From the first page of his self-penned career retrospective “A Photographer’s Life”, Jack Dykinga makes one thing abundantly clear — he is grateful. After receiving a life-saving double lung transplant in 2014, the photographer had countless hours in recovery to reflect on his remarkable life — his luck, his passion, his ambition, and the series of unique circumstances and relationships that carried him to the present moment. In an effort to say “Thank You”, Dykinga began writing, reflecting on his lifelong journey from Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist to celebrated landscape and conservation photographer through anecdotes and impactful images, detailing the many mentors, peers, supporters, and friends who coaxed, inspired, and helped him along the way. In 216 beautiful, image-packed pages, “A Photographer’s Life” offers a glimpse into the thoughts and philosophy of a self-motivated, masterful creative. Whether expressing the challenges of making a living as a freelancer, or describing the unparalleled potential of photography for nature conservation, Jack Dykinga writes with self-deprecating honesty and a sense of amusement at the complicated, rambling path of his life’s work.
Ahead of the book’s January 2017 release from Rocky Nook, the still-active photographer and workshop instructor spoke with me from his home in Tucson, AZ as he prepared for a month teaching in Death Valley with Visionary Wild.
Tell me a bit about why you’ve assembled this book and what it means to you to create a career retrospective.
The reason I did it is that I have a had a unique run at this business. I’ve made a journey from straight photojournalism to landscape, and not many people have done that. So that makes the book sort of unique. In any kind of career you get typecast as a certain type of photographer or a certain type of artist and that’s it. It’s really founded on my near death experience and the subsequent sense of gratitude I felt for the healthcare professionals which I extended to my whole life. There’s been a number of people that made me who I am. So in a lot of ways, the whole book is sort of a big thank you to a lot of people.
You say in the book that your photography is the product of many people’s influences. Are you referencing mentors and teachers or peers?
Both. Not only that but the environment and the situation. The photojournalism was influenced in large part by the turbulent times of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Covering the news I that did was anything from marching with Martin Luther King to being shot at at a Cabrini-Green housing project. It’s all part of the life lesson that was imparted to me. A series of peers and editors really shaped my skillset.
Do other photographers continue to change the way you think in this stage of your career or are you pretty set in your ways at this point?
Well actually, just the opposite. I’m probably more loose in my ways than I’ve ever been. That’s largely because of the onset of digital. Here I am, a guy who’s gonna be 74 in a couple days and I’m teaching workshops on how to do Lightroom and Photoshop. I think the wonderful thing about photography as a genre is that you can push the limits. I’ve been very fortunate, as I mention in the book, I do a lot of workshops with John Shaw, and he’s written several books on Lightroom and Photoshop. Together we sort of hack out issues and find new ways to use some of the new tools that are available. It’s a constant learning thing. One of the things I talk about in the book is that a large part of what makes a good photographer is curiosity and never resting…
I was at Photography at the Summit in Jackson Hole with a bunch of [National] Geographic Photographers. I was sitting at a table with Rich Clarkson and Robert Pledge, the head of Contact in Paris, and some young photographer came over and said “Well, how’s it feel finally to have arrived?” All of us looked at eachother — it was the craziest thing we’d ever heard because you’re always learning. You’re always pushing. You never “arrive” — you’re just always on the journey.
What influences do you hope to have on the work of future photographers?
I don’t think that way. In photography and any art form, you can teach a skill set, and I guess the lesson in the book really is more about being grateful, and being open for change, and being aware when these different muses dance into your life. There are many times in any life where you can seize an opportunity and go with it, or you can stay with the conservative approach and play it safe. I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve always grabbed for the brass ring. If there is a lesson, that would be it.
What has travel meant to your development as a photographer?
