By Stephen Trimble
Philip Hyde died March 30th at 84, and with his passing we lost the last of a generation of pioneering landscape photographers. Ansel Adams is better known, but Hyde—even more than Eliot Porter—became our model for committing a career and a life to conservation through color photography.
Back in the 1970s, my generation of Baby Boomer landscape photographers came of age. We read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire (1968) and Abbey’s text paired with Philip Hyde’s photographs in Slickrock (1971). We moved to the Southwest and took our first river and backpack trips. We came to photography and the land at the same time, on fire with idealism and imagination.
The Sierra Club’s large-format photo books shaped what we saw through our viewfinders. We studied the pages, absorbing Eliot Porter’s sense of design and Philip Hyde’s warm response to big views. I still journey downcanyon accompanied by a memorized inventory of these pictures.
We knew that the Grand Canyon was saved from dams, in part, by Philip Hyde’s photographs. We knew the power of nature photography.
For every place, Hyde said, “there will always be people that want to exploit it, and there will always be people—hopefully—that want to save it and keep it as it is.” Even with the risk of inviting the crowds into paradise, better to publish your photographs and rally the troops. What’s in the frame of the photograph matters artistically, to be sure, but what’s outside the frame can destroy it.
Philip Hyde first saw the Southwest as a boy in the early 1930s, when his father, a painter, took the family to Europe by way of a car-camping trip from California across the United States. When Hyde’s snapshots from a 1938 Boy Scout backpacking trip in Yosemite framed more scenery than people, he knew something about where he was headed.
Stationed in Kansas during World War II, Hyde headed to Denver on furloughs just to see the mountains. As he neared the end of his service, he pored over a set of WPA Federal Writer’s Project guides to the states in the post library, dreaming of photographing those national parks and wild places—mapping his lifework. He wrote to Ansel Adams, asking where he might find further training. His timing was perfect. Philip Hyde entered Ansel’s new photography program at the California School of Fine Arts in the fall of 1947.
Hyde’s ties to the mountains led to his first publication in the Sierra Club Annual in 1951. He soon became primary conservation photographer for the Club. Beginning with his work for This is Dinosaur in 1955, Philip Hyde photographs helped define the genre of “coffee table conservation book.”
When the Bureau of Reclamation eyed the Grand Canyon in the 1960s for its next dam projects, David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, responded with Time and the River Flowing: Grand Canyon (1964)—featuring Philip Hyde as primary photographer. Hyde agreed that he was down there photographing “because we wanted to keep the dam builders out,” but the place itself was most important: “I just went about my business, and here was this magnificent canyon full of wonderful things to photograph.”
These “battle books,” as Philip Hyde called them, reshaped the image of the Grand Canyon in the American imagination. The Canyon became a symbol of endangered wilderness, the Colorado a symbol of the free-flowing power of threatened rivers. The books and the campaign also transformed the Sierra Club into a national organization.
Hyde’s son, David, remembers waiting endlessly with his mother when his father stopped their vehicle for a “picher,” as the elder Hyde pronounced it, with a rising lilt to his voice. “I had no idea what he was even looking at,” David says. “No one else would ever have seen it. He saw something…” His father said, simply, “It’s a matter of seeing, just looking around, opening your eyes. I seek to bring out what is there, rather than to impose a personal sense of design.”
David Hyde says, “My Dad was just out there loving the place to death, and he wanted to show other people the place that he loved.” Philip wrote that he found in his work “an unending discovery of the infinite variety and beauty in the universe.” The legacy of his photographs will forever remind us of both his wonder and his devotion to western wild places.
Footnote: Salt Lake City writer and photographer Stephen Trimble (www.stephentrimble.net) interviewed Philip Hyde in 2005 for his book, Lasting Light: 125 Years of Grand Canyon Photography (Northland Publishing; June 2006).