Perceptions and Experience
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, January | February 1998

Many years ago, a wise geographer told me his theory that the extreme becomes the norm. A veteran of decades of college field instruction, Doug Powell explained how human perception can polarize information about the natural world into extremes. If you ask locals how cold it gets in winter, they'll usually tell you the all-time, record low temperature. If you ask how deep the snow gets, they'll hold their hand over their head to the height of the deepest snowfall ever, when they were three years old and three feet shorter.

Powell's Law is especially relevant to photography. We tend to search out extremes, even when our intention is to have them represent the normal in other people's minds. We choose the most perfect spot in a meadow, the meanest look on a captive wolf, the boldest angle on a mountain face, the most traditionally dressed person in a native culture, and the peak moment of a smile.

Let's face it: average looking pictures are boring. Are there exceptions? Not really. The more subtle a successful nature photograph appears, the more conscious effort has usually gone into making it look that way. Eliot Porter, the early master of large-format color nature photography, knew just how to compose and print his images to appeal to sensitive souls. He was an absolute stickler for detail from conception in his mind's eye to perfection in his hand-made dye transfers or color separations.

When he gave a presentation in his middle eighties for National Geographic photographers, I overheard a group of the top shakers and movers trying to figure out what all the fuss was about. They agreed that they hadn't seen a single image that an editor would pull for a select for a National Geographic story. Since hundreds of selects are pulled for stories with ten photos, the criticism was harsh, yet heartfelt.

What was overlooked was that Eliot Porter never went around the country giving slide shows. He had made an exception to share his work in a strange format with an esteemed group of his peers. His exquisitely detailed, large-format imagery that fascinates the eye when viewed up close had been copied onto 35mm dupe film to be projected onto a distant auditorium screen. Thus his stylistic extremes became virtually invisible, even to an unusually sophisticated photographic audience.

So it is with all successful photography. Subtleties are carefully orchestrated so that viewers remain unaware of how intentional they really are. Only when photographers try to copy a remarkable landscape image that they have seen do they perceive unique elements that were not, at first, apparent. This discovery rarely happens through the viewfinder; it descends like a dark cloud when the new image is compared to the one that first drew our eye.

How did we fool ourselves? We mentally compared an incomplete image stored in our memory with the finely detailed scene before us. As soon as a few characteristics appeared the same, our perception jumped to the conclusion: "That's it!"

The ability to recognize a pattern from limited bits of random information is what separates brains from computers. Every animal needs to make quick decisions based on limited information. An insect assumes that any point light source is the sun. A rocket scientist assumes that a set of curved lines in a newspaper cartoon is the face of President Clinton. The public, through photography, assumes that Eskimos live in igloos, Hawaii is always sunny, wild buffalo can be safely approached for point-and-shoot snapshots. Powell's Law. No wonder people assume that nature photography is simply having the right equipment in the right place at the right time.

Successful photographers avoid becoming passive victims of fickle extremes and norms. They actively tune into them to provoke a predictable emotional response. Deceptively simple images can download cascading crystal kaleidoscopes of stored emotional personal experience. For example, Alfred Eisenstaedt's famous image of a sailor kissing a woman on the street would fall flat as a fresh image in today's marketplace. Its universal appeal was related to the extreme of its time: World War II. Ansel Adams' iconographic images reflect the pre-war heightened reality of national parks as pristine playgrounds with no hint of human impact.

Extremes become norms in photographs because of yet another assumption of overall intentionality. Despite our somewhat contradictory penchant to overlook details, we assume that a human being is trying to tell us something within the framing of a photograph, whereas if we were to witness the real scene we would not jump to such an extreme conclusion. Most often, this assumption causes well-intentioned photographs to fail because of distracting, inadvertent content. This tendency to rush to judgment can also be consciously manipulated toward considerable rewards. The images published here were shot within minutes of each other and have produced tens of thousands of dollars of stock photography income for me, yet I have far more dramatic rainbow images that have never sold.

Yosemite, like World War II, is a shared public icon charged with far more complex emotions than in the early days when Ansel Adams sought out singular beauty. I have a rainbow image similar to the three shown here, but without human presence. It represents the pristine beauty of cliffs, waterfalls, and green vegetation, but I've had more success selling the one that has a spot of natural light on a lone figure in the wilds. It triggers the romantic notion of enjoying a day hike without a pack„a positive visitor experience.

The second image of a hiker descending with a heavy pack has been published scores of times to represent the rugged extreme of hiking the 211-mile John Muir Trail, though I have no idea if the person hiked the whole trail or just the last miles of it. The third image has the greatest number of sales. Waiting for a moment when a large number of people were beneath the rainbow, I created an image used to illustrate overcrowding in our national parks.

None of the assumed iconic meanings of these images reflect my experience at the time. The popular trail was neither overcrowded nor particularly wild, being close to the noisy floor of Yosemite Valley. Yet by consciously searching out several extremes of one situation, I was able to illustrate a variety of norms that were already embedded in the minds of my audience.

Commercial success, however, is not my ultimate goal in nature photography. True satisfaction comes from a multiple convergence of Powell's Law. Not only should an image illustrate an extreme chosen to echo one already firmly embedded in the public consciousness, but also it should mirror one more grounded in reality: the photographer's personal experience. All too much of today's published editorial photography is contrived to appear to be something it isn't. It serves the marketplace, but not the soul of the artists who make it. The rare images I've made where everything comes together mean far more to me than others that may have produced greater income because of perceived extremes that were not really my true experience.

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