It tires me out. Some people wear travel as a badge as this thing to aspire to. The older you get, the more you want to limit that. Life becomes more involved with qualitative instead of quantitative. While I’ve travelled all over the planet, I think increasingly the travel I do is in areas where I can go back and get a greater knowledge of the place. Places like Chile (Torres del Paine) and I’ve been to Namibia a couple times. It’s great to have that frame of reference to know a place over time. It’s almost impudent and adolescent to think you can go somewhere and walk away with the soul of the place from a quick trip. To me it’s more important to establish a rapport and a relationship — that usually requires doing things over time. It requires multiple trips to places for them to become your favorites.
When you revisit favorite landscapes, do you always know what you’re looking for or does the landscape still surprise you?
I go in with the attitude of a hit list. I know the narrative and I know where the gaping holes are in the story and I try to go fill it. That is definitely your game plan and you go into an assignment that way. But, it frequently and almost never works out the way you want it to. That’s the joy of it! It’s like Christmas every day. Everything’s a surprise. So the serendipity and how you respond to it is what really determines your success.
If you were to visit a place and know that you would never set foot there again do you approach it differently? Does your photojournalism background take over? What are you looking for? What are you thinking while you make your shot?
For me, it’s muscle memory at this point in my life. I’m a tried and true pro and I know exactly what buttons to push and what I need to do to capture the story, but it still boils down to your impression, your curiosity, what it is that piques your interest. That varies from photographer to photographer. From that, you apply your set of skills and your style artistically — so you’re doing both journalism and art at the same time. That’s the most successful type of photography.
Over time you’ll see that the land has a personality and a change going on, however subtle, whether attached to climate change or some environmental calamity that I’m trying to record, so that’s still photojournalism. It may not have any people in it, and maybe there shouldn’t be any people in it. There are some stories that do need people in it — I’ve done both. The point is, coming from Chicago as I did, the tendency is to be anthropocentric — that it has to be human centered to have any relevance. When I was a photographer in Chicago we used to use a derisive term for Landscape Photography as “Placemat” photography — the ultimate put down, and that’s because there’s no people in the shot. Finally, as you become more and more of a naturalist, you understand that there’s a lot of stuff going on in spite of the fact that there’s no people. You’re telling a different kind of story that’s not human centered.
Do you have a favorite type of landscape or climate to photograph?
I live in Tucson. I live in the Sonoran Desert. The desert with its stark empty spaces and things spaced out because of water availability has sort of a monumental look to it. It’s what drives photographers to come here, or Santa Fe — places where there’s a big sky and plant life that’s scattered with appropriate distances. In terms of graphics and design, it’s very clean and very, in a way, elegant. I’m drawn to that. There are no favorite places for me. It’s just usually where I’m at. Next month I’ll be in death valley for two weeks, then I’ll be going off to some of these new national monuments that Obama just made. That’s part of the game, as journalists you learn to make self-assignments. You learn to read the newspaper and apply that to your vision.
I am one of the founders of the International League of Conservation Photographers, which is a group of celebrated photographers who threw their talents into environmental causes to affect change. One of the things you realize is that images have power and you can affect change. Of course you learn that when you win a Pulitzer Prize because that’s what it’s about — the images affected change. When you see that as a young photographer, you realize the power you’ve got, then you turn around and apply that to any cause you want. There is a certain amount of arrogance because you know that you’ve got a certain skill set that could pull it off.
You’ve said in a previous interview that impatience is photography’s biggest weakness in the digital era. How would you advise young photographers to combat the impulse to rush?
It’s a complicated issue. Breathe, I guess. I talked about getting a relationship with a place. You could liken it to a man and a woman. You can go through a relationship very quickly and make it a one night stand or you can have a long delightful interlude where you really know each other. The ability of a digital camera is a computer that can go very very fast. It goes fast as you want to go. But frequently, it’s the going slow and realizing what’s there. Turn over every rock and really study things — during different lighting conditions, during different weather conditions. You can’t always do that if you’re a travel photographer. Sometimes you’ve got to maximize a ton of it, but you really get focused with good planning. Doing the [National] Geographic job on Native American Landscapes, I picked a time when I knew there would be summer pre-tornado clouds over the great plains. I planned my trip to get that image. I planned another trip to get fall color up in Minnesota. That’s travel photography, but it’s the planning that really made the difference. Then it becomes two weeks of waiting for the weather to change. Sometimes you don’t always have that, but with [National] Geographic you do.
