together a coalition of conservation groups to oppose the dams in Dinosaur, including The Wilderness Society, National Audubon Society, Izaak Walton League, National Parks Conservation Association and many others.

“Brower wanted to capture the imagination of many more Americans,” Dad said, “not just members of the Sierra Club. He wanted to stir people into action, to show them that Dinosaur, like the rest of the park system, was dedicated country, hallowed ground to leave as beautiful as we have found it.”

Tenpeak Range, Glacier Peak Wilderness

Tenpeak Range, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington, 1956. From Wild Cascades: Forgotten Parkland by Harvey Manning (1965). Poster image for North Cascades National Park campaign. Photo by Philip Hyde.

Between 1951 and 1955, while This is Dinosaur was in the works, another conservation battle with national implications began to brew in the Pacific Northwest. The Sierra Club in 1954 formed the Northwest Chapter, the first outside California. Sierra Club leaders first visited the Glacier Peak and North Cascades wildernesses in 1956. Brower and Edgar Wayburn, Sierra Club President, commissioned Dad to make a series of photographs of the Glacier Peak area. They also raised a small amount of funds to support 19-year-old explorer and photographer Dave Simons, who spent his 20th summer backpacking and photographing the North Cascades, using a club member’s cabin as a base.

Michael P. Cohen in The History of the Sierra Club explained that Dad mentored Simons in conservation photography: “He had much to learn as a photographer and picked up what he could from Hyde. At the end of 1956, [Grant] McConnell wrote a piece for the annual Sierra Club Bulletin on ‘the nation’s finest alpine area and one of its most untouched primeval regions,’ illustrated with Hyde photographs of the North Cascades. But the area itself was so vast and so complex that the real work would be done by Simons over the next few years.”

Simons wrote to Howard Zahniser, author of the Wilderness Act, and to Olaus Murie, president of The Wilderness Society, about whether to pursue U.S. Forest Service-managed wilderness standing or national park status for the North Cascades. Simons emerged as one of the leaders of the campaign to make the national park, writing, photographing, working closely with Brower and helping to establish strategy that became the template for campaigns nationwide in following decades. Simons, the perfect model of a developing activist photographer, got to know the wilderness first, then jumped right into the center of the debate and the actions underway to protect that wilderness, using his photographs at every opportunity. He also promoted the photography of my father, his mentor. Dad’s photograph of Tenpeak Range became the emblematic image of the campaign and appeared on the poster and in the book, The Wild Cascades: Forgotten Parkland.

Our national parks, seashores and historic sites receive close to 300 million visitors a year, but the process of establishing most of the parks was nearly always an all-out war between development or resource extraction interests and those who wanted to preserve wildlands for perpetuity. The United States, especially in the West, is dotted with areas proposed as national parks that the opposition shot down.

Green River at Anderson Bottom, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, 1971. From Slickrock: The Canyon Country of Southeast Utah by Edward Abbey (1973). Part of campaign to expand Canyonlands and eventually led to the establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Photo by Philip Hyde.

Green River at Anderson Bottom, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, 1971. From Slickrock: The Canyon Country of Southeast Utah by Edward Abbey (1973). Part of campaign to expand Canyonlands and eventually led to the establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Photo by Philip Hyde.

Advocates for Canyonlands struggled to get it expanded and upgraded from monument to national park. Dad’s project that became the Sierra Club book, Slickrock: Endangered Canyons of the Southwest, with text by Edward Abbey, originally started on behalf of Canyonlands, as well as the Escalante River watershed. Those opposed to wilderness or national park protection for the Escalante region kept the area from becoming a park for 25 years after the publishing of Slickrock in 1971. Bill Clinton finally slid through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on his last day in office in 1996.

Challenges crop up in and around existing national parks, too. What Dad called “the high water mark” of the Bureau of Reclamation occurred when it reached for the Grand Canyon in 1964, proposing a dam in Marble Gorge just upstream from the national park and at Bridge Canyon below the park. The Sierra Club and another coalition of groups mounted an international letter-writing campaign, published full-page ads against the dams, flooded the media, lobbied Congress and published Time and the River Flowing: Grand Canyon, with Dad as the primary illustrator. An outpouring of support and deluge of letters from all over the world showed opposition to development within one of the seven wonders of the world.

