Forgotten Heroes – Galen Rowell

viewpointDURING my editorship of The Great Outdoors magazine I had the pleasure of working with the celebrated American mountain photographer Galen Rowell. He had just climbed a Himalayan peak called Cholatse with a good friend of mine, the English mountain guide Bill O’Connor, and we planned a photographic feature on the expedition.

I had come to know Galen through Bill – the mountaineering world is full of such personal connections – and I corresponded with him for some years. During that time I published three or four of Galen’s illustrated articles in TGO.

At the time Galen Rowell was making a considerable name for himself as one of the world’s leading mountain sports photographers. His books, People Come Looking, Looking, The Throne Room of the Mountain Gods and Mountain Light became best sellers and his photographic philosophy inspired many other photographers throughout the world, including our own Colin Prior. Indeed, when Colin wrote a monthly piece for me he was very keen to model it on a column that Galen wrote for the American magazine, Outdoor Photography.

During the eighties Galen set up a photographic gallery in his home town of Bishop, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. His work was in high demand, he ran fieldwork photographic courses and he was widely lauded as the next Ansel Adams. Despite the demands of running a photo gallery he found the time to continue his love affair with the mountains of the world.

During the last couple of decades of the twentieth century Galen participated in over 1,000 climbs from Yosemite and Alaska to over ten major expeditions to the Himalaya. He was one of the first overseas climbers to be allowed into China’s mountainous West when its borders were reopened in 1980 and it was this mountaineering activity that created his personal holy grail – the search for the dynamic landscape.

“My interest in photography did not begin with books or mentors,” he wrote, “or with any burning desire to see the world through a camera. It evolved from an intense devotion to mountains and wilderness that eventually shaped all the parts of my life and brought them together.”

Galen had a natural talent in recognising just where to place figures in a landscape, and unexpected convergences of light and form are exemplified in many of his images. It is this special vision, combined with the extraordinary and unusual situations he found himself in as a climber that created his dynamic landscapes.

In the introduction to one of his books, Mountain Light, Galen described the three elements that make a great photograph: technical proficiency, fine light and an identifiable personal vision.

“The first can be learned,” he wrote, “the second can be discovered with far more consistency than one might suppose. The third – the most elusive of all – is generally understood by everyone at an intuitive level, though it is not always easy to put into practice. Even a person who knows nothing about equipment or lighting has a definite feeling about whether a finished photograph is evocative or not.”

Galen Rowell knew how to take an evocative photograph. He knew how to take a dramatic photograph and his ability to blend colour with exquisite light and form made him, in my humble opinion, the greatest mountain photographer in the world.

Tragically Galen was killed in a plane crash on the way home from a photographic workshop in Alaska in 2002. His wife Barbara was also killed in the crash. Fate is no respecter of reputation.

Earlier this year I visited the Sierra Nevada in California and took a long detour to visit Galen’s Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop in the Owens Valley. I guess it was a kind of pilgrimage, a nod of appreciation to someone I had greatly admired, the author of some of the work I had been most proud of publishing during my years of editing TGO.

I quickly found the Mountain Light Gallery, a grand building in Bishop’s main thoroughfare, and was very much looking forward to browsing the photographs, losing myself in the exquisite colour and drama of Galen’s work. I was therefore shocked and disappointed to discover the Gallery had closed down earlier in the year.

The building, which is still owned by Galen’s son, is empty, a shell with For Rent notices in the window. There was an air of pathos about it, a mere emblem of past glories. By some fluke of fortune I met a man who had been the Rowell’s next door neighbour in Bishop and he told me Galen’s son just couldn’t make the gallery pay. It would appear the work of Galen Rowell has dropped from the public radar. Another forgotten hero.

I was deeply saddened by the experience but perhaps I should have expected it. I guess we all have a time limit, even the great and the good. It may be there are extraneous factors that I don’t know about of that made Galen’s son close the Mountain Light Gallery, or it may be that in these days of quick-fix digital photography and Photoshop the work of photographic masters is no longer appreciated as it once was. At least I have a few Galen Rowell volumes on my bookshelf with which to remember with appreciation this master of the mountain image.

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