Jay Dickman’s movable feast

Devouring the world with his lens

Jay Dickman’s credentials are impeccable: a Pulitzer Prize, iconic pop music images, nearly 30 years with National Geographic, more than 40 National Geographic Expeditions, and his own highly touted FirstLight Workshops. Yet his most recent kudos is more comprehensive of the man: Travel and Leisure named him among “10 Fascinating People You Can Travel With in 2017.” He opines that the magazine might have run out of subjects after coming up with nine, but you need only a brief exposure to Dickman to understand why he’s on that list: A single conversation with him is a feast of experiences, places, people, events, emotions and, most of all, wonder.

© Jay Dickman

That wonder is fueled by his camera. “I’m always viewing things photographically,” he says. “The power of seeing photographically is that it makes you enjoy seeing everything better. I see the beauty of the scene, but I find the camera is taking me that much more deeply into it.” The resulting images take the viewer more deeply into the scene, too—for instance, a portrait that reveals the subject’s personality not only through the eyes but also in the clearly defined wrinkles, hair, stitches of clothing, cigar smoke. And it’s not just people. Dickman gets inside the personalities of landscapes, too. He’s been taking photographs for so long that he’s always watching the light and sensing the energy and power of a developing scene. A herd of cowboy-corralled horses cresting a hill, kicking up dust in slanting sunrays. An arctic wave cresting under an opaque iceberg, the greenish-blue water frothing in imitation of the blue-white glacial block’s shaved-ice crown. “It’s called moment for a reason,” Dickman says. “Every situation has a decisive second.”

© Jay Dickman

And certain seconds can unspool a feature-length series of memories for the viewer. Dickman cites as examples Bob Jackson’s photograph of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald (“Kennedy Assassination”) and Eddie Adams’ photograph of a Vietcong prisoner being executed on a Saigon street (“Vietnam War”). Here are a couple more: Janis Joplin gripping a microphone as she sings at the 1969 Texas Pop Music Festival; Latin American soldiers dragging bodies of young men over a dusty path to a pit. Both are part of Dickman’s portfolio. Some of the concerts he photographed in high school and college are now among his best-selling prints. His images of the war in El Salvador for the Dallas Times-Herald won him the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography.

These images fuse their own power with the way our minds work, Dickman says. “Still photography aligns so perfectly with the thought process because it is the thought process. We don’t think in video or clips; we work with still imagery in our brain. 9/11, your first birthday, Vietnam, your first pet: Most of those terms are the catalyst for a visual image. That’s the importance of photography in our lives.”

Still is still best

Dickman came of age when still photography was the primary medium for delivering the emotional impact of news events. Born in St. Louis and raised in Austin, Texas, since age 8, Dickman grew up absorbing the photography in National Geographic and Life magazines. “Those were the TV images of the early and mid-’60s,” he says. “Life had the large format with images of moon missions, civil rights [protests], the Vietnam War. Looking at these frozen moments even now just blows me away.”

Something else that made these images special: They were on printed pages. Dickman uses digital technology, he views images on his monitor, and his portfolio is on his website. However, print matters most to him. “A lot of young photographers don’t realize it, but the print is the fruition of this whole process. It reengages the force of photography. You pick it up—it has that tactile effect—you look up close and push it back. I’m a geek, I love the technology, but to me the print in hand verifies the process. When I get those images that resonate, I want to see a print of it.”

© Jay Dickman

The printed image is not just the final product but also a starting point for Dickman. He notes that as he’s photographing, he has the printed image in mind. “It’s a final filter: Is this going to stand up in a print?” That points to the commercial potential of print. Dickman’s concert images from the late 1960s and early ’70s—Joplin, a boyish Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones at their peak, The Who with Keith Moon—are now selling as fine art. “And it’s the print that’s selling,” he says. “People are spending a good amount of money to get archival prints.” The self-described “technology geek” also points out that photographers need to have a backup workflow plan, and prints are your best bet. Hard drives fail, technological advances outstrip digital files, and the cloud could melt into the thin air it is.

