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<-Back to WTN Archives Photographer's images captured beauty, adventure in nature
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World Tibet Network News

Published by the Canada Tibet Committee

Sunday, July 13, 2003

1. Photographer's images captured beauty, adventure in nature

By GORDON WILTSIE / Universal Press Syndicate

Shortly after long-forbidden Tibet opened to foreign travelers,
world-renowned adventure photographer Galen Rowell was riding on a mini-bus
toward Lhasa, the capital city.

Rain clouds darkened part of the sky. Suddenly he spotted the towering
Potala Palace, legendary home of the Dalai Lama. Not far away - but too
distant to fit into a meaningful picture - was a brilliant rainbow. His
companions still laugh at his explosive burst of energy as he grabbed pounds
of cameras and lenses and dashed at a full run out of sight at 12,000-foot
elevation, an altitude where many travelers can scarcely walk without
wheezing for breath.

No one laughed, however, when they finally saw the image he created, with
the palace right under the rainbow, perfectly capturing the wonder and power
of this sacred place. Many consider it to be one of the best photographs
ever taken of Tibet, as well as Mr. Rowell's signature photo.

Last August, Mr. Rowell and his business partner and wife, Barbara, died in
the crash of a charter plane near their home in Bishop, Calif. His
unexpected passing shocked countless outdoor enthusiasts, many of whom are
only now recognizing the lasting impact of his work.

More than any image-maker before him, Mr. Rowell used a 35mm camera, minimal
other equipment and boundless energy to create a unique sense of extremely
remote places and his beloved California. By the time of his death at age
62, he had photographed the people, scenery and animals of all seven
continents, including visits to both the North and South poles. His images
helped to foster the now-burgeoning adventure travel business and remain a
powerful force for conservation organizations.

Altogether he wrote and photographed more than a dozen books and innumerable
magazine articles, and published scores of calendars and posters. He and
Barbara also ran Mountain Light gallery in Bishop, where the walls continue
to glow with the super-saturated color of his images, as well as those of
other famous outdoor photographers.

Mr. Rowell was not only a magician of light and detail. He was also a gifted
educator, skilled at communicating his phenomenal technical skill through
lectures and books, several of which will very likely remain in print
indefinitely as instructional texts. He has left a legacy and a way of
looking at the world that will live on for decades. For all of these reasons
and more, some call him the heir-apparent to Ansel Adams.

"What impressed me most about Galen's art was the consistency and
faithfulness of his vision," says IMAX cinematographer David Breashears.
"You could look at a picture he took 20 years ago and one he took just
before he died and instantly know they were Galen's."

"Galen ... could photograph all aspects of adventure and travel with nearly
equal aplomb: landscape, wildlife, culture, high adventure, intimate natural
details, portraits, etc.," says Steve Werner, editor of Outdoor Photographer
magazine, for which Galen wrote a monthly column. "After all, he was a pro.
[But] he most excelled at the high and wild subject matter. Galen pursued
what interested him."

Mr. Rowell grew up in Berkeley, Calif., where his father was a college
professor and his mother a concert cellist. He started rock climbing at an
early age and soon was pioneering new routes up towering granite walls in
nearby Yosemite. He also wandered farther afield, and one of his favorite
places was the lesser-trammeled eastern Sierra Nevada above California's
spectacular Owens Valley. He began to consider this home, and a year and a
half before their deaths, he and Barbara moved there.

During seemingly rocket-propelled forays out of Berkeley, Mr. Rowell took
ever-improving pictures - not just of climbing, but of myriad panoramas and
natural moments. Even in his early days he seemed to need no sleep and was
always up well before dawn, his camera poised for some miracle of natural
lighting that might illuminate a scene he already had composed.

Indeed, over the years Mr. Rowell would become best known for his phenomenal
ability to put himself into the right place at just the right time to
capture supernatural colors and almost sacred illumination.

"Galen invented his own genre," says Jack Dykinga, a Pulitzer Prize-winning
photojournalist turned large-format landscape photographer. "By using 35mm
cameras instead of something bigger, some might say that he wasn't a
'photographer's photographer' in terms of design, composition and detail,
but he was definitely an outstanding adventure photojournalist."

Mr. Rowell first demonstrated this to a huge audience after a daring ascent
of Yosemite's Half Dome, his first assignment for National Geographic. His
images vividly conveyed the hard-core details of big wall climbing and
showed one of America's most famous national parks in a totally different
way. No way could Mr. Adams have shot such a story with his 8-by-10 view

But Mr. Rowell also had a more reflective side, which was often evidenced by
thoughts in his columns for Outdoor Photographer and the peaceful, radiant
landscape images that constitute the bulk of his most recent work. On
occasion he would wait hours - even days - for the perfect light to paint
his scenes.

What astonishes many of his peers the most, however, is how prolifically he
produced beautiful pictures that truly showed the wonders of our planet.

At its heart and soul, the essence of Mr. Rowell and his work was that he
loved doing it so much. Justin Black, manager of Mr. Rowell's photo library
and Mountain Light gallery, laughs when he describes how Mr. Rowell always
reacted when he got back a batch of film and started tearing through the

"He was like a little boy on Christmas Day," Mr. Black says.

Gordon Wiltsie is a mountaineer, polar explorer and photographer whose work
appears regularly in magazines, including National Geographic, Outside and
numerous other publications. His own pictures can be seen at www.alpenima

Articles in this Issue:
  1. Photographer's images captured beauty, adventure in nature
  2. Five-day Dharamsala world peace fest concludes
  4. A clear-eyed look at Tibet
  5. 16 Bodies Found at Landslide Site on Sichuan-Tibet Highway
  6. Sands of time run out for mandala

Other articles this month - WTN Index - Mail the WTN-Editors

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