"My first thought is always of light"

The above quote by the late Galen Rowell inspires me each and every time I go out to shoot. Without light, there is no photo. Galen always managed to find beautiful light.

Galen Rowell was a wildlife photographer and naturalist whose work was often compared with Ansel Adams. Rowell began his photography career with National Geographic in 1973 – about the same time I started my career in photojournalism. He offered readers a visually dynamic style of photography that other photographers could not get because not only was Galen a great shooter, but an athlete and mountaineer. He could hike and run for miles with his camera and often did, climbing mountains the rest of us just looked up at. Rowell considered himself to be a participant in his compositions, as opposed to just being an observer. He felt that an integral part of enjoying his photography was appreciating the skill it took to achieve his specific point of view. This separated his images from looking like something “that was taken from the side of the road.”

I met Galen many years ago while on assignment for the SF Chronicle. We were both shooting a peregrine falcon nest on the slopes of Mt. Diablo in the San Francisco bay area. Only difference was, Galen was up close and personal with the nest due to his climbing skills. I was shooting from the ground below with a long telephoto. Needless to say, Galen had an incredible set of images for National Geographic magazine. Mine were only so-so!

If you enjoy landscape and adventure photography, check out some of Galen’s books. He’ll inspire you with his images and the stories behind them. Also if you are ever in Bishop, California, stop by and visit the Mountain Light Gallery where Galen’s photos are on display. Galen lived in Bishop when he passed away in an unfortunate plane crash. He set up the gallery in an old, beautiful bank building in town and I make it a point to stop by each time I visit the area. His work is always inspiring as are his words.

Check out a few of his inspiring quotes :

A lot of people think that when you have grand scenery, such as you have in Yosemite, that photography must be easy.

And most of my early pictures failed but about one in a 100 somehow looked better than what I saw.

Ever since the 1860s when photographers travelled the American West and brought photographs of scenic wonders back to the people on the East Coast of America we have had a North American tradition of landscape photography used for the environment.

I almost never set out to photograph a landscape, nor do I think of my camera as a means of recording a mountain or an animal unless I absolutely need a ‘record shot’. My first thought is always of light.

I began taking pictures in the natural world to be able to show people what I was experiencing when I climbed and explored in Yosemite in the High Sierra.

I began to realise that film sees the world differently than the human eye, and that sometimes those differences can make a photograph more powerful than what you actually observed.

I find it some of the hardest photography and the most challenging photography I’ve ever done. It’s a real challenge to work with the natural features and the natural light.

I like to feel that all my best photographs had strong personal visions and that a photograph that doesn’t have a personal vision or doesn’t communicate emotion fails.

I remember when an editor at the National Geographic promised to run about a dozen of my landscape pictures from a story on the John Muir trail as an essay, but when the group of editors got together, someone said that my pictures looked like postcards.

I think landscape photography in general is somewhat undervalued.

I think that cognitive scientists would support the view that our visual system does not directly represent what is out there in the world and that our brain constructs a lot of the imagery that we believe we are seeing.

I’m exchanging molecules every 30 days with the natural world and in a spiritual sense I know I am a part of it and take my photographs from that emotional feeling within me, rather than from an emotional distance as a spectator.

If we limit our vision to the real world, we will forever be fighting on the minus side of things, working only to make our photographs equal to what we see out there, but no better.

Luckily, many other people tell me how they have had a particular landscape photograph of mine in their office or bedroom for 15 years and it always speaks to them strongly whenever they see it.

My first thought is always of light.

My mountaineering skills are not important to my best photographs, but they do add a component to my work that is definitely a bit different than that of most photographers.

One of the biggest mistakes a photographer can make is to look at the real world and cling to the vain hope that next time his film will somehow bear a closer resemblance to it.

The combination of pictures and words together can be really effective, and I began to realise in my career that unless I wrote my own words, then my message was diluted.

The landscape is like being there with a powerful personality and I’m searching for just the right angles to make that portrait come across as meaningfully as possible.

The reason that I keep writing is that all my most powerful messages about the fates of wild places that I care about need to have words as well as images.

There is no question that photography has played a major role in the environmental movement.

There’s no question that photographs communicate more instantly and powerfully than words do, but if you want to communicate a complex concept clearly, you need words, too.

These days, most nature photographers are deeply committed to the environmental message.

Wanting to take a light camera with me when I climb or do mountain runs has kept me using exclusively 35 mm.

What I mean by photographing as a participant rather than observer is that I’m not only involved directly with some of the activities that I photograph, such as mountain climbing, but even when I’m not I have the philosophy that my mind and body are part of the natural world.

When we tune in to an especially human way of viewing the landscape powerfully, it resonates with an audience.

Top photo : Split rock and cloud © Galen Rowell/Mountain Light
Above photo of Galen next to Yosemite Falls : © Ron Kauk/Mountain Light

A special thank you to Barbara Laughon of the Mountain Light Gallery for permission to run both photos.

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