Learning to See: A Conversation with Jack Dykinga

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His early work as a photojournalist brought Jack Dykinga a Pulitzer Prize. That was just the beginning. He subsequently became one of the finest and most celebrated landscape photographers of our time.

In this interview, Jack discusses how he takes photographs, digital processing, the challenges of making a living at photography, conservation, and much more.

Background

What got you started in photography?

I was in high school and wanted to make money, so I was going to develop film. Shortly afterwards, maybe in my sophomore year or so, I won a Look Magazine photo contest. 

You got good early.

It wasn't that good a shot.

You did your early photography for newspapers, right?

My very earliest was public relations photos that found their way into newspapers, and then I started working for the [Chicago] Tribune and the Sun-Times, then back to the Tribune.

Can you tell us how your Pulitzer Prize came about?

Back in 1970, I was on the staff of the Sun-Times. There was a series of letters received from parents of children who were at state hospitals for the mentally retarded, about the horrible conditions there. The governor was actually slashing funds. There was a sea change in terms of the parental activism. They came to the paper. In response, the paper sent photographers and reporters out there.

There were photographs you took on that assignment that resulted in the Pulitzer?

Yeah. It was not just one day, it was over a period of weeks. We visited various institutions.

Were there changes in the institution as a result of that press coverage?

Yeah. The funds were not only reinstated, but at a higher level. Cause and effect. That's probably the biggest lesson I learned—the power of imagery.

Why did you leave newspaper work?

I left several times [laughing]...I left Chicago for good in 1976 and I became the photo editor of the Star in Tucson. And then in '81, I decided that I wanted to be a wilderness guide.

You once said something to the effect that photojournalism required you to be pushy and intrusive, and you decided that it was more important to be a good person.

I think a lot of photojournalists are young. You get the longer view as you get older. You realize that these snippets in time can sometime—just by their very nature—be inaccurate. You're picking out the most sensational moment. That's just the nature of the beast. You're looking for visual impact, and succinctly telling a story. The problem is that issues like the environment are much more slow moving and more complicated, and often not human-centered. So there goes all your snazziness right there. You're left with the issue, and some of the issues are not easily depicted in photographs.

Was it after you moved to Arizona that you got significantly into photographing landscapes?

Yeah, I would say so. I decided that I really wanted to become a wilderness guide. Hiking canyons and things like that.

Talk about a young man's work. That seems to be it.

Yes and no. Sometimes it takes a young man's ability to get to places. But to appreciate it? The more decrepit you are, the more you appreciate it.

Taking Photographs

When you take a landscape photograph. What do you do? What's going through your head?

I don't think that everybody sees the same way. Personally, I always see in terms of texture and design and light. For me, the movie's running all the time. Almost no matter what I'm looking at, I'm composing it. As I'm shaking your hand, I'm deciding where your head would be in the frame. If I'm actually working on a story and I have a subtitle to a story, such as a rebirth after a fire, or the increasing of allotted land for park service, then I've got a hit list of things that I need to get. So it's basically journalistic at that point. I'm looking for a narrative...a beginning, middle and end, and an overview. It's sort of being planned in my head, but often it's serendipity that really makes the difference. You run into something that just jumps out at you. Your muscle memory takes over.

When you're composing a photograph, do you visualize a mental frame around a portion of the scene?

At this point in my life, as I said, it's muscle memory. I have these focal lengths for different lenses that I've worked with over the years. I know what each one's going to do. It's not really a thought process at this point. There it is, so I need this lens, and then I set up and do it.

You seem to be very deliberate in choosing exactly where you take a photograph from. I'm thinking of a photograph of yours of a saguaro cactus skeleton framing some organ pipe cactus. I look at it and think: That doesn't happen by accident.

Absolutely. I think most photographers suffer from shooting from the hip. I spend a lot of time establishing context, and just hiking around and doing the time, basically. And I think one of the things photographers have to watch is that everything that's been developed by all the major camera companies is designed to go faster. When you're shooting landscapes, you're absolutely going in the other direction. Sometimes you might have to react to the decisive moment, but often the decisive moment is the product of days of waiting. The weather is the majesty and the power of the image.

You once commented that you have to experience the moods of a place and its weather to photograph it well.

Exactly. When you actually understand a place...as I've shed my Chicago-ness and adopted an Arizona point of view, I can really see what's going on in the frame in terms of the biology. I've become a naturalist by osmosis.

You mentioned that you look for texture, design and light. I've been struck looking at your photographs by how the light seems to be always right. That also doesn't happen by accident.

No. It has to do with scouting the scene and really watching and anticipating and paying attention. But for every one of those you've seen, there are probably ten that I didn't shoot because at the last minute my shadow became the dominant visual element, so I had to wait and do it another day.  I've driven fifteen hundred miles and didn't like the picture, so I didn't shoot anything and went home. Then I went back and got it at the right time.

When you're taking landscape photographs, are there particular kinds of lighting conditions that you look for, or try to avoid?

