Storyteller With a Camera

Jack Dykinga's photographs take us to the heart of Arizona's soul

I never thought about it much until now--how the most beautiful parts of Arizona consist of just four elements: earth, sky, plants and sometimes water. As my eyes caress the photos in the new book Jack Dykinga's Arizona, it occurs to me that the entire state is basically a giant zen rock garden, and Jack Dykinga is like the monitor in the meditation center, walking around and whacking us over the head with photographs in an attempt to encourage enlightenment. Dykinga is a big, passionate, funny man with a quick infectious grin and a tendency to wear shorts--his legs are solid pillars of muscle, like trees. In the field, he's happiest hauling around a massive heavy pack stuffed with expensive cameras through some gawdforsaken corner of Arizona. If you happen upon him out there, you'll often see a fearsome five-legged monster, some horror of a miscegenation that turns out to be man and large-format camera and tripod, welded together as one beneath the black photographer's hood.

Dykinga began his career as a Chicago newspaper photographer. In the '70s, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his stunning exposé of conditions at a state mental institution. This work catapulted him to some level of fame, and he later moved to Arizona. Falling in love with its deserts and mountains, he began training his camera upon a place very different from his native Illinois. Dykinga began to merge his photojournalistic documentary approach with large-format landscape photography. The result has been a pile of renowned illustrations and prints, numerous magazine articles, and a handful of sumptuous books. Jack Dykinga's Arizona is but the latest.

To look at the photos in Arizona is to peer into the very soul of the state, not to mention Dykinga's own soul. The book is divided into chapters that define geographical and personal spaces within the landscape, each with a short-and-sweet intro by the photographer. "Saguaro Blossoms" and "Seasons of the Ocotillo" reflect two of the most striking plants found within the Sonoran Desert. You realize that you are not in Kansas anymore, and these striking portraits of desert plants highlight this (remember the image of the teacher whacking you toward enlightenment).

After this serious botanical introduction, Jack wastes no time plunging southwest into the very hell-hot heart of the Sonoran Desert--the Cabeza Prieta, Goldwater, and heck, he even slips across the border momentarily into the Gran Desierto of northern Sonora, Mexico. Thus the chapter title, "Borderless Desert." It's all part of Jack Dykinga's Arizona. And from a place where I have personally staggered around in 126-degree heat, Dykinga brings us pictures of--wildflowers. White and pink and yellow and lovely.

"Solitude on Sandstone" is a meditation upon the frozen seas of sand that make up the Colorado Plateau of Northern Arizona. The infinite variety of forms that sandstone can take can often be overwhelming, but these photos personalize the vast spaces and make us focus on the details. A little to the south are the "Moods of the Grand Canyon." While you've likely seen thousands of images of the canyon, you've never seen photos like these. Dykinga makes the place his own.

Other chapters are "Spacing and Seeing," Grasslands," "Light That 'Slams Into You,' " "Walking in Water" and "Poppies and Wind." They carry us across the rest of the state, melding geology, light, water and plants into a unique vision of our home that goes far beyond Arizona Highways, a publication to which Dykinga is a frequent contributor. These photos are of a primal Arizona and hearken back to a time when the land was new and fresh and untrammeled by Hummers and quads and brain-dead morons.

Others have tried their hand at capturing the nonhuman world through photographs. Two most similar to Dykinga that have also worked in Arizona are Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter. Dykinga builds upon these two--he is a color version of Adams and a refined version of Porter. The difference is that he brings the heart of a photojournalist to the work, a photojournalist is a storyteller who uses images rather than words, and Dykinga in these images proves himself to be a master storyteller.

Dykinga's book is a feast of visual beauty. What appeals about these photos is their sense of home. They tell the story of where we live. They give us roots in a time of rootlessness. They serenade us in beauty during a time when we desperately need it. They enlighten us during a dark time.

We have for many years now been systematically murdering our home, Arizona, blading and paving and flipping deals. The work of Jack Dykinga is a love story that bears witness to what is left, before it, too, is auctioned off. This book conveys a sense of hope that not all is lost, yet.

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