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Galen Rowell: A Legacy of Adventure

This jaw-dropping 1993 image of Rowell sums up his taste for adventure. Leaning casually on the rock face as if it were a street corner lamppost, he seems oblivious to the precarious nature of his perch on the edge of Yosemite Falls. This jaw-dropping 1993 image of Rowell sums up his taste for adventure. Leaning casually on the rock face as if it were a street corner lamppost, he seems oblivious to the precarious nature of his perch on the edge of Yosemite Falls.
© Galen Rowell / Mountain Light

Mountain Light and the Sierra Club honor the memory of the legendary photographer with a 287-page retrospective book.

For many armchair explorers around the world, Galen Rowell has provided a unique and unadulterated glimpse of Alaska, Tibet, Yosemite, Patagonia and many other places in between. No other photographer in the last century has been as prolific and proficient in documenting his expeditions, often in some of the most inaccessible and inhospitable environments in the world.

Rowell collaborated with the Sierra Club and National Geographic on projects that took him from the peaks of the Himalayas to the wild seas surrounding Antarctica. Through his awe-inspiring photography and prose, he single-handedly raised public consciousness about the need to preserve the sanctity of the world's last wild places.

Vision and artistry characterized Rowell's long career, which began in the 1960s and ended in August 2002, tragically and abruptly, when he and his wife, Barbara, perished in a small-plane accident. Their friends, Tom Reid, who piloted the plane, and Carol McAfee, also were killed in the crash.

This fall, Sierra Club Books releases "Galen Rowell: A Retrospective," a moving tribute that is considered a labor of love by all those who worked on it. The book features photographs by Rowell that highlight the breadth and depth of his works. It also includes essays and commentary from friends and colleagues, including Tom Brokaw, George Schaller, Frans Lanting, Robert Roper and Andy Grundberg.

A comfortable place to start

Even before the photography world learned of the passing of the Rowells, Sierra Club Books had initiated a retrospective collection of Galen's works, says Nicole Rowell Ryan, daughter of the late photographer. Although there were book offers from other publishing houses, Rowell's previous collaborations with Sierra Club Books provided a "comfortable place to start" for the project, which took a few years to complete.

"I worked with Sierra Club Books for the past several years in planning almost every aspect of this book — working alongside Sierra Club staff, our designer Jenny Barry and with Mountain Light staff to develop the concept, the layout and the packaging, select the images, select the essayists and assign special-feature authors," Ryan says. "It has been an incredible team effort to make this book a reality."

The team collaborated on the painstaking task of selecting the images for the book, says editor Linda Gunnarson. Out of thousands of images, the editorial team selected 300 photos, which were eventually narrowed down to the final 175 images included in the book, she says.

"In the realm of nature photography, Galen is one of the most important figures in the last century," Gunnarson says. "That's why, for those of us who worked on this project, it wasn't just another photography book. We wanted to capture the true essence of his life, vision and talent."

The book offers a broad view of the expanse of Rowell's skill and artistry. 

From a technical perspective, his impeccable sense of light and shadow is incorporated in all the images. "Most often, the lighting identifies a Galen Rowell image. It doesn't matter if it is a climbing photo, a portrait, an animal photo or a landscape; lighting is a special feature of most of my dad's images," Ryan says. "Even though all the types of his photography are so different, you can feel the Galen Rowell approach by seeing them as a collection in this book."

Incorporating recollections and insights from the Rowells' friends and colleagues, the book underscores the impact of his work on various photographic genres.

"It is not a biography and was not meant to be," Ryan says. "Having multiple contributors share their experiences and views really completes this as a legacy project. We wanted to share areas of his photography that some might not have been familiar with. Fans of my father's work come from very different areas of the photography world, and they do not always overlap. My father was one of the rare photographers who were successful in many areas."

The initial process of deciding how to organize the book was definitely challenging, Ryan says. "We knew we wanted this retrospective to cover what I call the evolution of my father's work, but we didn't want to just do a chronological collection of images," she explains. "Once we came up with the idea of breaking it up into the various genres of his work, we were able to identify the main sections and make it flow together."

Galen Rowell's early years as a young climbing photographer produced a body of work that was much different than the images from the latter part of his career, when his work evolved to focus on environmental and conservation issues. "It wasn't until much later that he was able to focus on creating visual landscapes purely for their artistic value," Ryan says, "as opposed to the earlier images that were more purpose-driven."

