Adventures of a Calendar Photographer By CLARKE C. JONES
It is truly amazing how fast a man can move while carrying 40 pounds of camera equipment when he almost steps on a rattlesnake.
“I was at Big Bend National Park along the Rio Grande, one of the most remote places in the United States, photographing a cactus when I almost stepped on a sidewinder. I jumped behind a rock to give it plenty of room and about that time a herd of javelinas came roaring right over the spot where I had been standing. I believe that rattlesnake actually saved my life!” recounted Dwight Dyke, a nationally known photographer and resident of Goochland County.
This is not the kind of story you expect from someone noted for puppy and kitten calendar photography. It does, however, fit the profile of a talented photographer and the path he took to become one of the nation’s top suppliers of dog and cat images to the largest calendar manufacturer in the world.
After finishing college at University of Cincinnati, Dyke, who grew up in Richmond, began working as a project manager for an advertising firm that focused primarily on the financial industry. One of his jobs was traveling around the country with an art director and a photographer, producing photos for scenic checks. Dyke, who had never taken pictures before, bought a 35 mm Nikon camera to take along on the trips so he could take his own photos. He observed the photographer on the project and thoroughly enjoyed taking pictures. By the end of the assignment, he was taking pictures for the company.
“Since I had never had a lesson, I didn’t know enough about photography to know what I wasn’t supposed to do,” said Dyke. “I took pictures differently and my pictures had a bolder look because of it.” In fact, the photography editors at the company told him he didn’t have to sign his name to his pictures-they knew by looking at them that they were Dwight Dyke photos.
Within two years of the project, Dyke’s life changed. “I found myself single and examining my life,” he said. He got a pop-up camper, hitched it behind his jeep, and along with his newly acquired large-format camera equipment, went on the road for two years. He lived for some time on the Navajo Indian Reservation at Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. He held an interest in the Anasazi Indian ruins and the ancient Indian artwork on the mountain walls and, in particular, a place called Mummy Cave.
“The only way to Mummy Cave was [by] four-wheeling in a river which was a little over a foot deep,” said Dyke. “You needed an Indian guide to go with you, because he knew where the quicksand was and how to avoid it. My guide just happened to be the spiritual leader of the Navajo tribe and we had many interesting conversations on the day-long trek to and from the cave.”
In many additional instances, Dyke’s photographs came from remote locations. He had to physically carry his tripod and heavy equipment miles to his destination. Professional, large-format cameras-the kind with the cloth that goes over the photographer’s head-provided better images than a 35 mm camera at that time, but were heavy and required a tripod that also had to be lugged around, which made camera work tedious for outdoor shots. These old large format cameras show the subject being photographed upside down and backward. “Strangely,” Dyke said, “[this] seemed not at all unusual to me.”
After leaving the Navajo Reservation, Dyke did not have a travel plan. He only knew he should be in certain parts of the country during certain times of the year to get the best outdoor images. In February, he said, he would travel to the Everglades, because many species of birds congregate there at that time of year. “It is also where every insect that can bite you seems to congregate as well.” In early April he would photograph plants and flowers in South Carolina and then in mid-April he would be in Texas photographing cacti that only bloom that time of year.
During July, Dyke would be in Montana and then go to the Sawtooth Wilderness area near Redfish Lake and the small village of Stanley, Idaho, which is reported in some travel guides as having the most beautiful settings of any town in the United States. In September, he was back East shooting the rocky coasts and lighthouses of Maine. Then he would jump over to Vermont in October to photograph the fall foliage. As the colors descended South, he followed them. Lessons to Bear in Mind All of this sounds glamorous, but it was not without its dangers or valuable life lessons.
