A Wild Journey

Jack Dykinga on the making of a photographer
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument by Jack Dykinga

Petrified sand dunes in Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. This image is the cover photo of “Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau,” a book by Jack Dykinga featuring landscapes that became part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah and Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in northern Arizona.

In 1975, Jack Dykinga bought a pair of hiking boots, jogged around the block, and thought he was ready to climb 14,410-foot Mount Rainier in Washington State. Working as a photojournalist for the Chicago Tribune, Dykinga was assigned to photograph a Chicago man attempting to climb the fifth-highest peak in the continental United States. After completing a short mountaineering course, Dykinga and his subject began the two-day, grueling climb to the summit. The man turned back after the first day, but Dykinga trudged on. He soon found himself bracing against 60-mph winds on avalanche-prone Cadaver Gap. His group reached the summit and then lost track of their route on the descent in stormy whiteout conditions.

“It was a death march all the way off the mountain,” says Dykinga. “Pretty scary for a flatlander doughboy from the Midwest.”

And yet while facing danger, he also saw incredible beauty. Emerging through the icy blue cloud line into golden light on top of the world, his life was forever changed. He moved to Arizona, continued to work for a newspaper, and started exploring and shooting the landscapes of his new desert home. Photographing scenery was a departure for this seasoned photojournalist and Pulitzer Prize winner for his images of deplorable conditions in Illinois mental institutions. But the same skills that served him well in the news business transferred to his new passion of photographing nature.

“In my years of feeding the presses, I had to produce every day. This requires discipline—I call it ‘dancing on demand,’” he says. “You also have to tell a story, truthfully. And you have to be curious. If you’re not, you’re dead.”

Curious about his backyard in the American Southwest, he made spectacular images of red rock canyons, desert plants and rivers. Spending time alone in wild country, he developed a deep appreciation for solitude and the importance of wilderness as a transformative refuge.

“You can’t do this kind of photography without having the place change you,” he says. “And when you see firsthand the places that you love being degraded, you become an advocate.”

Dykinga’s images have played a role in conservation movements advocating for the preservation of wild places. His book, Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau, depicts the stunning landscapes of what became the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah and the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in northern Arizona.

In today’s fast-paced technological world, why do wild places matter? “Every morning I go for a hike in my nearby state park, and on a good day I’ll see a desert tortoise or a rattlesnake, maybe a bobcat. And I feel rejuvenated,” Dykinga says. “Like my earlier experience on Mount Rainier, the combination of physical exertion and spiritual awakening is life affirming.”

Less than three years ago at age 70, Dykinga faced another life-altering event. During a Grand Canyon river trip, his blood oxygen level dropped dangerously low, and he ended up in intensive care undergoing a double lung transplant and double bypass surgery. After six weeks in the hospital and three months in recovery, he returned to his beloved canyon country. Upon seeing the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument again, the place his images helped to preserve, he wept with joy.

“My relationship with the land and the places I love has intensified,” he says.

Grateful to the many medical professionals and support staff who each played a role in saving his life, he realized that this episode was a microcosm for his photographic life spanning five decades. His latest book, A Photographer’s Life: A Journey from Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photojournalist to Celebrated Nature Photographer, is a tribute to the mentors, bosses, teachers and fellow photographers who shaped who he is.

“It takes a village to make a photographer,” says Dykinga. “The book is my way of showing gratitude to the people in my life who not only paved the way, but they built the road. It’s been a wild journey and could not be any better.”

Inspired by wild lands and their significance to both wildlife and people, Amy Gulick is a firm believer in the power of visual stories to engage, inform and move viewers. Celebrating the wild and the photographers who use their images to raise awareness is at the core of Gulick’s work featured in Outdoor Photographer.