Today, the Grand Canyon is under threat again. Proposed developments could deplete the canyon’s water seeps vital to wildlife, some of the world’s most famous views and overrun the park’s already over-capacity facilities and trails. Recently, the Navajo Tribe decided against a tramway to the canyon bottom at a sacred site, and the Forest Service refused to consider right-of-way for a road that would enable a large development near the South Rim. Our generation must remain vigilant and prepared to save national parks and other wild places over and over again, as many times as necessary.

The process of making Point Reyes National Seashore was completely different because, rather than being carved out of existing public lands, it was the only entity in the entire national park system formed from private land, besides its East Coast sister, Cape Cod National Seashore.

Toroweap Overlook, Grand Canyon National Park

View Upriver from Toroweap Overlook, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, 1964. From Time and the River Flowing: Grand Canyon by Francois Leydet (1964). Helped in efforts to keep dams out of the Grand Canyon. Photo by Philip Hyde.

The year 1962 became known as the year color came to landscape photography. Eliot Porter brought his finished all-color In Wildness is the Preservation of the World to the Sierra Club, complete with quotes from Henry David Thoreau and the funding necessary for production. Brower and the rest of the Sierra Club Board, after walking the windswept moors at Point Reyes, also decided to put together a book as fast as possible to help raise funds to buy up the ranches that were still for sale on the open market and then try to isolate and convince the developers to sell who had already bought some of the land and were drawing up plans to build housing developments. Brower said in an interview with writer and photographer Lewis Kemper in 1989 that Dad had been his go-to photographer because he was young, eager, talented, could drop what he was doing at short notice to travel for projects, and could be counted on to come home with enough good images for a book.

Dad’s photographs of Point Reyes were quickly gathered into the book, Island In Time: The Point Reyes Peninsula. It wasn’t a planned art book like Porter’s In Wildness, but it helped raise the funds necessary to make the national seashore, and it, too, introduced color to the medium the same year. Island In Time was part color and part black-and-white.

A copy of Island In Time landed on the desk of every member of Congress. When President John F. Kennedy signed the bill to authorize Point Reyes National Seashore in September of 1962, not all the land had been secured. Logging continued on Inverness Ridge, speculators continued to buy land and subdividers continued to build roads and sell lots. As property prices soared, not enough funds were available to finish making the national seashore. A Save Our Seashore campaign, including a new 1973 edition of Island In Time with additional Hyde photographs, finally enabled the completion of fundraising for the national seashore.

Between the two editions of Island In Time, farther up California’s north coast, logging of coast redwoods devastated watersheds, affected salmon fisheries and quickly ate up large clear-cut sections of limited remaining forests of giants. The Save the Redwoods League proposed to make a national park out of the existing state parks, but the Sierra Club set out to convince Congress, the League and other leaders in Washington that a national park would best serve the areas right around and including Redwood Creek at the heart of the greatest devastation. Brower and Litton wanted a park that would also protect the upstream forests and prevent more destruction by flooding of areas downstream from clear-cuts.

Drake’s Beach, Pt. Reyes National Seashore

Drake’s Beach, Pt. Reyes National Seashore, California, 1972. From Island In Time: The Pt. Reyes Peninsula by Harold Gilliam (1962 and 1973) Raised funds to establish Pt. Reyes National Seashore and introduce color to nature photography. Photo by Philip Hyde.

Litton flew Dad over the area for photographs, carried Dad up the Klamath River by boat and helped show Dad where many of the most sensitive areas and tallest trees were to photograph. The resulting 1963 Exhibit Format Series book, The Last Redwoods: Photographs and Story of a Vanishing Scenic Resource, celebrated by a major exhibition and opening at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, stirred up considerable support for the Sierra Club’s version of the national park, but it didn’t sell as well as other books in the series. Brower thought the old historic photographs of stripped hillsides and uprooted giants along torn-up creek banks suppressed sales: “People didn’t want that much carnage on their coffee tables,” he said in his oral history. More than 90 percent of Dad’s images were of the beauty of the redwoods, only a small number were of logging waste and ruin, but Wayburn spearheaded the reissuing of the book with a different subtitle, insisting on completely different photographs. This was demoralizing for Dad as a young photographer on his third book and first title officially in the Exhibit Format Series. However, The Last Redwoods and the Parkland of Redwood Creek reprint with no Hyde photographs and no images of destruction sold fewer copies than the original book.