You can generalize and say that harsh light is your enemy. In every sense, I've broken rules and come away very happy with the result. What you're asking is whether there's a light that favors a certain landscape or a certain part of the country. Arizona and the southwest is the land of horizontal light. Sunrise and sunset give you that untrammeled view. The light really gives the landscape shadow and light and texture. But if I'm up in the redwoods or the rainforest, then it's all soft, wet light. Very low contrast and equally stunning.

Are there particular areas in Arizona that you find visually inspiring?

Every place I photograph, I return to. Once I've photographed them, they're old friends. Where I live, the Sonoran Desert is as big a friend as I've got. There are certain cactus that I return to see. But I'd have to say the Grand Canyon. You can approach the Canyon from so many different ways. You can hike in, you can drive around the viewpoints, you can take a raft trip through the Canyon, you can ski in during wintertime...it offers an infinite number of images.

You seem to use small apertures mostly. I can only think of one of yours that had a shallow depth of field.

Funny you should say that. One of the things I've been doing lately is working with tilt-shift lenses. I've been photographing the surface of water with virtually no depth of field. Only the surface is sharp and all the reflections become like a wash on a watercolor. Some of the fine art images I'm selling are of that nature.

Are any of those on your website?

They probably all are. One would be the water lilies in Maine in Acadia National Park. One would be water shamrocks. That was in Arizona Highways. Those are fine art prints that are available.

Some photographers seem to use photographs as raw material for images that express their personal visions. When I look at yours, though, I get the sense they're not about you but about the places you photograph. Is it your goal to let the places be themselves?

Ansel's great quote was that he was not so much photographing the place as how he felt when he was there. I think when you honor the place and it really moves you, then the image that results will do the same. I do believe that honoring the place is critical. I'm not a person who likes to stick stuff in the picture that doesn't belong there. Again, that's just journalism.

A view camera's heavy, isn't it?

Well, it's an eighty-pound pack, including food and everything. It's sort of funny, but the kit I now travel with, with my Nikon, is probably heavier. I thought I was going to get a break. That's another funny thing: You often think that if you put in the miles, the images will be better. I'm frequently amazed that the best image is right by the back tire of my truck.

Do you think your ability is mostly the result of a natural talent, or mostly the result of hard work and learning your craft?

That's a tough one. It has to be both. I'm left-handed and dyslexic. I'm married to a psychologist. People like me are spatially oriented. So the very things that gave me bad grades in school really help me when I'm out photographing. I don't think I ever took a test in school where I finished on time. I'm a slow reader. By the same token, I was the kid in the library looking at the National Geographics, and not just for the naked women. I was actually looking at the images. I think everybody is given certain things. I can't balance a checkbook, but I cannot not photograph, and I cannot not see, because the movie is running all the time. And I think there are a lot of people like that. To raise your game, however, you've got to work harder and longer. And smarter.

Film Versus Digital Photography

I heard another individual who takes photographs for Arizona Highways commenting that with a view camera, he's got five bucks tied up in every shot, and that makes him very deliberate.

That's absolutely true. And not only that, there's the zen of being under the focusing cloth. I could go on and on about upside-down images and so on. I've been the curmudgeon that fought digital photography forever. Largely because of Nikon's reaching 25 megapixels, or whatever it is, I'm able to get really high-quality images that not only approach, but sometimes can surpass what I can get with a view camera. I've done shows where some of the stuff was made on the Nikon and some on the view camera, and believe me, there's no telling things apart. I've made stitched images up to one-and-a-half gigabytes. They're massive. I'm still sort of surprised at how I can patch together a composition even though I'm stitching it across, say, five images, by using the live view on the back of the camera. It sort of mimics what you'd see with a view camera. You've got basically a canvas to paint on. That's what you're working with.

I always got the sense that your film photographs were not particularly processed, if at all, in the sense of Photoshop touch-ups.

No, they weren't. The typical reaction to digital photography among people who shot large format is that it's so easy. With film, you had to do it all when you captured the image...the craft of photography, and the craft of coming up with a perfectly exposed 4X5, knowing the color-correction filters and all the stuff that would now be post-production or post-shooting. The rule of thumb is still the same. You try to get it right when you capture it. It's just that that discipline from the 4X5 days was incredibly valuable.

I'm sure it was. But you have to do post-processing with digital to some extent.

Yeah. Of course. You've got to do RAW conversion.

Do you tend to be fairly restrained at that?

Yeah. I'll tell you another story. Ansel and David Muench and I did a retrospective at the Phoenix Art Museum. Both David and I decided we were going to go digital. So we made these prints. It was very early on. I remember one of the reviewers saying that they were struck by the contrast between how great Ansel's work was and how gaudy our work was. And I was incensed. Then I looked at the photos more critically. Since that time, I think I've desaturated everything by 30 percent at least. It's a new tool. You've basically got the keys to the candy store and you can jazz it up all you want. The trouble is that you can create a Frankenstein.

Yeah, you can, and a lot of people do.

I see it all the time. The grunge look. Overusing split-density filters. I'm gravitating back to a more neutral approach. One of my mentors was Philip Hyde. He shot Ektachrome--pretty flat stuff and not gussied up at all.