“Once I was on a narrow backwoods logging road in the middle of nowhere, Montana, when I came upon a pickup stopped in the middle of the road,” said Dyke. “I couldn’t go around it, so I waited for it to move.” It didn’t. Thinking they may be having engine trouble, he started to see if he could help them when he realized the people blocking his way were watching a bear graze beside their truck. Dyke, by his own admission, didn’t do the smartest thing in the presence of a bear. In his excitement, he grabbed his camera and went to the other side of the truck and started taking pictures. “As the bear moved, the truck moved and I moved with the truck. This went on for a while until I guess the people in the truck got tired of looking at the bear and drove off, leaving nothing but 15 feet between the bear and me, and me 100 yards from my jeep.” Dyke recalled thinking, “There are animals you can look in the eye and some you should not.” Bears, he guessed, are in the latter category. “I looked down at the ground and said very softly as I backed away slowly, ‘Nice doggy, doggy. Nice doggy, doggy.’ I did this until I felt I was close enough to my jeep that I could make a break for it. If that bear had been interested in a change of menu, no one would have ever known what happened to me.” Experience is a great teacher, if you can live through the experience.
When Dyke returned home after spending two years on the road, his sister-in-law gave him a copy of Virginia Wildlife Magazine and said, “This looks like a magazine that would like your photography.” He contacted them and they were pleased with his work. He still produces images for them and loves working with the game biologists and the Virginia Game Commission. Eventually, Dyke began to submit his work to calendar publications. Thinking he needed to expand the image inventory that he could provide his customers, he traveled to Europe and the Caribbean. Exciting? Sure, but it was also an investment risk, in that he poured a great deal of money and time into the endeavor without being sure there was a market for his photos. At least, that’s how some people might have seen it.
Dyke just went for it, and was successful. Dyke’s animal calendar photography became the central focus of his work when, by chance, he was getting a haircut and the person seated next to him found out he was a photographer. She asked him to take a picture of her dog. On a whim, he submitted the photograph to a calendar publisher, and they replied, “Send all the photographs of animals you can.”
Dwight Dyke’s success as a photographer is evident every year. You need to only visit any location that sells animal calendars and you will find his work. In 2007 his photography was the cover of the “Southern Nature” calendar and in 2008 it is on the cover of the “Country Churches” calendar. Part of his success comes from the way he approaches his animal subjects. He wants to photograph animals in a natural setting. For instance, small dogs are photographed in his studio or indoors, while larger dogs are photographed outdoors.
“I am not interested in taking a formal shot of a dog,” Dyke explained. “I am trying to capture the dog’s personality.” Dyke brings his own personality to a photo shoot as well. Michele Trogdon, who cuts Dyke’s hair, said that she had asked him to take a photo of her female pit bull terrier, a rescued dog. But because of the dog’s background and temperament, Trogdon was nervous about how the dog would react, and asked Dyke not to touch or look at the animal. “Of course, this didn’t make Dwight feel very comfortable,” said Trogdon.
“He asked me how he was to take my dog’s picture without looking at it. I brought her to his studio and within moments my dog fell in love with him. When I saw the photos he had taken of her, they were so beautiful I almost cried.”
Dyke performs philanthropic photo work, as well. He takes pictures for a cat rescue organization free of charge when cats or kittens are brought to the rescue location in Richmond. These pictures are placed on the Internet and the cats are adopted very quickly instead of being put to sleep. “Everybody wins,” said Dyke, “especially the cat!”
Although Dyke has an innate gift for photography, the job is not without its challenges, even minus the rattlesnakes. Like all photographers, Dyke has seen enormous technological changes over the course of his career. “I have always been drawn by the art of photography, not the technology,” he said. “Everything I did photographically in the past came very naturally to me, but with advent of digital cameras, photographers have had to go from shooting film to PhotoShop 3 almost over night.” This has required an immediate and considerable investment in time and new equipment. Most publishers of photographs no longer accept photo slides and want digital images because it fits how they produce their publications.
“In one day all my equipment became obsolete and a quarter of a million images were now obsolete,” Dyke said. “I spent 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for four months straight, trying to master digital technology for my photo work. I had to learn to get the computer to spit out the photo I had actually taken.” Throughout all of this, Dwight Dyke seems to have been able to accept change better than most people. “I am fortunate I picked a career that gives me the opportunity to do each day what I love doing. I never had a master plan except to get everything I can out of each day in terms of experience and happiness.”
Clarke Chastain Jones grew up in the small village of Midlothian and attended the University of Richmond. He writes stories about the outdoors and his travels with his Labrador retriever, Luke. Read more at http://www.clarkecjones.com.