“Galen Rowell was a man who went into the mountains, into the desert, to the edge of the sea, to the last great wild places in the world to be absorbed by their grace and grandeur. That is what he did for himself. For the rest of us, he shared his vision with—click—the release of a shutter, creating photographs as timeless, as stunning, and as powerful as nature itself.”
Born in 1940 in Oakland and raised in Berkeley, California, to a college professor and a concert cellist, Galen was introduced to wilderness before he could walk. He began climbing mountains at the age of ten on Sierra Club outings, and at sixteen made his first roped climbs in Yosemite Valley. Over the next fifteen years he logged more than a hundred first ascents of new routes there and in the High Sierra backcountry.
Taking photographs began as a way to share his high and wild world with friends and family. In 1972 he became a full-time photographer after selling his small automotive business. Less than a year later he did his first major magazine assignment–a cover story for National Geographic.
Galen pioneered a special brand of participatory wilderness photography in which the photographer transcends being an observer with a camera to become an active participant in the image being photographed. His emotional connection to his subject matter came across clearly in his early mountain climbing photographs that first drew public recognition, but his landscape imagery, often made on the same adventures, has proven even more evocative because of the visual power he created from what he described as “a continuing pursuit in which the art becomes the adventure, and vice-versa.” In 1984 he received the Ansel Adams Award for his contributions to the art of wilderness photography. In 1992 Galen received a National Science Foundation Artists and Writers Grant to photograph Antarctica.
According to The Washington Post, “Galen Rowell may be the foremost practitioner of that hybrid art, photojournalism.” With the mobility allowed by 35mm equipment, he turned his own active participation into a hidden fourth dimension that made his work come alive.
No scene was taken for granted; the principles of action photography were applied to his landscapes and vice versa. His favorite landscapes feature unexpected convergence of light and form, seemingly unrepeatable moments captured by combining imagination and action with a clear understanding of outdoor optical phenomena.
He called these images “dynamic landscapes,” and his quest for them is documented in his bestselling 1986 book, Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape, recently released in tenth-anniversary hardcover and softcover editions. His favorite images of people were those that show them in delicate harmony with a carefully selected part of their environment.
In his lifetime, Galen produced seventeen other large-format books of photos and text, all pictured and described in our bookstore. Images from his recent works Bay Area Wild, North America the Beautiful, and Galen Rowell’s Inner Game of Outdoor Photography can be seen in the online gallery.
In the last twenty years of his life, Galen made over thirty-five journeys to the mountains of Nepal, India, Pakistan, China, Tibet, Africa, Alaska, Canada, Siberia, New Zealand, Norway, and Patagonia. Besides participating on major expeditions to Mount Everest, K2 and Gasherbrum II (not to the summit), he made the first one-day ascents of Mount McKinley in Alaska and Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa as well as first ascents of Himalayan peaks such as Cholatse and the Great Trango Tower. He also made the highest complete ascent and descent of a mountain on skis on Mustagh Ata (24,757 feet), as well as a 285-mile winter traverse of the Karakoram Himalaya.
When not doing assignments for Life, National Geographic, Outdoor Photographer, or other publications, Rowell was likely to be found either writing at his Bishop home, climbing in the High Sierra, working at Mountain Light Gallery or hiking and photographing with his wife Barbara.
EASTERN SIERRA MEMORIES: The wonders of the Eastern Sierra with Galen and Barbara Rowell. WATCH THE VIDEO.