Bragging Rights
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, November 2001

A recent Time cover story compared the excesses of today’s children to those of the Me generation in which I began my lifelong pursuit of outdoor photography. The surveys of today’s kids seemed almost self-evident. Two-thirds of parents believe their children define their self-worth in terms of possessions, with most preferring “to go to a shopping mall rather than go hiking.” Computers give this generation far more access to information than ever before, “along with the ability to share it and twist it.”

It’s little wonder, I thought to myself, that so many of the children parents drag through my photo gallery openly express doubt about the reality of my nature images. They’re aware that many of the images they’ve been exposed to in films, magazines and posters never looked that way in front of the camera. But they’re unaware of how a genuine wild scene in magical light might appear before their own eyes.

Disparities between then and now seemed distinct until I read on and recognized the common ground between what over-civilized people of every generation have sought when they return to their natural habitat with a camera in hand.

I started taking nature photographs to verify my wildest visions to those who had not been there to watch the sunset from the top of Half Dome after three days climbing up the face or to see that momentary beam of sunrise part the clouds above a dirt road in the Eastern Sierra. Back in the 1960s, no one questioned the reality of those original Kodachrome slides projected on my living-room wall. But we sure questioned a whole lot of other apparent realities.

The Time story quoted Wade Horn of the national Department of Health and Human Services to say that my generation “spent the 1950s being spoiled, spent the 1960s having a decade-long temper tantrum because the world was not precisely as they wanted it to be, spent the 1970s having the best sex and drugs they could find, the 1980s acquiring things and the 1990s trying to have the most perfect children… because they wanted to have bragging rights.”

Are my nature photographs born of these social pressures? Are they merely valuable possessions that define my self-worth? Or are they more personally related, like my children and grandchildren? If so, did I really create them to enlighten future generations about the need to preserve the Earth? Or did I do it for “bragging rights”?

Hard questions. An enlightened critic might look beyond the images themselves and the individual artist to open the public’s eyes toward a broader generational vision. That might begin to answer what over-civilized people truly seek when they return to the wilds with a camera.

Early in my career, I recall my instant aversion to a failed-photographer-turned-magazine-editorÕs comment that my photos were little more than a visual diary to be crafted by his staff into a creative presentation for their readership. I resented his implication of being a mere content provider. If that were my role, I would never have written illustrated articles, published books, served on environmental boards, or become a columnist for this magazine. I would have shot what would sell best through my stock agents, with bragging rights limited to when they sold the occasional magazine cover or full-page dog food ad.

There’s no denying bragging rights play a role in my photography and the work of every other successful photographer with whom IÕve discussed the matter. To deny your ego is to fail to communicate emotion through your images. Without that, even I prefer perusing strip malls over photographic exhibits.

In my 1986 book, Mountain Light, I quoted a friend from the 1960s who wouldn’t climb with anyone who carried a camera. His reason was a variation on the magazine editorÕs theme. He experienced a gnawing discomfort every time he saw a slide show of a climb he had been on. The moments when the photographer had been positioned to click the shutter didn’t match the high points of his memory. He climbed for the spiritual reward, which emanated from the accumulated memories of his peak moments in the natural world. Acknowledging how powerfully photographs become ingrained into memory, he didnÕt want “the precious memories of his climbs being supplanted by the seemingly random moments recorded in someone else’s photographs.”

I didn’t name Chuck Pratt because I didn’t want to violate his confidence or have his notoriety as one of the greatest Yosemite climbers overpower my message. Thirty-four years passed after he objected to my Instamatic 500 being aimed at him on Half Dome before we discussed the matter again. Driving to an event in Yosemite together, he told me that he had become a photographer and finally understood what I was about in life. He still refrained from climbing pictures, choosing instead to shoot, but never publish, weird candid images of the aberrant human condition that looked like what Dianne Arbus might have shot in color. He complimented me for coming closer to matching his visions of what climbing was all about than anyone else over the years, but not close enough for him to try his hand and risk disappointment. Last fall, Chuck died in his sleep in Asia.

When I grabbed a copy of Mountain Light off my mantle to reread what I had written about Chuck’s philosophy, it happened to be the one I had inscribed to my late mother, Òwho first showed me Mountain Light and taught me to revel in it.” Her vision remains alive in me and in the images that I continue to try to match to my peak experiences in nature. If the best of the lot have evolved into valuable external possessions related to my sense of self-worth, so be it. How lucky I am to have these tangible objects that are inextricably linked to my life experiences and what I know about my planet.

In one way or another, all outdoor photographers pursue variations on this theme of communicating what is most meaningful to them about the natural world. Some generate self-conscious inward visions that attempt to reflect on the meaning of their own lives, while others focus outward on landscapes and living things apart from our hyper-civilized modern existence.

Our yearning to sense our place in a wild world we no longer inhabit is underscored by the way we choose to include or avoid manmade objects in our images. An old log cabin can merge into a photograph in a way that makes us imagine its owner living in tune with the natural world, while an equally well executed photograph of a mobile home in the same place would not. Pavement and power wires detract from the universal message, while trails, dirt roads, horses, and even mountain bikes can tune us into the various pathways people choose to get in touch with their roots.

After that decade-long temper tantrum of the 1960s when my generation refused to value progress and material worth over the demise of natural values, it’s no coincidence that outdoor photography blossomed. Nature photographs are a form of portraiture. They show us faces of life on the living planets we inhabit. As the great nature writer Barry Lopez puts it, “A photographer seeks intimacy with the world and then endeavors to share it. Inherent in that desire is a love of humanity.… In some way, this is our purpose with each other.”

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