Traveling man

Dickman embraced digital photography at its dawn. In 2002 he was one of 100 contributing photographers to the book “A Day in the Life of Africa,” and per the requirements of sponsor Olympus, each photographer used the company’s E20 digital camera. “Almost everybody was new to digital,” Dickman says. He’d beta tested digital cameras for a couple of companies, but after this experience, “I knew this is where this industry is going. What I love about digital photography is that in many ways it allows the camera to get that much further out of the way.” A year later the camera maker asked him to be an Olympus Visionary, and he and his wife, Becky, launched their FirstLight photography workshops with Olympus’ sponsorship.

The FirstLight workshops have morphed over the years and now comprise six people traveling with Dickman to learn “how to see photographically.” This year it will involve a trip to Mongolia. However, the fundamental purpose has never changed. “We’re not a technical workshop; it’s about aesthetics, the process of visual narrative.” Being the expert photographer is Dickman’s role on National Geographic Expeditions, too, which he began doing in 2007. They’re now the bulk of his work. Last year he visited 31 countries, three with FirstLight and the rest with National Geographic Expeditions. The miles wear on him, he admits. “Travel is harder than ever. I’m leaving the house, I’m leaving Becky.” But as he’s packing and he picks up the camera, “the electricity goes through me. I get paid to do this! It’s a scam.”

©Jay Dickman

Getting beyond the tourism veneer and inside a culture enables storytelling via frozen moments, whether it’s Chuck Berry doing his duck walk, an El Salvador war victim, a resident of a New Guinea stone-age village, a calving glacier, or a Wyoming cowboy. This devotion transferred from the magazine images Dickman held in his hands as a boy to the first time he put a Kodak Instamatic viewfinder to his eye when he was 14. He started taking pictures of friends with motorcycles because he couldn’t afford a motorcycle. He studied English literature at the University of Texas at Arlington and later joined the Dallas Times-Herald. A scared rookie—Pulitzer Prize winner Bob Jackson was on the staff, after all—Dickman flourished under publisher Tom Johnson’s intent to make the paper one of the nation’s best, with national and international assignments that eventually earned Dickman his own Pulitzer.

That moment proved a watershed for Dickman, not as a catapult to his career but as a catalyst for changing course. “I consider myself a generalist. I was not a war photographer even when I was in El Salvador. One goes into those situations, regardless of what you’re shooting, to get the best picture out of it.” The Pulitzer was, for him, validation that he had produced “a good group of photographs that had some power about them, and that’s what it’s supposed to be about.” But when the Times-Herald, now seeing him as a war photographer, wanted to send him to Beirut, he declined. “It was tempting, but that’s when I realized my time with newspapers had drawn to a close.”

Dickman married Becky Skelton, a colleague on the Times-Herald photo staff, and they left the paper in 1986 to pursue other opportunities. In 1988 he began working for National Geographic, further honing his storytelling skills. “Having shot for Geographic for years, you work with photographic narrative,” Dickman says. “The writer writes with text, the photographer writes with light.”

© Jay Dickman
It’s called the moment for a reason

Let Dickman talk and he’ll get to the story that sums him up. It was one of the early FirstLight workshops in Dubois, Wyoming, a cowboy town with a population of just under a thousand people. The workshop had 17 students and four instructors, including a photo editor and an Adobe certified instructor. The Dickmans had scouted the town ahead of time and came up with specific assignments for each participant, a way to encourage the photographers to get inside the lives they would be profiling through images. Every day for a week the students photographed their subjects, culled their images to 10—“Part of the learning is effectively filtering your work”—and received one-on-one coaching from a different instructor each day followed by a projection session with the rest of the class. With the accumulative lessons, Dickman says, “The quality went up through the week—duh!—so all the great work was coming in toward the end of the week.”

That created a logistical hassle as the workshop concluded with a gallery show featuring five submissions from each participant, all of whom helped set up the show. “It was fun to watch the reaction of the participants hanging their work,” he says. “It was, Oh my god, look at what I produced. It still gives me tingles thinking about it.” That was before the doors opened and 455 people attended—almost half the town, including the cowboys portrayed in the prints. “This was the first time these people, in a display, saw their life, what they do, what they are about in their world, in a powerful component of narrative, a photographic visual perspective,” Dickman says. “It wasn’t a picture of them staring at the camera. It wasn’t a snapshot. It was a photograph. Snapshots speak to those in the frame. Photographs speak on many levels in every language. That’s the power of photography.”

RELATED: See our gallery of Jay Dickman photographs.

Eric Minton is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.