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through the eyes of fine art photographer & journalist susan burnstine

In Focus: Tim Hyde


I’ve known Tim Hyde for a number of years and am quite fond of him as a person and as an artist. It’s been wonderful to watch his recent rise to success and I look forward to seeing all that he achieves in the future.

Recently, I had a chat with Tim about his work. Here’s an excerpt from that recent conversation.


SUSAN BURNSTINE:  What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

TIM HYDE: My grandfather was an accomplished amateur photographer—I lived with him growing up—so that probably had some influence.  I also studied photography and became interested in its social and political dimensions when I was in graduate school, but it wasn’t until many years later that I took up a camera myself.

It is an odd thing.  I used to consider myself a writer, was a journal keeper and perhaps the last daily letter-writer left in North America.  For some reason, when I quit drinking a decade and a half ago, I also quit writing.  Period.  I just stopped and couldn’t find the energy or creativity to keep a journal or write a letter.  It was about that time that I began taking pictures.  I can’t help but think the events are related somehow.  Photography is form of communication, like writing.  For me, it’s the same voice, different pitch.

SB: You are frequently drawn to images dealing with the theme of man verses nature or historical, cultural or environmental transition.  Can you talk a bit about your personal impetus to photograph this theme?

TH: I have always been fascinated by the complicated relationship between humans and their environment, the battle between man and Mother Nature.  When we humans talk about how we are screwing up the planet, it is just another manifestation of our arrogance.  This planet is too durable and the human species is too small and too ephemeral to make much of a difference.  As Emerson said,  “[Our] operations taken together are so are so insignificant, a little chipping, baking, patching, and washing, that…they do not vary the result.”   We might pollute our own nest, make it less pleasant for ourselves, but we are not capable of “ruining” the planet.


In graduate school I studied frontiers, which are classic zones of hostility between humans and nature.  Natural disasters are another theatre of action in the conflict.  Nothing demonstrates the enormous power of nature and the puniness of humans more than an earthquake or hurricane or tornado; the disparity is immeasurable.   I am also struck by the implacable ferocity of these natural forces, like Melville’s Maldive Shark, “pale ravener of horrible meat.”    Sometimes the randomness is apparent, and it is impossible to figure out why this house or that family was taken and another was left in tact, one village leveled and another untouched.  Other times, such as the Japanese tsunami in 2011, the earth is cleansed of nearly all evidence of our habitation—nothing is spared.

SB: Despite the fact that you are photographing places of devastation or impermanence, you have a keen ability to find beauty within the destruction or historical change you are photographing.  Can you discuss how you find the balance between two opposing facets to create an image that is uniquely its own?

One of the things that I always notice about these natural disasters is how beauty can be found in the middle of human tragedy, breathtaking sunsets over the most haunting scenes of destruction, for example.  I think about it constantly.  One must resist the temptation of melodrama, which is why I try to avoid people in my pictures (though it couldn’t be helped in Haiti).  Similarly, I don’t want to dwell on the contradiction between beauty and destruction, so I’m cautious about being too overt.  Again, all of this can become melodramatic in a heartbeat, which is exactly the effect I most want to avoid.  Of course, I’m a photographer, so naturally drawn to the best light and most pleasing compositions; plus, I do want to show the obdurate beauty in nature—pitiless and wholly without remorse—as she dismembers human works.


Sometimes I think that Mother Nature is puckish in a nasty sort of way, and loves to rearrange man’s works and assert her beauty in such situations as a way to tweak our noses, almost as revenge for having insulted her.  That falls into the same anthropomorphic, human-centric trap that I am trying to transcend, of course, so I don’t stay in that place for long.


SB: You photographed Repossession between 2008 and 2012 in numerous locations which suffered natural disasters such as Iowa, Louisiana, Texas, North Dakota, Italy, Iceland, Haiti, Japan, New York, Vermont, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Indiana.  Is there one image in this body of work that you are most proud of or one that embodies the complete spirit and intent of your imagery?  If so, can you discuss this image further?

