In the blink of an eye
By LOWELL CARLSON
Sandra Louise Dyas looks for images that exist for an instant, scenes that disappear with the caprice of cloud cover and people unaffected by her camera.
Dyas, a long-time Bellevue resident, grew up on her parents’ farm northwest of Andrew. The experience of rural and small town life proved invaluable for Dyas, who now makes her home in Iowa City.
After more than 30 years now as a professional photographer, published author and college lecturer, her list of awards and recognitions just keeps growing.
The latest is a first-place award in the Dubuque Museum of Art’s 2013 biennial juried exhibition for “Don, the Modern Barbershop, Burlington, Iowa.” It was one of two works selected for the exhibition
Her freelance work has been published in Vogue, the New York Times, Random House, Newsweek, Redhouse Records, Ecco Press, United Airlines, Simon & Schuster and others.
University of Iowa Press published her “Down to the River: Portraits of Iowa Musicians.” She recently published her second book, “my eyes are not shut.” This latest book, a collection of the people, places and things she holds dear, is a self-published project available at Blurb.com.
“Photography is a wonderful medium for exploring the world and expressing ideas I cannot adequately say with words. I use a camera because it is a direct tool that allows me access into other people’s lives.”
That was Dyas explaining what she looked for during the 2009 year-long 50 States Project. Dyas, along with 49 other photographers across the United States, recorded images of people, even the “American dream,” in this unique undertaking.
The journey to her most recent benchmark recognition includes an early career as a portrait photographer. Dyas estimates she has also photographed over 600 weddings over a 30-year span. The entire profession was changing, and Dyas was changing as well.
“Digital photography has changed the professional photography world. It is radically different from what it was when I was in Bellevue in the 1980s. At the time I had my business, 1976-1987, things were already changing technically. People were buying very nice single lens reflex automatic cameras that could take excellent quality photos. Prior to this most people used very simple “instamatic” point-and-shoot type cameras which were incapable of making decent quality photographs,” remembers Dyas.
Dyas was gaining attention for her striking images in part because of her technical skill and because the medium-format camera she used produced a negative almost four times larger than a 35mm camera negative. The quality was eminently superior, but the cat was out of the bag. Digital cameras were beginning to invade the consumer market and they were getting better and cheaper all the time.
The Jackson County native says the transition to digital images wasn’t without its frustrations. “At first quality was poor, but we all know this has vastly changed. Pricing had to be restructured.”
Today, her “go to” camera is a Nikon D300s for those readers who want to know equipment preferences. Dyas still uses some film, but very little. “I love Holga cameras. They are toy medium-format cameras that use film. I am teaching a class of Cornell students how to use them right now.”
To show how far we are into the digital revolution, Dyas said her recent students have little or now understanding of how to use a film camera now. “The funniest thing I heard yesterday was ‘why do we need paper?’ They do not understand loading film into a canister. People no longer have these physical skills because everything is done with a mouse or a touch of a finger to a screen.”
Dyas earned her master of fine arts in 1998 at University of Iowa and relocated to Iowa City where she continues to reside. She has been a lecturer in the Cornell art and art history department for the last 15 years. She has been able to combine two passions, photography and mentoring young people with her position at Cornell.
“I love teaching. I love being an artist. It goes hand-in-hand with teaching,” notes Dyas, admitting that there have been sacrifices financially. “I really think (teaching) is good for my soul. I mean my life and my art and my work are all one.”
Her search for images that have meaning and insight has also turned Dyas into something of a champion of Iowa and Iowans. Through the years her images have delved ever-deeper into what it means to live here, on the land, in small towns, in the context of our relationships with friends, neighbors and family. Her images are the conversations we always meant to have with the people we care about.
The future of photography in many ways is its past. The prospect of change is absolute, yet the very reason for it remains the same. Capturing images that create emotion, that move us—those goals are enduring. Dyas is also passionate as a mentor to students, encouraging them to use photography to see what is in front, and behind, the viewfinder.
“My advice to anyone is just do what you love. That is what you will be your best at. There is so little money in teaching, but I know I excel in it. It mostly makes me excited about living, except when I get worn down from all of the energy I use to teach. Students give you so much back. My Uncle Bob told me years ago that we owe it to ourselves to become who we were meant to be. This stuck with me and still does. Of course, he is a very wise man and also a professor emeritus from Iowa State University in landscape architecture.”
Most recently, she was selected to teach a photography class for the Prague Summer Program. She looks forward to upcoming summer travels in Europe, camera in hand.