Connecting with Philip Hyde

We always hear about the power of connections, the effect they can have on both our professional and personal lives. Not only does travel do much to make new connections, it also reminds us of old ones that still serve us well.

So there I was at the Dinosaur National Monument visitor center in northwestern Colorado. I was slowly walking through the gift shop when my eyes locked on a book describing the events that led up to the building of Flaming Gorge Dam in Utah. The dam is on the Green River that flows eastward into Colorado and through the National Monument.

As I looked at the inside of the book’s back cover, I saw the name Philip Hyde. He was one of several prominent and outspoken people who strongly opposed construction of the dam. Many regarded Philip as one of the greatest photographic chroniclers of the great American West.

He pleaded in vain for supporters of the dam to realize the irreversible consequences if the dam was built. Hyde was also on the losing side when the decision was made to build Glen Canyon Dam. Even those who disagreed with him admired him for his ability to unerringly find and photograph natural wonders rarely seen by the general public. His exquisite photographs were noted for their exceptional emotional power.

Merely seeing his name instantly ratcheted my brain back to that evening in 1972 when I met him at Yosemite National Park. I was one of seventeen others who had signed up for one of Ansel Adams’ photographic courses. Adams had already become a legend in his own time for his virtually flawless black and white photographs of the western landscape. Philip was one of the course instructors.

I already knew enough about him to have become an admirer of his work. So I was excited to be in his presence when we all gathered that first evening to get acquainted. I was one of three or four fellow students who introduced themselves and casually visited with Philip. Eventually, however, it was only Philip and me.

I was serious about the questions I asked him, and he was almost reverent in the way he answered them. As we discussed some of his most famous images, it was obvious he had approached each one meticulously with proven methods and procedures in both his thoughts about the image and its capture on film. Although he expressed delight and wonder at his success, he was greatly disturbed by the construction of dams on western rivers. He ached at how much was forever lost in exchange for what he considered to be so little gained.

During the course, I had several visits with Philip. Those occurred mainly when he looked through the viewfinder of my camera to check on my ability to properly compose a picture. I never forgot the man or his demeanor toward me, a student. After all these years, I still feel his influence, especially when making pictures in the American West he knew so well.

We attach ourselves so firmly to some people we meet or connect with that we think of them as living forever. That’s true even as we later lose track of their whereabouts. I thought the same about Philip. I and countless others would keep seeing new and brilliantly produced images coming from his camera, the result of the work of a true craftsman, a master of the medium.

It wasn’t to be for him, any more than it will be for the rest of us. He died in 2006 at age 85, six years after a stroke that, ironically, took away most of his sight.

My connection with him, however, lives on. It was enough to cause me to stop when I saw his name on a book in that store, enough to continue to leave an imprint on many of my photographs.

Without my lust for travel, it’s highly unlikely I would ever have met him. Neither would he have had me as a student. Only by those two happenings coming together have I been able to connect with him now.

The lesson: Explore beyond the ordinary and usual. Make connections. Then relish what might follow in their wake.