The Art Of Vision

Learn to connect with the landscape like the great masters Ansel Adams, Minor White, Philip Hyde and others

Foreground grasses and the background shoreline are rimmed by golden sunlight along Indian Creek below Indian Valley in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, California. The warm elements in the composition contrast with the dark tones and mystery of the surrounding forest.

Recently, about two months apart, top photobloggers Marc Graf and Jim Goldstein both wrote about the same topic. Graf advised “Always Do That 180,” and Goldstein published “Pro Tip: Always Check The Views Behind You.” These blog posts, both advising to look behind you while you’re photographing for additional photo opportunities, reminded me of my father, pioneer landscape photographer Philip Hyde. He said, “A photographer must look around.”

Graf and Goldstein are in good company. My father wasn’t the only influential photographer of the natural scene who talked about looking in all directions while in the field. Indeed, a number of well-known photography teachers and image makers took the idea a step further, teaching that when out photographing, if you slow down and quiet your mind, you not only look around more, but you notice more everywhere you look.

In the mid-1940s, Ansel Adams founded the first-ever college-level photography program to teach creative photography as a full-time profession at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. Before that, some schools taught commercial photography as a profession, but art photography was considered a spare-time pursuit. Adams modeled the structure of his new photography department on the piano conservatory, breaking down classes into small instructional groups, individual practice sessions and project assignments.

Shortly after obtaining funds for his revolutionary new school of photography, Adams received a Guggenheim Fellowship to photograph the national parks. He didn’t know how he would both teach the eager students, who had already formed a long waiting list, and execute his national park project. Help came from Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, who at different times were curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, authors and photography critics. The Newhalls recommended that Adams hire a young man by the name of Minor White to help him teach.

Also captured in Indian Creek, this fresh snowfall gives the location a different feeling altogether. In a color representation of Ansel Adams’ famous Zone System for metering and establishing continuous tones throughout an exposure, complex leading lines in the sloping woods and its reflection keep the eye of the viewer interested in the scene while the still waters and shadowy tree branches in front help to frame the composition and add depth.

White first sat in on a class at the school that Adams taught during the summer session, 1946. A young sergeant named Philip Hyde, my father, just discharged from Armed Service in World War II, also attended that class, and met Adams and White for the first time. In observing White’s interactions with students, Adams soon realized that he not only would hire White permanently, but within two weeks, Adams decided that White was capable of taking over as lead instructor. Some of the students didn’t like the idea because the advertising named Adams as teacher, but they soon discovered that White had much to teach. Besides, Adams promised to stop in often, and he did.

Some of White’s teaching methods were unorthodox, to say the least. He related esoteric practices, various religions and the occult all to photography. Benjamen Chinn, also a World War II veteran attending the school on the G.I. Bill, said that the students admired and respected White, but that they poked fun at him for talking so much about the psychology of photographs. After the Carl Jung tradition, White grabbed unrelated subjects and showed how they connected to each other and everything else. One morning, Chinn said, the students all brought the San Francisco newspaper to class. They suggested to White that he do a psychic reading of the paper for them. They asked White if he would show them how each article in the paper related to what they were photographing.

Yet, having studied under Alfred Stieglitz, White also brought Stieglitz’s idea of equivalents to the West Coast. He quickly embraced Adams’ Zone System and taught it as naturally and clearly as Adams did. His psychology paid off for the students as they found meaning within themselves and a deeper connection to photography, which in turn improved their work by leaps and bounds.

White taught that a contemplative mental attitude when applied to perception caused the objects being perceived to “give up their secrets.” He wrote that all artists are by necessity to some extent contemplative. He referred to “innocence of eye” as a means by which the artist can see the true nature of what they intend to show the world.

I invite those to whom these statements seem a compound of cheap psychology and cheaper metaphysics to clear their minds and submit this matter to an experimental test. If they will be patient and honest—and unless they belong to that minority which is temperamentally incapable of the simplest contemplative act—they will emerge from the experiment possessed of a little new knowledge as to the nature of the relation between the human mind and the outer world.
—Minor White

White assigned his photography students an experiment. They were to choose a single object for focused attention: a picture, statue, tree, plant, book or any other single item. They were to practice looking at this one thing, “willfully, yet tranquilly,” and tune out all other messages and visual stimuli from any other aspects of the world. “Do not think, but, as it were, pour out your personality towards it,” White said. “Almost at once, this new method of perception will reveal unsuspected qualities in the external world. First you will perceive about you a strange and deepening quietness; a slowing down of our feverish mental time. Next you will become aware of a heightened significance, an intensified existence in the things at which you look. As you, with your consciousness, lean out towards it…it seems as though the barrier between its life and your own, between subject and object, had melted away. You are merged with it… Life has spoken to life, but not to the surface intelligence.”

The White Dome sandstone formations in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Nature photography should be a contemplative art. In situations where there’s a limited color palette, slowing down to notice texture and graphic elements becomes even more important as aspects of a good composition.

White also called the contemplative approach the blank mind. He emphasized that this blank isn’t a complete blank, but an active, receptive place of readiness to grab a photograph, but with no preformed image in mind: “To reach such a blank state of mind requires effort, perhaps discipline.” In this state of mind, finding photographs changes. We don’t have to be reminded to look around or behind; we’re already in a heightened awareness of everything in all directions.

