Twenty years ago, I wrote a proposal for a collaboration on an Alaskan photo book to the renowned non-fiction author, John McPhee. In Encounters with the Archdruid, he had described how the twentieth century's greatest conservationist, David Brower, transformed an exhibit of landscape photographs by Ansel Adams into a 1960 book that began the legendary Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series. These were the first finely reproduced nature photography books in America.
In my heartfelt letter, I expressed awe for the accuracy and eloquence of Archdruid as well as Coming Into the Country, McPhee's bestseller about Alaska. After mentioning Brower as my lifetime neighbor, Sierra Club as my publisher of a recent photo book, and Alaska as a major subject in my extensive photo collection, I boldly concluded that our destinies were converging. In the grand tradition of merging prose from a John Muir or a Henry David Thoreau with photographs from an Ansel Adams or an Eliot Porter, why not illustrate the Alaskan writings of John McPhee with the photography of Galen Rowell?
Months passed without an answer. Then a scrawled note arrived expressing interest and a concern. While I had eagerly described how closely my photographs would parallel his prose as making for a great book, McPhee was downright wary that we had seen the same places, talked to some of the same people and shared the same feelings. He didn't want photographs overprinting his "word pictures." In other words, his finely honed words should create a primary mental image in the minds of readers that would not be overpowered or altered by a photograph of the same person doing the same thing.
Here, succinctly, was the difference between timely journalism, where documentary photographs are welcome validation, and enduring prose that leaves enough unsaid for the imagination, created over months or years. Similarly, the essence of photojournalism is to freeze a moment the first time around, rarely with a second chance (photo ops excepted).
Very few of my top landscape photographs represent my initial interaction with a subject. My most enduring photographs almost always come from repeat visits to scenes I feel passionate about. Though top landscape photographs often involve unrepeatable moments, when later viewed as art rather than news, they transcend events before the lens to open a window on the world view of the creator behind the lens.
Some documentary photojournalists deny this separation exists because they, too, feel immersed in their subject. I agree that this clearly came across during the heyday of Life and National Geographic, but for the lucky few who had those photo essays published decades ago and far fewer today. Having done many assignments for both magazines, I know all too well that those days are all but gone. Life is dead and National Geographic sports ever fewer of the candid images that created its legend and ever more controlled or contrived situations as budget cuts have shrunk the unstructured time photographers once had with their subjects. Timeless landscape photography, once a core element of the magazine's success story in its visual diffusion of geographical knowledge, has taken a back seat to timely journalism. In spite of this, the magazine holds much of its hallowed aura by maintaining consciously separate narratives of texts and photos with extended captions, unlike the general media.
A great landscape photograph needs to stand on its own, giving enough information to draw viewer interest, but leaving enough visually unsaid to create a sense of intrigue, the same kind of "need to know" that hooks a person to watch a TV drama or read a mystery. It's a very different thing from a picture in a textbook, a frame in a movie, or a scan on a website. By itself or as part of an exhibit or book, it awakens an internal narrative instead of following an external one, entering our consciousness like a McPhee word picture.
Back in 1979, I took McPhee's concern to heart and spent months of extra field time immersing myself in Alaskan imagery that would evoke a sense of the place and its inhabitants without overprinting his exact descriptions. Sierra Club Books published Alaska: Images of the Country in 1980, and it remains in print today.
The great landscape photographers of the past had no choice but to use cameras with slow manual settings, choosing large-format to assure image quality. In that slower-paced era of slower films and lenses, they often spent months in the wilds burdened by their impedimenta to bring back a few exquisite compositions.
When Leica 35mm rangefinders were introduced in the twenties, their ease of use made them the rage until it became apparent that hand-held photographs made in rushed candid situations usually lacked the enduring fine-art quality of larger format work. Gallery curators shunned 35mm.
n the forties, Popular Photography described the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson as "a vindication of the miniature camera." He became known as the master of the decisive moment for his carefully composed, technically superb street photography achieved with a Leica rangefinder and a single lens.
When I began 35mm photography in the sixties, the adage of photojournalism was "ƒ8 and be there." That didn't work for landscape photography, where I found it to be more like "ƒ16 and be here," present in the moment and coming from the heart, rather than "out there" perceiving events in a world apart.
The current adage for photojournalists is more like "F5 and be there." Forget that ƒ8 compromise of old when a Nikon F5 can make instant decisions for you from ƒ1.4 to fƒ2 using sophisticated exposure algorithms and auto-bracketing. I've used the F5 with great success for wildlife, sports, and travel, but its bulk limits my mobility for the kind of landscape photography I most enjoy: moving rapidly in the wilds, often with a single body and lens, to a position previously scouted for magic-hour light.
I'm hooked on the creative freedom of state-of-the-art lightweight 35mm gear, though most top landscape photographers continue to shoot view cameras. My current counterpart of Cartier-Bresson's Leica is Nikon's new N80, about 40 percent lighter than an F100 with most of the same sophisticated features. Designed to be an entry-level SLR, it's a tool that belongs in the war chest of every Nikon-shooting outdoor pro. In a world with less free time and far more competition for unique photographs, it fits almost every situation where I might otherwise not carry an SLR camera.
I don't think twice about grabbing the flyweight 18.2-ounce body to take with me on a run before dawn when the light seems promising. The stars were still out last week as I headed up a steep trail in Berkeley's Tilden Park behind my home with an N80, 18mm lens, two ND grad filters, and a little Gitzo 01 tripod. Total weight: 4 pounds.
As the sky turned pink over the Golden Gate, I stopped amidst wildflowers in peak bloom that I had previously scouted. Making the photo that appears here was casual using auto-bracketing, Matrix metering, and a 2-second self-timer delay to maximize sharpness on Fuji Velvia at ƒ16 with exposures around 1/2 second, while I handheld the grad filter. The photo would not have been improved with an F5 on a bigger tripod, nor would you respond to it more in this magazine had it been shot with a view camera. It's a wordless answer to why I spend more than 100 days a year revisiting places I feel passionate about.