With such a deluge of photographic instruction, webinars, manuals, etc out there it can be hard to navigate through the noise to find good artistic leadership and inspiration. Where would you recommend a young or aspiring photographer begin now that assistantships are harder to come by?
I sympathize because I don’t think it’s ever been harder. I see it a lot with photographers who are 30 something and really talented. It used to be that you could make a decent living as a stock photographer and you could have a group of friends that you traveled with. Now, frankly, I don’t see anybody on the road like we used to. The stock business has been eroded by dentists and lawyers and doctors with cameras that are selling one picture a year, but collectively, they’re destroying the stock business. They’re giving it away. That’s what young photographers are up against. That doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. I always think that somebody who has a great vision is going to make it no matter what. Sometimes, if you get somebody who’s really talented, they become an assistant on a future workshop and they can go from there. But there’s a really finite, limited number of people that make it nowadays.
For me, the miracle of working for a newspaper and in print media is that you’re producing a book every single day. You’re taking images, you’re putting them on paper, and you’re taking that whole process and doing it on a deadline — I call it ‘dancing on demand’ because that’s what you’re doing. You have to meet deadlines. Talk about the ultimate travel photographer — well that’s what you are. You’re breezing into a situation, you’re assessing the situation, you’re telling a story with your photographs, and you’re leaving. And you’re doing this with maybe three or four assignments a day. Some of it can be really superficial and some of it can be really profound — the discipline you learn by doing that and working with a group of peers, which in Chicago in the 70’s and 80’s was as fine a group of photographers as there was. They’ve gone on to be Directors of Photography at various magazines, publications… The model that I used to make a living is no longer applicable. As get into [digital media] more and more, I’m trying to do more Fine Art. Maybe some of it’s not so fine, but it’s like you’re shooting really good photographs every single day as a professional and maybe one a month rises to the next level and you consider making a fine art print from it. As your reputation goes up, you can charge more for a print and it becomes a viable financial model.
The whole idea is to get a group of peers that you can learn from and pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
Is there anything else that you would like to impart on our readers or the future generations of photography?
The thing that I see a lot is that there’s a lot of arrogance of what you think you know. I’m guilty of this myself. That’s the beauty of being old — you’ve done it all. With digital, as things get more and more technical, two things can happen. You can get some really bad habits and you can try to save everything in post processing. There’s a real loss in the basic fundamentals of getting it right in the capture as you’re out on assignment. Digital becomes a crutch. You think ‘I can do this thing — I can zip up the color and do all kinds of edits later on.’ You create a Frankenstein. On one hand, you’re doing that and have an over dependence on digital. The other thing is a lot of people have the incorrect way of processing digital. That’s something where a workshop or internship is really important. To get that fundamental knowledge of what it takes to maintain a photo library — especially as a freelancer.
What comes next? What will the 2nd edition of this book include five or ten years from now?
Ten years from now I’ll be fertilizer, kid. I don’t think that far in advance. I’ve got stuff planned into 2018 that’s gonna keep me busy. Having Trump as President is going to bring about all kinds of interesting things, but I’m at the twilight of my career. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the book. To talk about the journey. I think when you’re young, you just want everything right away — even when you’re old you want some things right away — but sometimes it’s amazing how things kinda come to you. Almost the harder you push the less you get. Patience is a thing to learn.
“A Photographer’s Life – A Journey from Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photojournalist to Celebrated Nature Photographer” (ISBN: 9781681980720) is available in Hardcover and EBook format from Rocky Nook. All images and page excerpts published here are provided by Jack Dykinga and printed with his and Rocky Nook’s permission.