If it had been known that I once published an article called "Make Mine a Small One," I would probably not have been asked to review this book, which measures 14 3/4 by 13 inches and weighs plenty. If I did not believe an exception was called for, I would have returned it by freight. My only warning to potential buyers is to make sure your coffee table has strong legs.
The truth is that such an oversize format was imperative for these views of a wide stretch of land. With this look at the five Western deserts--Painted, Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahuan--veteran photographer Philip Hyde has crowned his earlier books on separate parts of this vast area.
Included are authoritative notes and also speculations on the origins of each region's plants and animals by David Rains Wallace, line drawings by Vincent Lopez, maps by Earthsurface Graphics, and finally a selective bibliography and index. The art of putting it all together in a lucid design and making it ready for printing in Japan by Toppan was entrusted to James and Carolyn Robertson at their Yolla Bolly Press in Covelo, Calif.
"I am interested primarily in what Emerson called the integrity of natural objects," Hyde explains. "Natural places too have their integrity. They express wholeness and individuality, and it is this sense of place that is the foundation of my work. My life in photography has been taken up in exploring natural places for their beauty and uniqueness. It has been a labor of love, and nature has provided me the perfect object."
If a big country requires a big book, so does desert photography demand color. Otherwise the chromatic subtleties of light from dawn to dusk would be lost. What about Ansel Adams and Edward Weston? Although both experimented with color and then returned to black-and-white, their genius exalts form and contrasts of light and shadow. In photography's house are many mansions.
In an afterword on his cameras, lenses and film, Hyde explains his choice of color: "Over the years my increasingly frequent visits to the colorful desert country undoubtedly influenced my shift from black-and-white to color photography. Though I was originally trained in black and white (by Ansel Adams) and worked in it for many years, I find it difficult to work in both mediums at once, and color has captured my interest most recently." Thus the 66-year-old artist leaves the door open for a return to the black-and-white austerity of old age.
Hyde's accompanying narrative reveals that he and his wife, Ardis, have indeed been there, by car, boat, horseback and on foot. If photographers are no longer weighed down--as Jackson, Lummis and Vroman were-- by heavy cameras and glass plates, even today's lighter equipment is still not for those with weak backs and tender feet.
The effect of these 95 stunning photographs comes from something more than landscape and its components of form, distance and color. Sensed throughout is the photographer's personal response to what led him to miles and years of traversing the roughest parts of North America. Although aridity is the element most common to these five deserts, there is also a mysterious quality that affects those who live and work in the desert. It is this unseen powerful presence that accounts for so many of the world's great religions having been born in desert areas.
Hyde makes it clear that his book grew out of a quarter-century of photographing rather than from a crash program to furnish a blockbuster for the Christmas trade. His work has a natural growth not made to order. Such a method recalls an earlier labor of love by John C. Van Dyke in "The Desert" (1901), an unforeseen classic written in the closing years of the last century by a wandering Eastern art professor in search of health. He found the Mojave-Sonoran deserts to be worth more than all the galleries of the world. Hyde too came to the desert as a stranger. Born in San Francisco and long domiciled up in the Sierra Nevada where the Feather River rises, he found himself at the end of army service in need of an even more therapeutic separation. A camp library reading of WPA guidebooks led to a summer's exploration of the Western parks and monuments, and beyond to his life's work and this magnum opus.
Choosing among thousands of photographs must have cost Hyde some anguish. If some Western photography buffs don't find their favorites (the Rainbow Bridge is absent), they will be rewarded by many unusual choices. In his fondness for the brilliance of Utah, Hyde does not neglect less spectacular Idaho and Nevada of the Great Basin, including remote petroglyph sites.
Cactus-weary Tucson residents will not lament the absence of saguaros seen at sunset. Offered instead are five of the more southerly and even larger cardon cactus common to the borderlands and Baja, including one, I must note, shot against a sunset sky!
Focusing on color means the omission of some great landforms such as the Sonoran Baboquivari and the Painted's Navajo Mountain, those hallowed abodes of the native gods. Views of the Chihuahuan Desert are particularly welcome, including eight of the Big Bend of the Rio Grande and its remote side canyons, hitherto the photographic domain of the late Laura Gilpin and the Texan-New Mexican Jim Bones.
Writing about the desert brings out the worst in most writers. Its chromatic excesses beget overwriting. It probably took Philip Hyde a while to purge himself of purple prose, as he has done in his narrative. Like Joseph Wood Krutch, who came to the Sonoran Desert in middle age and stayed, Hyde underwrites. His photographs are admirably sobered by his black-and-white prose.
Nor does he overemphasize his respect for the desert. Although in earlier books he collaborated with David Brower and Edward Abbey, Hyde speaks for conservation in a lower voice, yet leaving no doubt of his feeling about the flooding of Glen Canyon and other regional rapes. His sympathies lie more with Nature Conservancy than with Earth First. In conservation's house also are many mansions.
David Wallace's sensitive essay, "Mystery and Evolution in a Rain Shadow," is likewise pitched low.
Whatever the fate of these rugged yet fragile lands at the mercy of their tenants now and later, this book will remain evidence of what they once were: great natural works of art in whose creation mankind played no part.