Photographer Focuses on That Magic Moment
Galen Rowell has two passports. One is a small blue booklet issued by the U.S. government, the other a 35-millimeter camera that takes him to a land where he’s the only inhabitant and sees what no one else can see.
Through the lens, the 46-year-old former auto mechanic records a colorful planet where man is a tiny, insignificant thing. His subjects are mountains whose craggy masses leap into the heavens, suns that set fire to unearthly landscapes, veiled moons shimmering against raven-black skies and trees that almost talk.
In a little studio tucked between an antique shop and a hair salon, a jeans-clad Rowell speaks passionately of his philosophy and the work that has put him in the top ranks among the world’s wilderness photographers.
“I wait to be turned on,” says Rowell, a smile stretching his seamed, sunburned face. “I’m not obsessed. Oh, for short periods, I am. Working in the field for a day or a week, I can be obsessed.”
In the ‘60s, Rowell’s mind was more occupied with hot-rodding around Berkeley than taking photographs. He used his income from an auto shop to soup up innocent-looking station wagons.
“I started taking photographs just to show friends and family what I was doing, then I got curious about the photographic process. Making good photos became an end in itself.”
Rowell’s career went into high gear in 1973 when he was assigned to do a cover story on Yosemite National Park for National Geographic.
Rowell was reared in the San Francisco Bay Area by college-professor parents, but the mountains have been a key part of his life since almost before he could walk.
To get his pictures, Rowell has participated in, and led, some of the most challenging climbs in the world, including Everest and K2.
An anecdote in his latest book--”Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape”--explains his determination to get the perfect picture. Rowell tells of the time he chased a rainbow to get a stunning image of a Tibetan palace.
In 1981, Rowell was in a guest house at Lhasa, Tibet, 12,000 feet high. A mile away, in golden splendor, sat Potala Palace, traditional home of the Dalai Lama, spiritual and political leader of Tibet.
“We could see a dim rainbow hovering over a field miles from (the palace),” he says in the book. Rowell took off running.
“I hopped a fence with a bag of cameras and walked diagonally away from the rainbow. It followed. I knew that with each step I was actually seeing a different rainbow from inside a different set of water droplets.”
Rowell chased the rainbow toward the palace, firing “insurance shots” as he ran. “Soon, the rainbow grew more intense, and so did my pursuit of it. I ditched my heavy camera bag in a bush and took off running. . . . The rainbow grew more intense. . . . I reached a spot where the rainbow was directly behind the palace.”
What happened next, he said, seemed miraculous.
“As if by magic, a hole opened in the sky, beaming a spot of evening light directly onto the palace . . . as vivid a rainbow as I have ever seen.”
Panting heavily in the thin air, his motorized camera braced against a post, he quickly exhausted two rolls of film. The result was a surreal smash hit, appearing on posters, ads, calendars and in magazines.
When Rowell goes to the mountains he searches doggedly “for the fleeting happening. The unrepeatable moment. There’s a dynamic tension. It’s what this book is about--the processes coming together.
“Three things have to come together to make a good photograph. You have to have the technical thing down and have that work for you. Then, you have to have the personal vision to make everything come together compositionally and creatively--and then, you have to have the natural thing, very fine natural light.”
Rowell scoffs at camera ads that boast, “What you see is what you get.”
“That’s just not true. If I’m going to photograph something, I’m going to think in the foreign language of film--not what I see, but what the film sees.”
Rowell explains with some difficulty the relationship of his beloved outdoors, his cameras and the busy world of commerce. But he leaves little doubt that he considers his camera a support system for his adventures.
“Photography is part of my life style. I don’t want my photography business to be so overwhelmed by other things that I leave behind what I really enjoy--going out in the wilderness, doing adventures. I want to remain concerned over my roots and not end up just doing big-money advertising jobs.
“That’s why I stick to 35-millimeter equipment. It’s light. It doesn’t necessarily interfere with the experience.”
Rowell says about 10% of his work is commercial--advertising and other jobs for industry and business. His wife, Barbara, also an accomplished photographer, flies Rowell to photo and $1,250-a-day lecture assignments all over the country.
Would Rowell, an energetic environmentalist and good-health advocate, shoot a cigarette ad in conjunction with mountain climbing?
“Definitely,” he says. “But I would draw a line. If they wanted me to depict climbers as smokers with cigarettes in their mouths, that’s where I draw the line. I don’t depict things I don’t believe in.”
Something else Rowell won’t do is shoot for the movies.
“I’ve refused all offers, at big rates, because of several things. To make a movie interferes with the original experience. If I’m going to photograph a climb in Yosemite and I take some pictures of it, the climb remains the same. If I make a movie of that climb, the whole experience becomes the movie. The photography becomes primary.”
Rowell hopes that his pictures are more than a feast for the eyes, that they form a statement encouraging the preservation of the world’s natural wonders.
“I hope my work has an effect on that worldwide struggle,” Rowell says. “In a very real way, I think it may make people aware of the beauty we have on Earth right now, and how fleeting it is.”
Sign up for our Book Club newsletter
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.