The work of Alaska-based nature photographer John Hyde is featured on the cover of the Summer 2012 issue of American Forests; alongside the cover story, “Transition for Tongass”; and as the “Last Look.” In this American Forests web-exclusive, John describes his affinity for large predators, especially a wolf that he became friendly with over the years; his love of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest; and how difficult it is to capture a special moment in time.
When and why did you become a nature photographer?
I have always been interested in the natural world and have found solace there as well, but I didn’t get interested in photography until I took it as an elective while working on a natural sciences major in college. I took the class so I’d have an opportunity to meet a girl who I knew was going to be in it. And I did meet her, and we did go out for some time. But the interest in photography just continued to grow year after year, even after our relationship waned. Eventually, I went back to school to study photography and film and on to work professionally in both fields.
Are you drawn to a specific type of nature photography?
I tend to be more attracted to large predators and raw, aggressive landscapes. But I find quiet beauty and tranquility irresistible as well. The subject itself isn’t as important to me as the sense of time and place portrayed in the image.
Do you have a favorite story from your quest for photographs?
Many of my favorite memories involve wild subjects, and every one of them hinges on moments when I felt a connection with the subject that went far beyond respect or admiration. These moments were not subtle in the least. They were more like getting thumped over the head by a 400-pound gorilla … or maybe I should say an 800-pound grizzly? Transcendental in nature — both literally and figuratively. The message was that we are all in this together; in the end, we are one and the same. These moments were fleeting, but the impact they had was front and center in my consciousness for weeks afterwards.
I shared these moments with subjects like brown bears, killer whales and, on a fairly regular basis, a wolf that I had the honor of knowing for a number of years. When a relationship is developed with a large predator — one that could take your life before you could even try to defend yourself — that isn’t based on food, but instead, solely on respect and a willingness to share the environment with you … it’s kind of hard not to later pass that same respect and honor along to others, both large and small. This wolf became more than simply a subject for my camera, more than a wild neighbor who I shared my stomping grounds with. There were times when photographic opportunities didn’t present themselves, and instead, we hung out together for hours hiking or just sitting and watching the world go by, sharing a bond and kinship that I find impossible to describe. We never directly approached each other or intentionally touched, but contact was made that was impossible to disregard.
Where is your favorite shooting location?
Alaska’s Tongass National Forest— where else? Nowhere else can I have such available access to such awesome wildlife and wild lands so close to our home. It is literally in our backyard. If I were to drive two miles and start walking in an easterly direction, I might not come across a road or sign of civilization until I’d traveled hundreds of miles — first across an ice field the size of Rhode Island and then across half of British Columbia! Tongass has such a variety of landscapes — from old-growth forests to alpine meadows, from expansive glaciers to rocky coastlines, from sandy beaches to quiet ponds and inlets. All with bears, eagles, deer, elk, moose, wolves, five species of salmon, leaping humpback and killer whales and many more wonderful creatures as your neighbors. That’s good enough for me!
What was the most difficult image you ever tried to capture?
The most difficult image is the one that has so far eluded me — it’s still just an idea that has yet to become a visual I can share with others.
Otherwise the most difficult ones are those that have demanded the most patience and persistence. Ones like when I sat in a blind and on a board the size of a swing while suspended eight feet above the ground for more than week waiting for the subject to enter the frame of a remote-controlled camera. Times like that are the most stressful because you have a lot of time to think — to consider how nuts you must be to be sitting there waiting for something you have absolutely no control over. Extensive weather delays can become difficult as well. Making a decision to commit to a very specific objective in a very specific place and then hoping that it will eventually go your way, those are the worst. But they are some of the best when they do pay off!
Do you have a favorite photo?
The last image that really accomplished what I had intended when I clicked the shutter. Of course, I have favorites from over the years, but the most recent is the springboard to the next.
Which other photographers do you admire?
There are way too many to list, and if I did, I’d forget someone important. So, in general, I admire any photographer that makes the effort to produce images that people respond to because then, they have made a difference, and that is what counts. Different people respond to different types of images and different subjects in different ways. For photography to make a difference — to effect positive change — it has to have as many faces as there are people.
The work of Ansel Adams, The Westons, Philip Hyde (no relation), Jerry Uelsmann, Minor White and many others provided a lot inspiration when I was getting started. At that time, I used black & white film — developed in very nasty chemicals — and large format 5×7 and 4×5 film.
If there was one person who I could say influenced me the most, I’d have to say it was my teacher Harrison Branch. He taught me to look into myself and go with what was in my soul, regardless of what everyone else was doing or wanted to do. At the time, I didn’t really realize why he insisted that all of us take that to heart. Now, after doing this for years, it has become obvious: It’s the only way you can keep on making images year after year — discovering what it is that drives you to do so, without burning out. It is the only way to be true to yourself and, thus, to your art.
A filmmaker and photographer whom I worked for while going to school was also a great influence. James Larison taught me something that every photographer or filmmaker needs to aspire to: that you need to keep your “eyes wide open” or you might miss that magic moment — that brief but telling slice of time that tells a whole story in one picture.
Digital or film?
These days, my preference is for digital for a number of reasons.
First is that digital enables me to see an image I have just taken, and when you are in the wilderness, days or weeks from returning to town, you can see what you’ve got without having to wait for the film to get back. For someone that does this professionally, that can be very reassuring. Another aspect is that you can exchange ideas visually with a client in the field to make sure you both are thinking along the same lines during an assignment. And being able to examine your images as you take them makes the whole process more interactive for me.
Another advantage is that high-end, 35mm, full-frame digital cameras provide superior results in almost every way to 35mm film. There are certainly times when I miss using that beautiful old cherry and brass 5×7 that was my first real camera — and maybe I’ll get back to it again someday — but for now digital is my preferred format.
The Tongass is John Hyde’s home, as well as his primary photographic passion. His work has been published and exhibited globally. To see more of his world, visit wildthingsphotography.com.