Thoughts for the Millennium
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, January | February 2000

My father, a philosopher who lived into his nineties, mused that he was born into the horse-and-buggy era and lived to see astronauts land on the Moon. He hoped that this would prove more significant than Eisenhower's avowal of the same years as spanning the gulf between the musket and the hydrogen bomb. So do I.

My father's revelation was about so much more than transportation. As a nature photographer I recognize that the single photograph that has most changed our worldview was basically a snapshot that captured the highlight of my father's later years. Colonel William Anders lifted his camera to the window in 1968 to capture Earthrise over the surface of the Moon. That vision of a tiny, fragile Earth without political boundaries has profoundly changed our self-image. Among other things, the fine still photograph shot on a Hasselblad has proven far more enduring than the video coverage of any of the historic lunar Apollo missions that followed. Why? For one thing, the view back to Earth evokes a more passionate response than a replay of moving footage of stepping on the Moon. Each time I see the Earthrise photograph, I contemplate something different, something new, combining memories of my own life experiences with the image before my eyes.

So it is for all successful nature photographs. They fail unless they create fresh wonder and passion in the mind of the beholder. As the millennium turns, my goal continues to be to use my photographs and words to celebrate the enduring natural heritage of our planet and further the kind of passion that turns people toward stewardship. However idealistic these words sound, there's a practical side to my philosophy as well. Of course I'll still sell a Sierra sky for the background of an Isuzu ad. To do so takes almost none of my time and gives me the money to invest in projects I really care about. Isuzus are going to sell with or without my sky, and my participation would not cause anyone who was not already so inclined to buy one and drive it across a mountain meadow. Ask me to shoot an assignment for Isuzu's ad agency showing a vehicle sloshing ankle-deep through such a meadow, even if it's proved to me to be on private property and mitigated by the planting of a billion trees in Brazil, and I'll say no at any price. That ad would create impact, as do many travel stories that tout wild and exotic locations without promoting environmental awareness about them.

Stock sales for publications and gallery sales of exhibit prints have enabled me to spend much of the last decade doing book projects of my choice. Poles Apart: Parallel Visions of the Arctic and the Antarctic created broad awareness of our last, vast wildernesses. My Tibet, written with the Dalai Lama, created similar awareness of the natural and cultural heritage that is fast disappearing at the hands of the Chinese occupation. Bay Area Wild celebrated the preservation of vast urban wildlands surrounding San Francisco both visually in terms of photographs and by the written word in terms of passionate individuals who have worked to create over 200 natural preserves within 40 miles of the city. The book has also had a metaphorical impact on potential activists in other metropolitan areas around the world. My most recent title, Living Planet, with photographs by myself, Frans Lanting, and David Doubilet, celebrates and documents a whole new approach to preserving the Earth's biodiversity by designating the "Global 200" bioregions that best contain all the natural links.

I may never make a single image as powerful as Bill Anders' Earthrise, but what keeps me trying in this seemingly paleolithic medium of still images shot on color transparency film is the realization of just how powerful the medium remains, despite IMAX films, video, the internet, satellite phones with modems to send instant digital imagery, and all the other modern gadgetry devoted to simulating real-time experience.

Early on, I came to believe that the closer a medium comes to virtual reality about the natural world, the more it guarantees a high degree of aesthetic loss. There's good reason why the subject of a highly successful CD done by Bill Gates' Corbis Corporation was a tour through an art gallery, where the experience is actually just a technical re-creation of viewing two-dimensional flat art.

Still photography done with integrity continues to create the finest bridge between art created for leisure-time contemplation and documentary validation of personal experience. I decided nearly 40 years ago never to become involved in motion pictures because even low-budget documentaries always seem to have a serious effect on the very experiences they seek to capture. My favorite still images are those that capture a special moment in my own experience while allowing me to move on spontaneously, without a script, a crew, or an onus to come back with a preconceived story. In the years that I did many assignments for National Geographic, those of us who were contracted by story, rather than being on staff, were free to sell our outtakes 60 days after the selected photos appeared in the magazine. I learned not to be sad when what I thought were my best pictures didn't make the layout. That meant that other images I shot fit the preconceived story idea of an adventure, a culture, or a creature, better than many single images that came about through serendipity. Instead of ending up "on the cutting room floor," these images have often become my most cherished, published and sought-after works. Other National Geographic photographers have had similar experiences. I'm worried, however, about the direction of still photography in the new millennium.

Postmodern exploration and adventure involve instant imagery on commercial websites to provoke the response of a global audience while participants are still in the field. Magazines like Outside emulate the child-with-his-first-camera look of hasty images with blurred subjects and tilted horizons. Frankly, I don't get it. I love what Ernst Haas, Frans Lanting, and Art Wolfe have done with artistically blurred motion, but imitating the limitations of low-quality imagery shot by inexperienced photographers using fine film and camera gear leaves me cold.

These thoughts draw me inexorably toward more implications of the new millennium on photography. Toward the end of the last one, humanity began to address the tragedy of the Third World, in which deprivation of food, education, and proper living conditions greatly limited human potential. The new one is opening with the ongoing tragedy of the Fourth World, in which deprivation of the meaning of life is caused by too much artificial sensory input, rather than too few amenities. Movies, TV, computer games, the internet, and yes, even this magazine take people away from the primary visual experience that ruled human existence until recently. Without a sense of order and beauty derived from real-time, real-world experience, we can expect to witness a continual upping of the ante of "senseless" acts. There's a balance needed, but in any case, the visual illusions we call photographs are not about to go away anytime soon.

The mission of nature photographers is not unlike that of Colonel Anders in 1968. He was out there on the edge, the sensing element for humanity. He brought back an image that showed us all to be vulnerable passengers on tiny spaceship Earth. We need to be constantly reminded that we have the potential to annihilate each other, as all too many of us are now doing on every continent except Antarctica, or to steward our threatened craft. Unless the new millennium sees environmental restoration of our air, land, oceans, freshwaters, and a human population limited to the carrying capacity of our deteriorating habitat, our pursuit of images that show the natural beauty of our planet will ultimately be futile.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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