There is one image taken in Haiti that I like very much.  The subject is the cadaver of a bank building, white with bright blue doors and red plinths for the columns.  (Color is very important to me; I compose my photographs with color, so it is almost always present.)   The building is geometric, but the ragged areas of damage, the cracks, and the carnage around the building are all organic—not geometric.  Somebody has written “Viva Aristide” on the front of the building, and just before I made the photo, somebody took a piss in the dust in the foreground—the wet scar is still visible in the dirt.  Both the piss and the graffiti are utterly futile acts of defiance but each seems to hold some redemptive power.  I actually tipped my hat to the chap who took a leak right in front of my tripod.  By the way, he’s still visible in the photograph off to the left.

SB: Is Repossession an ongoing series or do you feel it’s complete?

That is a good question.  How does one know?  The British novelist Philip Glazebrook, in one of his travel books, talks about the “meridian of a journey.” He said it doesn’t usually occur at the half way point a trip, but at somewhere during a trip a distinct mid-point is achieved.  Every thing before that is the journey out and everything after is the journey home, even if that point comes near the beginning or near the end of a trip.  It feels to me like my journey with this project is coming to an end, and I’m on my way home.  Perhaps I have already arrived.


I recently spent several days shooting the tornado damage in Indiana and Kentucky.  Typically, I will wait a month before visiting a disaster scene so I’m not in the way.  This time, I arrived on site just as search and rescue were winding up, so I was in the middle of things:  the wound was still open and things were in a state of confusion yet.  People were wandering around in a daze:  their loved ones had all been accounted for, one way or the other, but not their neighbors or pets or possessions.  The last photograph I took on that trip was of a makeshift memorial set up by neighbors and survivors for a family of five who were killed in the storm.  The memorial consisted of a cross and the few pieces of the family’s home found in an adjacent field.  The scene was quite moving, and I spent the afternoon and part of the evening there shooting.  To me, it seemed like an ending, the day had the feeling of a period to it, a coda.   If so, I can’t say it was a very satisfactory ending.


SB:  I am extremely fond of your series Country.  It touches an innate feeling of hope, survival and the slow, steady loss that embodies the core concept of the American Dream.  Can you talk a bit about the history of this series and detail the initial creative inspiration for capturing these images?


TH: So often a photographer will be well into a “series” before he or she realizes it is a series. I grew up in Iowa, so feel naturally drawn to rural scenes:  small towns and the agricultural industry.   It is a way of life passing, the way of our grandparents and great grandparents.  In the past couple of years, I have realized that small towns aren’t going away, they are just changing, becoming more multi-lingual and full of vibrant colors.  Of course, Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner and Willa Cather showed us that they were changing a hundred years ago, so this isn’t a new process.

SB:  How long have you been making these images?

TH: About five years, give or take.

 SB: You’ve specified in your Statement that Country is just a chapter or thread in what is to become a larger, life-long project which is to show how human beings negotiate with our physical planet, how we struggle to maintain our precarious and ephemeral perch on its surface.  Do you foresee the next chapter of this work taking a new direction, different locations or subject matter or do you work in an instinctual manner that dictates the direction as you shoot?

TH: Yes, I expect it to take some new directions, but the themes probably won’t change.  As mentioned before, I am beginning to feel like the Repossession project—the disaster work—is coming to an end.  That is only part of the overall story, the most dramatic part.  Country is part of it too…in fact, all my work seems to wrestle with the issues around those places where human beings and nature intersect.  I’m also taken by how humans maintain their stout dignity in the face of this unrelenting pressure from nature.  I’m not sure how long we will reside on this planet—probably not long in the scheme of things—but while we are here, before all evidence of our existence is washed into an oceanic trench to become part of some future mountain range, we exhibit a kind of doggedness.  There is a defiant tenacity about we humans that I find appealing, and it takes the theme beyond a simple narrative about nature kicking the crap out of us.


SB:  Tell me about Perilous Terrain, where was it photographed and if it is an ongoing project.

TH: That is part of the work I am showing with Susan Spiritus Gallery in Newport Beach—how lucky are you and I in that regard, no?   Most of these photos were captured in Iceland and the northern plains, places where human presence provides a stark contrast to the environment.  Again, these images show nature as enormous—visually tectonic—while humans are Lilliputian by comparison.


SB:  Do you have any upcoming exhibits, events or travel?

TH: I am heading back to Iceland in April, and will spend a few days in the Faroe Islands, plus I expect to make another trip to the Great Plains in June.

To see more of Tim’s work pop over to his website. 

And be sure to check out his frequently updated blog.

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