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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Lessons Learned From Galen Rowell

Beyond his talents and his enduring and inspirational art, Galen Rowell was a great mentor to many intrepid outdoor photographers. We discuss a few of his most famous techniques and how you can apply his approach to your photography.

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Mountain ranges stand as some of the most magnificent geologic formations on our planet. Often, we're concerned about running too many magazine covers of mountains, but their iconic landforms and dependable dramatic light have made them the choice subject matter of Galen, Ansel Adams, David Muench and many others. I've heard photographers bemoan summer in the mountains, saying that they put their cameras away because the everyday, severe-clear skies are uninteresting. Galen's photography would counter that there's always alpenglow if one is willing to depart in the dark before dawn or linger long past sunset to the very last light. In the era of film, long exposures and reciprocity failure would do some dramatic things with the colors at the edges of day. One could argue that current camera sensors and processors have made photography in this low light even more possible and often more surprising. It never fails to amaze me when sharing sunsets with other tourists at well-known viewpoints how many of them leave right after the fire fades. Few, if any, wait it out for the next half hour—the Galen hour.

August 11 marks the 10-year anniversary of the deaths of Galen Rowell and his wife Barbara in a plane crash on approach to the Bishop, Calif., airport late that night. Galen was a founding contributor, columnist and mentor for Outdoor Photographer from the launch of the magazine in 1985 to the end of his life. His contributions to photography and the scope of his published works are well documented (see mountainlight.com). So much has happened in the world of professional and amateur photography over the past 10 years; a true paradigm shift changed everything except the fundamentals of seeing and capturing a remarkable photograph. We take the opportunity on this occasion to ponder some of the lessons of Galen in the most tangible sense. This isn't meant to overlook his more profound talents or trivialize his art. He was both an artist and a teacher, and the teacher was forthright and straightforward about the mundane secrets of creating lasting images. That's what made him so accessible to our readers. The operative word is mobile. It encapsulates his methodology then and represents the new freedoms that modern digital equipment—from formidable pro DSLRs to full-featured compacts to smartphones—has afforded us in much the same way that the advent of 35mm equipment buoyed a new era of extemporaneous photography beginning in the '30s and '40s.

We've all witnessed how the decades-spanning careers of professionals are ultimately distilled down to a few career-defining images. This is perhaps Galen's most famous photograph. His Mountain Light Gallery was a former bank in Bishop, Calif., and I can recall this print on display inside the vault. The photograph factored into my life in a very offbeat way. Several years ago, I had ventured into the Nubra Valley in the Indian Himalayas, near the borders of Pakistan and China. I had great hopes of photographing the Diskit Monastery and its treasures. Upon arrival, the very protective overseer monk forbade me to take photographs in the protector's room (where all the festival costumes and ceremonial items are stored). I was instantly frustrated and tempted to be irate, but knew that would be unproductive, so I let my wife and our guide chat it up with the monk. It was mentioned that we were friends with the man who took the famous photo of the rainbow over Potala Palace and that Galen also was a friend of the Dalai Lama. Immediately, the monk knew the photo and his entire mood toward us changed. I got what I wanted, and we finished the day sharing a cup of tea in the monk's quarters. Today, there's a temptation to use the low price of high-capacity memory cards to bang away like monkeys on typewriters hoping to stumble upon art. This photo and the story behind it (involving running a considerable distance at high altitude to line up the elements) speak to the never-out-of-fashion need to recognize quality over quantity. When traveling, pick your best opportunity and focus on it. Give yourself the time to get it right.

The desire to include ourselves in photos and videos has spawned a number of highly popular cameras and camera features designed to satisfy our egotistical need to record our being there or our stunts. Many DSLRs and compacts have swing-out LCDs. The GoPro HERO and Contour video cameras are common on many bike, ski and moto helmets. The iPhone and other smartphones have self-portrait modes. Galen made an art of the self-portrait, for the most part out of necessity. His photo adventures often found him above the treeline, and he knew the importance of showing scale in locations where boulders and slivers of granite could overwhelm the size of a person with their enormity. This photograph was used as a cover for Outdoor Photographer, and I can recall the involved story behind the shot whereby Galen conducted some considerable previsualization and preplanning to set it up, climb the pinnacle and be in position for the perfect rim-light effect, then a friend tripped the shutter. There was something about watching his shadow in relation to the camera that helped compose the shot, especially if a camera's self-timer is used. Galen employed this technique in more than one memorable photograph—all done without the benefit of instant LCD review.


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