The Sky Was His Limit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even in a couch-potato culture that worships the twin idols of vicarious experience and virtual reality, it might seem far-fetched to describe photography as "an action sport." But for Galen Rowell, the celebrated nature photographer who died with his wife, Barbara Cushman Rowell, in a plane crash earlier this week, the phrase fit as comfortably as an old pair of hiking boots.The desire to see deeply into nature took the Berkeley-born Rowell far beyond passive spectatorship. For him, photography was a means of attaining a heightened state of being, a raised level of moral awareness, which could be as physically exacting and spiritually transforming as scaling a Himalayan summit. For Rowell, in fact, these activities were all but inseparable.

Daring and athletic yet contemplative and inwardly focused, Rowell, who was 61, combined scientific wanderlust with the vision and passion of a great artist. One magazine accurately described him as "a cross between Sir Edmund Hilary and Ansel Adams."

Rowell loped across continents, sprinting up mountains in Africa and Pakistan and rambling through Patagonia and Antarctica armed only with his Nikon and compass-like artistic convictions to guide him. Frequently he'd be accompanied by Barbara, 54, an accomplished photographer and writer and a licensed pilot who flew a Cessna 206 while her husband snapped pictures from on high.

What resulted were images of startling beauty and technical virtuosity--a roseate Marin County surf at twilight; King Penguins mobbing South Georgia Island like Grand Central Station commuters; or the antique steeple of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery gracefully offsetting the spires of Mt. Everest, in a perfect equipoise of nature and humanity. Many of these images subsequently found their way onto book and magazine covers and posters around the planet.

Yet Rowell's pictures didn't subscribe to a blandly pleasing coffee-table aesthetic. Artfully composed, carefully cropped natural beauty by itself didn't interest him. Instead, throughout his career, and especially as his art matured, Rowell relentlessly searched for what he called "the dynamic landscape" with which to fashion "a portrait of the Earth as a living, breathing being that will never look the same twice."

Drawing a crucial distinction between "timeless landscape photography" and "timely journalism," Rowell said his goal was to combine photographic vision--what the camera literally sees--with his own mind's eye "visualization" to "make images that exceeded normal perception." This, of course, could describe the method of practically any photographer who wants to do more than simply document the visible. But what set Rowell apart from the photojournalistic masses was the lengths he would go, and occasional perils he would endure, to bag a great image.

A skilled outdoorsman and climber, he made scores of ascents in the Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra, took part in major expeditions to Mt. Everest, K2 and Pakistan's Gasherbrum II and made the first one-day ascents of Alaska's Mt. McKinley and Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

His physical resourcefulness was matched by his painterly insights. "Split Rock and Cloud" looks like one of Robert Motherwell's great Abstract Expressionist works: a monumental mass of silhouetted black rock, cleaved by a deep fissure, above which hovers a Rorschach blot of thin white cloud. In a more traditionally romantic vein, "Clearing Storm Over El Capitan" is a choral symphony of mists, rock and trees straight out of an Albert Bierstadt landscape.

On a more intimate scale, a photo of a musk ox skull in North Peary Land, its horns poking through clumps of moss spiked with yellow flowers, becomes a visual tone poem, a memento mori. From Kenyan peacocks to California poppies, Rowell's images never fell into the static perfection of calendar art. Nature, he understood, was too important to be merely picturesque.

To get the image he wanted, Rowell thought nothing of hanging from a sheer cliff face for hours at a time, or slogging through miles of frozen tundra. "In a way I'm part of the picture, not just someone standing there clicking the shutter," Rowell told People magazine in 1986.

By acknowledging his sensibility in the frame, Rowell was also conceding that in most modern landscapes, it's rare for a human presence not to be implied or felt. There was nothing hermetic or misanthropic about Rowell's love of nature, nothing that disdained or feared the human element. And although humans appear sparingly in his photos--often in the isolation of some surreal vista--they are never depicted as bit players. Instead they're seen as vital agents, altering the world through their actions and perceptions.

In a photo titled "Return to Green Grass," a weary hiker framed by snow-capped Asian peaks throws his arms wide in visible relief at reaching lower altitudes. It's a deeply humane image of human frailty and strength, exhaustion and exhilaration, in which nature is neither an enemy nor backdrop, but something akin to a demanding and unpredictable lover.

In another meticulously composed image, a line of porters in Pakistan's Braldu Gorge inches along an arching mountain footpath. The drably dressed men blend into the rock formations like carvings, emphasizing their essential harmony with their surroundings. The visual tension created by the way the arched path slices through the picture plane underscores the delicate equilibrium between the enduring landscape and its temporal passengers.

Rowell never tried to turn nature into a pristine abstraction. He knew it was far too late to return to Eden. But he didn't passively accept the ecological violence being inflicted on the world, or the political violence inflicted on many of its inhabitants.

Midway through his career, he got into trouble with the Chinese government for photographing a group of Tibetan tribesmen reverently holding a photograph of the exiled Dalai Lama, the Buddhist leader, that he'd just presented to them. In 1990, he wrote an article about China's human rights and environmental abuses for the environmental activist group Greenpeace and also published a book, "My Tibet," that included essays by the Dalai Lama, winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize and foremost symbol of Tibetan independence.

The book was a significant measure of the distance Rowell had traveled, personally and politically, from his first trip to Tibet in 1981, when all he had wanted to do, he said, was record the beauty of the land. Environmental and human rights groups later would credit him for raising awareness of Tibet's afflictions.

In an "artist statement" posted on the Web site called Mountain Light, the gallery and multipurpose business that he and Barbara ran in Bishop, Calif., Rowell wrote that "my interest in photography did not begin with a burning desire to see the world through a camera. It evolved through an intense devotion to wilderness that eventually shaped all parts of my life and brought them together."

By letting his art follow his love of the natural world, and his moral conscience follow his art, Galen Rowell observed life from the high ground. By raising his vision he elevated himself and, by extension, us. Lucky us.

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