"We wanted to involve people who best knew him, who could tell the stories behind the photographs," says Gunnarson, who was overwhelmed by the support and enthusiasm of Rowell's colleagues and collaborators. Essayists include Andy Grundberg, who looks at Rowell's photography from the perspective of a professional photography critic, while Doug Robinson deals with Galen's early days as a groundbreaking climber and his development as an adventure photographer.

Publisher Jon Beckmann explains Rowell's significance as an adventure journalist, focusing on his skill as a writer. Noted biologist George Schaller addresses Galen's contributions to natural conservation, while John Ackerly, president of the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), discusses Rowell's commitment to the cause of Tibetan ecological and cultural preservation.

Conrad Anker explores the ways in which Rowell essentially created the modern genre of adventure photography and established a model that has been mimicked by numerous followers. Renowned nature photographer Frans Lanting discusses Rowell's gifts as a visionary artist and argues that Rowell was a modern transcendentalist.

An enduring legacy

Images and essays illustrate the phenomenal scale and range of Rowell's photographic talent, vision and boundless energy, says Justin Black, general manager and curator of Mountain Light Photography, the Bishop, Calif.-based company founded by the Rowells. The book excels in providing a complete perspective of Rowell's profound contributions to his craft.

"Very few people truly understand the full picture of what an unusually multitalented, driven, passionate and engaged person Galen Rowell was," Black says. "Most people who are familiar with him know him predominantly from a single point of view — either through following his climbing and mountaineering accomplishments, or his photography and photographic teaching, or the advocacy work that he did on behalf of the environment and various natural and cultural conservation efforts. They know him as the climber who photographed, or the photographer who climbed, or the environmentalist and humanitarian advocate who documented the places and people he cared about."

The retrospective book "goes a long way [toward] putting the pieces together," he adds. "I really believe that readers who thought they knew Galen will be in for some surprises."

Black began working with the Rowells in 1999 and considers himself very fortunate in his role in helping preserve their legacies.

Along with "Retrospective," Black is involved in several other tributes to his mentor through the Rowell Legacy Committee, a group of 21 friends, family members and colleagues who are dedicated to carrying on the Rowells' dreams. Together, the committee created the memorial Rowell Legacy Fund, which supports the annual Rowell Award for the Art of Adventure. The $15,000 award honors photographers whose accomplishments significantly benefit both the environment and the people who inhabit the wild lands of the world.

This May, the inaugural Rowell Award was presented to Jackson, Wyo., photographer Jimmy Chin for his efforts to save the endangered chiru antelope of Tibet. Chin, an experienced mountaineer and photographer, accompanied Rowell on his final expedition across Tibet's Chang Tang Plateau in 2002.

Another tribute, the Rowell Fund of Tibet, was created by ICT soon after the Rowells' deaths. This fall will mark the fourth round of grants for the fund, which raised nearly $100,000 in grants in the last two years to help improve the lives of Tibetans, according to the ICT web site.

In addition, Black and several other photographers — including Jack Dykinga, Macduff Everton, Frans Lanting, David Muench, John Shaw and Nevada Wier — are continuing Mountain Light's series of three- and three-and-a-half-day photographic workshops in Rowell's beloved Eastern Sierra region of California.

Catharsis and healing

All of the members of the book-publishing team, who worked closely together to bring "Retrospective" to life, consider the project a cathartic and rewarding experience, says Gunnarson. "The most challenging aspect of the process was putting the book together without Galen," he says. "Everyone who was involved in the process had an emotional investment — our most important goal was to create a book that truly reflected his work. We often asked ourselves, 'What would Galen want?'"

"Galen truly is an icon of inspiration to mountaineers, adventurers, photographers, con- ervationists, and lovers of high and wild places in general," Black says. "To me, he is a John Muir, Eric Shipton, Heinrich Harrer and Ansel Adams all rolled into one. Each achieved greatness because of the inspiration that they found through adventures in wild places, and that is certainly what motivated Galen to do the hard things and to be so prolific, enlightened and effective in every field he cared about."

For Nicole Rowell Ryan, working on the book was especially meaningful because "in many ways the process of developing this book really helped with the grieving and healing process," she says. "Many of the first communications with the contributors and first drafts brought me to tears. Their memories, their accolades and views were very bittersweet to share. It helped me reconnect with many people from my father's past and also allowed me to get to know many others, and helped [me] to look at his work in a completely different way."

Maileen Hamto
Story Author: Maileen Hamto

Maileen Hamto is a writer and editor based in Portland, Ore. (hamto.com). When not writing about entrepreneurship and small business, she follows her passion for photography.

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