Jack Dykinga can punch you in the gut with a photo, like he did with his 1971 Pulitzer-winning portfolio, or he can seduce you with his understated yet thoroughly evocative landscape images. He’s one of the rare photographers who has excelled in multiple genres, has adjusted to multiple technological revolutions, and has successfully weathered the ups and downs of the photo industry. After over five decades in the business, Jack Dykinga’s photos remain relevant. Jack Dykinga’s photos endure.
I recently had the great honor to spend an afternoon with Jack and talk photography. Dykinga is one of the most sought-after workshop teachers out there. He’s very sharp technically, but more important, he is a genius with light and composition. He has ten photo books in print including the recently released Capture The Magic – train your eye, improve your photographic composition.
Before we jump into the interview, here’s a quick bio of Jack’s career:
He first got recognition in high school, when a football photo he took for the school paper ended up winning a Look Magazine contest. For those of you not alive then, Look was a large format photo-heavy magazine and quite a heavy hitter back then – Life magazine’s direct competitor.
After high school he got a stint shooting celebrities at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. This was back in the press camera days (Look up Speed Graphic if you don’t know what a press camera is) Dykinga was about eighteen and already shooting anyone from pop crooner Andy Williams to President Nixon.
At age 20 Dykinga decided to attend college and went to the Chicago Tribune seeking night shift work as a darkroom tech. Instead of putting him to work in the darkroom, the newspaper sent him out on assignment. There was no going back. Dykinga worked for the Tribune for several years then moved over to the Chicago Sun-Times, a more liberal newspaper that embraced Life magazine-style photo essays and 35-mm shooting (the stodgy Tribune was still rolling with press cameras and medium format).
Brought up in a conservative Republican family, Dykinga became decidedly more liberal when covering the unrest of the late 1960’s. Speeding up his liberalization was the beating he received at the hands of the police while documenting the Civil Rights marches into Cicero, Illinois and the riots after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.
In 1970, while working for the Sun-Times, Dykinga was assigned to shoot a story on conditions at state-run mental hospitals. The state wanted to cut funding. Parents of the autistic children “warehoused” there were enraged. When he arrived, Dykinga was so horrified by the conditions he couldn’t lift his camera. The bleak wards were filled with distressed children curled up on bare benches, stripped-down beds or on the floor. Many were naked. There was an ubiquitous smell of human excrement. An hour-and-a-half passed, then Dykinga started shooting. Three days later he was done. His photo essay so shocked the public that instead of cutting funds for the hospitals, the state ended up increasing funding. This result proved how powerful telling stories through photography could be. The experts agreed and in 1971 Dykinga was awarded photojournalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.
Not long after, Dykinga was burning out on newspaper photojournalism. Coinciding with this was an assignment to photograph a climb of Mount Rainier. On the climb he was enveloped by a whiteout on the mountain. This near-death encounter with nature so impressed Dykinga that he soon left the big city of Chicago behind and moved west. He landed in Tucson where he worked as photo editor of the Arizona Daily Star.
Out west, he sought out Phillip Hyde, a student/protege of Ansel Adams. Hyde was using landscape photography as a tool to save wild places. Hyde became a mentor to Dykinga, who put the 35mm camera down and shifted over to large format view cameras. He went from “f/11 and be there” to “f/64 and live there.”
From then until the present, Dykinga has traveled near and far documenting the natural world and promoting conservation. He strongly believes one must get to really know an area before they can successfully photograph it. In the process, he has worn out nearly as many camper trucks as cameras. In 2011 he was awarded the Outstanding Photographer of the Year award from the North American Nature Photography Association. While the name Dykinga has now become synonymous with top quality landscape photography, Jack has remained true to his photojournalism roots, using the power of his photography to affect positive change.
At that let’s go to the video and turn it over to Jack, soak in some photo wisdom and enjoy some magnificent images.
For more of Jack’s work, pick up Capture the Magic and also visit Dykinga.com. Jack’s currently on a mission to scan his massive film archives into digital for a career retrospective project. Lucky for us he is frequently posting incredible images from his archives on the Dykinga Photography Facebook page.
Text © John Sherman, Video © John Sherman and Dawn Kish with Included Photos © Jack Dykinga