Often, photographers today are in a hurry. I’m no exception, though the more I photograph, the more I slow down. Photographers often must get somewhere else, or they’re trying to shoot as many frames as they can in a certain amount of time. They may not be “allowing” or “making” photographs, but rather they’re blasting away.

My father embraced the contemplative approach because he always was somewhat of a mystic, though White warned his students not to naively assume that what they were doing in this process was equal to the transcendental contemplation of the mystic, even while they were harnessing some of the same natural faculties as a mystic. Also, White emphasized that this perspective applies to the creation of photographs. Once the prints were made, White taught his students to shift into critical analysis.

Caribbean Beach, Isla Mona Near Puerto Rico, US Territory, copyright Philip Hyde 1973.

Fifteen years after Philip Hyde earned his certificate from photography school, I was born. When I was a boy, I remember my father on the lookout for photographs. My mother and I were often quiet in anticipation of the true quiet time, which began as soon as we pulled over and he took out his Zeiss wooden tripod and 4×5 Baby Deardorff view camera or the Hasselblad with a Bogen tripod. He’d say, “David, cut the chatter,” or “I can’t hear myself think,” or “Quiet on the set.” While he was composing a photograph, he asked me to be “seen and not heard,” something he didn’t often ask otherwise.

My father entered a different space mentally while in the act of making photographs. He had done this even before meeting White, especially while out in nature, but White formalized the idea as a method that could be taken further. Dad kept a kind of intentional perimeter around the area he worked. Stepping into that circle was like walking into church: holy, quiet and reverent. This working space was invisible, but quite palpable. In this enabling state of higher awareness, he missed nothing.

When my father first arrived on any scene, he would look in every direction many times and at every detail of the countryside around him. He would bend down and look up at a tree, crouch and look at a flower between two rocks, scramble up on top of a nearby overlooking rock, all in the interest of seeing every angle. He did some of this in his mind and some physically moving around in the area. By the time he settled in and planted his tripod, you knew he had checked all other possibilities and chosen one. There were exceptions to this longer process, such as when he saw one isolated point of interest or when the light was fading or the situation was changing quickly for some other reason. In these instances, he could move with the swiftness and efficiency of a stealth reconnaissance unit and make the image, but most of the time he did a good deal of looking around first.

The meditative state my father adopted coincides with my experience in observing and photographing with Stan Zrnich, who also attended Adams and White’s photography program, starting the year my father graduated. He and Zrnich became friends through Ben Chinn, and they photographed together on a number of occasions. Zrnich, in turn, honored me by taking me out photographing. One afternoon in July 2009, Zrnich and I picked up our cameras and went for a walk in downtown San Rafael, California. Zrnich shared the familiar idea of going into a calm, heightened state of awareness with me, as applied to photography, which then explained many of my father’s comments and actions in my earlier years. Zrnich’s mind space was evident in his tranquil facial expression and demeanor while walking around. He showed me instances where I walked right past something photogenic, mainly because my mind was chattering on about what I thought I was looking for, what I wanted to accomplish that day by photographing and so on. Often, in photography, it’s easy to get “stuck in the head” and become too analytical while in the field.

The book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shares the advantages of getting “into the zone,” also called the optimal creative state. Being in this state increases effectiveness and quality of thinking, as well as even improving quality of life. Flow describes this creative state:

People typically feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and as if they were performing at the peak of their abilities. Both the sense of time and emotional problems seem to disappear. There is an exhilarating feeling of transcendence, of breaking out of the boundaries of identity.
—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Dad recommended to his many photography students a number of sources to learn more on how to see deeply, including Flow, Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel and Photography and the Art of Seeing by Freeman Patterson. These sources help creative people, through practice, obtain this state anytime on demand. They show how to control it, rather than merely leaving its arrival to chance. Not only did Dad see the graphic qualities of subjects and what they would look like transformed into the two-dimensional plane of the photograph, but he also saw the essence of things and depicted them more effectively. Dad taught that this relaxed mind isn’t complex or dependent on ceremony. It can be triggered and enhanced simply through deep breathing and conscious muscle relaxation. The more it’s practiced, the easier and more quickly it can be recalled.

Chinn, who was known for photographing the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown and of Paris, said that the “quiet mind” was responsible for much of his success in capturing people and other moving events. He said that one of his mentors and a guest lecturer at the California School of Fine Arts, Imogen Cunningham, had made herself available for photo walks during photography school. When White came to the right place in the curriculum, Cunningham took the students out for one- or two-hour walks to show them what they would have missed—and they missed a lot at first—but as their seeing strengthened over time, their images improved, and they missed less and less.

This is the art of seeing in photography, pirouetting in dance or leaping in high-jump competition. It’s the main event in any endeavor where results improve with concentration. Photographers who are in a heightened space for seeing don’t miss anything in any direction. Furthermore, the mystical mind can lead not only to a transcendent awareness of nature, but of our own connection to it, which then becomes evident in our art. “In my opinion,” Zrnich said, “any art that moves people has to have a spiritual dimension. The process is about getting out of my own way and quieting the ego.”

Ardis, David and Philip Hyde in Waterpocket Fold, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, 1970. David, age 5, with an old camera. Philip gave David a working Pentax K1000 five years later when David was age 10. David was active off and on, sometimes going whole decades without making a photograph, until 2009 when he bought a Nikon D90 DSLR. Drawn in by the ease of making good images digitally, in the last four years, David has made over 30,000 exposures of landscapes, streets, people, architecture and wildlife.