Even in those days, many conservation leaders treated photographers as though they were expendable. Writers were usually more respected. Dad often had to fight to get paid, or even to have his expenses covered as promised. However, Brower had a deep belief that photographs were the most powerful way to convince people of the merit of wild places for their protection. He supported photographers and was loyal to them as much as he could be within an organization full of strong opinions. Brower also fought for his series of large-format books that many on the Sierra Club Board, including Adams, thought would bankrupt the organization. However, Brower had a close eye on the membership numbers and attributed the geometric growth of the club and the rest of the environmental movement to the increasing popularity of the large coffee-table books. The books also turned out to be the most effective way of convincing decision makers in Washington to support the making of parks and other wilderness.

Gary Braasch, who later became one of the world’s leading environmental photojournalists and a founder of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and who died recently photographing the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, early in his career interviewed Dad for Backpacker Magazine. The interview also inspired Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Jack Dykinga to leave the city of Chicago, move to the West and take up large-format landscape photography for conservation.

Addressing Braasch’s question about how photographers can use their creativity for conservation, Dad said in the Backpacker interview, “On a local level, an individual can do a lot by becoming familiar with a place that needs protection and by studying the issues. The camera can be an important tool to him. The person can make himself an ad hoc committee on a project and carry it along until something gets done. The weekend photographer may have an even more important role in such cases than the professional, who is always hung up on having to make a living from photography.”

Besides Braasch, Dykinga, William Neill, Christopher Brown, James Randklev and Lewis Kemper, there have been many others in several generations now who were inspired by Dad to pursue the defense of wildlands with a camera. Carr Clifton, who grew up down the road from us, had his mother introduce him to Dad at age 14. Clifton, more than any other photographer, has emulated Dad’s philosophy that each photographer must find his or her own voice and get away from the crowd to make meaningful nature photographs.

Mt. Denali, Denali National Park

Mt. Denali, Reflection Pond, Denali National Park, Alaska, 1971. Cover of Alaska: The Great Land by Mike Miller and Peggy Wayburn (1974) resulted in successful expanding of Denali National Park, Tongass National Forest and other wilderness. Photo by Philip Hyde.

Dad first photographed Alaska for the Sierra Club book Alaska: The Great Land that assisted campaigns to expand Denali National Park, establish wilderness areas in the Tongass National Forest and change Glacier Bay from a national monument to a park. Clifton photographed Alaska and Canada also to help establish new wilderness areas and protect existing areas from new threats. Clifton recently was the primary illustrator for The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save The Stikine, Skeena, and Nass, a large-format photography book with text by bestselling Canadian author Wade Davis. The Sacred Headwaters was a bestseller in Canada, unusual for a photography book.

Dad was known for making images much farther from pavement than anyone else, but Clifton has taken that even farther, especially in Alaska and Canada. He continues to travel often hundreds of miles into the icy wilderness alone or with a single companion with a pontoon boat on the fiords and hidden passageways of coastal waters, or a whitewater raft down wild and sometimes uncharted rivers in the interior.

“Philip Hyde had a unique view on life,” Clifton said. “That’s what really impressed me—his lifestyle and what he stood for.”

“When I left the city for good in 1959 to live in the mountains,” Dad said, “I knew that I was leaving behind the opportunity to make lots of money. I think that when I first chose photography, I was choosing the pleasures of creativity over the consolation of wealth. I define success for myself in terms of my lifestyle. Success is freedom and opportunity to do what I want to do. But some people seem to think that once you’re successful, you can just coast from then on. That’s certainly not true for me; I have to keep working hard, which is a good thing, or I might sit back on the oars and float downstream.”

David Leland Hyde has been a concrete worker, actor, stage manager, radio host, feature reporter, mortgage broker, advertising agent and realtor. His stories have been nationally syndicated, picked up by the AP Wire and made into plays. He has made over 40,000 photographs since switching to digital in 2009 and has appeared on TV with his father twice. His blog has followers in over 67 countries.

To celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service, Philip Hyde’s original silver prints will be featured with other pioneers’ work in “Photography and America’s National Parks” at the George Eastman Museum, June 4–October 2, 2016, Curated by Jamie M. Allen, with an accompanying book, “Picturing America’s National Parks,” co-published by Aperture and George Eastman Museum