Galen Rowell | Landscape Photography Legend
Photojournalism is often described as a combination of art and adventure—entering into foreign cities, war zones, the offices of political leaders, lands of famine, and other exciting, poignant, and dynamic spaces to translate them into stirring images through the eye of the camera.
This description usually does not hold for other genres of photography, which tend to take place in more planned, familiar, and safe settings. One significant exception to this, however, can be found in the life and work of Galen Rowell. During a 30-year career spent summiting mountain peaks from Yosemite to Nepal, Rowell introduced the ideas of adventure and interactive participation into the world of fine landscape photography. His work, documenting some of the most remote and hostile terrain on the planet, contains many of the most famous photographs of the 20th century, and his technical and compositional methods still heavily influence contemporary landscape photography.
Galen Rowell | Early Life
Rowell was born in Oakland, California on August 23, 1940. His parents were both members of the Sierra Club and avid outdoorsmen, regularly bringing him on long camping trips at nearby Yosemite. His mother was an experienced rock climber, and from the age of 10, Rowell followed her on expeditions and ascents across the granite monuments of the valley and surrounding high country.
After Rowell graduated from Berkeley High School in 1958, he enrolled at UC Berkeley as a physics major but dropped out before receiving his degree. Instead, he opened up a small automotive repair shop with some of his friends and acquaintances and used the proceeds to fund further trips into the Yosemite and Sierras. He regularly visited the mountains, completing a number of first ascents and quickly making a name for himself during the emerging climbing renaissance of the early 1970s.
Landscape Photographer Galen Rowell
For ten years, Rowell crossed and recrossed the Sierras. In 1962, he began documenting some of his trips and expeditions with a Kodak Instamatic 500, a small square-format camera with a high quality Schneider lens. As he became more experienced, he eventually upgraded to a Nikkormat SLR with a kit of small, lightweight lenses.
In 1972, Rowell was contacted by Dewitt Jones, a photographer for National Geographic. What began as a collaboration on a climbing story soon became a documentation of Rowell’s ascent of Half Dome and the wider climbing scene in the Yosemite Valley. The article was an instant success, catapulting Rowell into the world of professional photography.
Over the following years, Rowell was sent on assignment to China, Patagonia, Nepal, Tibet, Tanzania, and anywhere else with mountains. He became the first to summit forbidding peaks like Cholatse in the Everest region and the Great Trango Tower in Pakistan. He also set speed records for many more well-known summits like Denali and Kilimanjaro.
During this time, Rowell photographed everything he did, revealing to the rest of the world isolated wilderness and inhospitable alien landscapes never before seen. Regardless of the challenging terrain, the photographs Rowell produced were breathtaking portraits of a natural beauty hidden away in the high and far places of the Earth.
In addition to his work for National Geographic, these years saw Rowell produce many works of his own. Books like In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, The Vertical World of Yosemite, Mountains of the Middle Kingdom, and others combined his stunning visual works with travelogues and pieces of journalism conveying the unique wonder and attraction of these unknown and inaccessible places.
In time, Rowell turned his focus back to the Sierras and the origins of his passions for photography and climbing. Through years of careful observance and by deploying a number of innovative photographic techniques, he assembled the material for his book Mountain Light, which he released in 1986. Inside were dozens of photographs showcasing the biological and geological majesty of the Sierras with a special focus on the atmospheric and luminous effects to be witnessed at these high altitudes.
As Rowell got older, he continued his photography and climbing, opening up a gallery in Bishop, California, and becoming the oldest person to summit El Capitan in a single day. Sadly, while returning to Bishop from an expedition in Alaska with his wife, he was killed in a plane crash, cutting his life and work short at age 62.
Photography Style and Techniques
During his career, Rowell pioneered not only a new approach to the act of photography, but also introduced a number of new creative techniques into the process.
Landscape photography has long been associated with large format cameras. The ability to set up a shot with meticulous care and leave the camera primed to fire for hours fits well with the patience and precision associated with the genre. As well, in the age of film, a larger negative meant a sharper image better fit for enlargement.
Rowell chose to abandon all these traditions, both out of necessity and as a stylistic choice. Shooting on a 35mm Nikon, his images were often created in the moment while traversing an icy col or hanging over a thousand-foot drop. Bringing anything larger than a compact SLR was out of the question on these dangerous and technical climbs, and so most of Rowell’s images, despite their magnificence, are best suited for smaller prints.
On his return to the Sierras in the 1980s, Rowell was intent on capturing the unique lighting conditions present in the high rocky country. Most of all, he wanted to be able to properly photograph alpenglow, the pinkish-orange flame which can be seen on the highest mountain peaks just before sunset. The film stocks Rowell used were geared towards high resolution and saturated colors, but had a limited dynamic range. To solve this problem, Rowell partnered with the filter manufacturer Singh-Ray to produce a set of graduated neutral density filters. These allowed him to properly expose both the twilight valleys and meadows and the dazzling flash of the alpenglow in a look which has been replicated by photographers for decades.
A Generation of Influence
Galen Rowell influenced a whole generation of landscape photographers, many of whom are still active today. As opposed to the detailed studies and repeated reimaginings of popular landmarks which had characterised much of landscape photography before, Rowell sought out the hidden, the inaccessible, and the unseen. His mountain portraits have changed the way people look at, think about, and photograph the high places of the Earth and have helped drive conservation movements all over the world.
Rowell was not only a photographer, however, but a climber, too. As part of the golden age of west coast climbing in the 1970s, he was perfectly positioned to publicize the new and exciting developments in mountaineering and set off a global revolution. Today, there are thousands who draw their recreational lineage back to these early happenings and the chain reaction set off in large part by Rowell’s work. There are also many who continue the tradition of extreme mountain photography—climbers like Jimmy Chin and Corey Rich who travel the world, capturing the dizzying heights and their own daring feats and exploits.
For someone like Rowell, even 30 years seems like too short a career, not enough time to explore or create or share his passion with the world. Fortunately, what impact he did make while he lived has ensured that his methods, his vision, and his unwavering dedication to adventure continue on.
To respect Galen's Intellectual Property, I have not included his imagery in this article. Please visit http://www.mountainlight.com to view his collections.