When I was looking at some of your older books recently, what immediately struck me was that the photographs tended to be much less saturated than what you see in current digital photographs, and they probably had less contrast. I was wondering if in the digital era, the ante is being upped with both of those.

Yeah. It's the market. Commercial photography is made to sell something in a hurry. They're looking for maximum visual impact.

And you can do that with a saturation slider.

Yeah. You can do it with all kinds of things.

The Business of Photography

You've made your living with photography. You've had to pay attention to what would sell. Have you ever felt a tension between what the market wanted and what you personally wanted to do?

I've always gone toward what I liked. It served me well. I have friends who would systematically shoot every mountain range and every river so that when somebody would call, they would have it. I've never been like that at all. I've looked for an image that works.

Is it getting harder to make a living at photography?

Much harder. I think it's nearly impossible for someone in their mid-thirties. They've got to have a spouse that works and supports them.

Is that because digital cameras are so common now and the world is awash in photographs?

That's part of it. It's much easier to do. What you say is true, the world is awash in photographs. But if you've got a unique story and a unique idea to pursue it, that's still valid and you won't be running with the pack. In the journalistic days, I would never line up with the other photographers. I'd always go somewhere else.

Photography Workshops

You conduct photography workshops. Can you tell us about those, and about what goes on there?

The number one thing that goes on there is that we teach people to see. And frequently, we teach people to slow down and see. I feel that everybody has a valid way of seeing. They may not know the technical aspects to create that vision. You go out and you do it, the effort's critiqued, then you go back and do it again. By the end of the workshop, I like to have people critique their own work before anybody else says a word. Then you know exactly how to be a self-sufficient photographer by the end of the workshop. That's my goal. That was the beauty of working for newspapers. You learned to really be a severe critic. I think it's really a gift, because so many photographers just don't know how to edit their own work. I tell people you have to learn to kill your babies. Someone says, "Oh, I worked so hard to get this picture." I have to say, "Well, it doesn't work." That's always a tough one.

I assume digital photographers are welcome at your workshops?

That's all we teach now, basically. It's the ideal medium because the feedback is instant. I can critique over somebody's shoulder. We always put up at least five images from each photographer for each shoot.

I think your website has details about the workshops for people who may be interested.

It does, but there are a couple that are not on there. There's a winter trip into Patagonia, which would be during our June and July. It would be the winter down in South America. That should be a very special trip. I'm leading that with a guy named Bill Ellzey, who's a highly-regarded fine-art photographer from Colorado. In the workshops, I work with about six different entities. Some are more like travelogues, where we go to exotic places. The other one I was going to tell you about is that Distinctive Journeys is going to Iceland next year. This fall, I do one with two fine black-and-white photographers.

If people find these interesting, how could they pursue them further? Just contact you over the website?

Yeah. The best way is to write me.

Conservation

Do you see a common thread between your photojournalism and your landscape work? I've sometimes looked at your photos and thought of them as wilderness journalism.

That's what it is. That's very valid. There's a group that I helped start, called the International League of Conservation Photographers. They're all photographers who feel strongly about issues, and who collectively throw talent at land rape and such, to help change the course of events. Basically we try to furnish images to the people on the ground who are fighting these battles. For example, in Chile, there's the dam project in Patagonia. There's the pipeline across British Columbia.

You've collaborated on several books with Charles Bowden, that I'd characterize as wilderness advocacy. Do you think the books have made a difference?

One book was the catalyst for turning lands into the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. Those are the two drainages that were in the book. [Bruce] Babbitt was the Secretary of the Interior, and he was an early target for that book. That, and there's been a project down in Mexico that created a World Heritage Site down there. But you can't anticipate that. You can just sort of lean in that direction and hope it takes off.

Your book on the Sonoran Desert doesn't come across as particularly optimistic about the future of wilderness areas. Do you see any reason for optimism?

I think we have a fundamental problem. The first objection you always hear is, "It's going to cost jobs." Couched like that, who's going to join the campaign?

Do you ever have mixed emotions about photographing beautiful and remote places, and maybe drawing more visitors to them as a result?

All the time. That was the biggest problem with the Stone Canyon book. We had to identify the places. It was a catalog of what's out there. By naming the places and telling people about that specific location, there's now a trail to [where I set up my tripod]. The whole concept is silly to me. You'll march past a thousand pictures on the way to where I set my tripod. It makes no sense. I guess people just want a slam-dunk. It's denying the experience, and the experience of discovery. It's not just discovery of place. It's discovery of self.

Thanks for your time, and thanks for your wonderful photographs.

The photograph of Jack Dykinga is by Daniel Beltra. All other photographs are by Jack Dykinga. All photographs are used by permission, and may not be reproduced or copied.

Don Peters' photographs can be seen here.

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Great interview Don. Really enjoyed it.

The ability to "See" is without a doubt the most important attribute to any photographer. But it is something overlooked by many photographer young and old.

Thanks Don

For such a short article, Jack Dykinga is very insightful and to the point. It is obvious to me he is very inspiring and willing to divulge the knowledge he has gained over the years. I hope sometime I will be able to take one of his workshops just to have more insight from him and his critique.