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Photographer's Images Captured Beauty, Adventure in Nature

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2003/07/13; July 13, 2003.]

By GORDON WILTSIE / Universal Press Syndicate

Shortly after long-forbidden Tibet opened to foreign travelers, world-renowned adventure photographer Galen Rowell was riding on a mini-bus toward Lhasa, the capital city.

Rain clouds darkened part of the sky. Suddenly he spotted the towering Potala Palace, legendary home of the Dalai Lama. Not far away - but too distant to fit into a meaningful picture - was a brilliant rainbow. His companions still laugh at his explosive burst of energy as he grabbed pounds of cameras and lenses and dashed at a full run out of sight at 12,000-foot elevation, an altitude where many travelers can scarcely walk without wheezing for breath.

No one laughed, however, when they finally saw the image he created, with the palace right under the rainbow, perfectly capturing the wonder and power of this sacred place. Many consider it to be one of the best photographs ever taken of Tibet, as well as Mr. Rowell's signature photo.

Last August, Mr. Rowell and his business partner and wife, Barbara, died in the crash of a charter plane near their home in Bishop, Calif. His unexpected passing shocked countless outdoor enthusiasts, many of whom are only now recognizing the lasting impact of his work.

More than any image-maker before him, Mr. Rowell used a 35mm camera, minimal other equipment and boundless energy to create a unique sense of extremely remote places and his beloved California. By the time of his death at age 62, he had photographed the people, scenery and animals of all seven continents, including visits to both the North and South poles. His images helped to foster the now-burgeoning adventure travel business and remain a powerful force for conservation organizations.

Altogether he wrote and photographed more than a dozen books and innumerable magazine articles, and published scores of calendars and posters. He and Barbara also ran Mountain Light gallery in Bishop, where the walls continue to glow with the super-saturated color of his images, as well as those of other famous outdoor photographers.

Mr. Rowell was not only a magician of light and detail. He was also a gifted educator, skilled at communicating his phenomenal technical skill through lectures and books, several of which will very likely remain in print indefinitely as instructional texts. He has left a legacy and a way of looking at the world that will live on for decades. For all of these reasons and more, some call him the heir-apparent to Ansel Adams.

"What impressed me most about Galen's art was the consistency and faithfulness of his vision," says IMAX cinematographer David Breashears. "You could look at a picture he took 20 years ago and one he took just before he died and instantly know they were Galen's."

"Galen ... could photograph all aspects of adventure and travel with nearly equal aplomb: landscape, wildlife, culture, high adventure, intimate natural details, portraits, etc.," says Steve Werner, editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine, for which Galen wrote a monthly column. "After all, he was a pro. [But] he most excelled at the high and wild subject matter. Galen pursued what interested him."

Mr. Rowell grew up in Berkeley, Calif., where his father was a college professor and his mother a concert cellist. He started rock climbing at an early age and soon was pioneering new routes up towering granite walls in nearby Yosemite. He also wandered farther afield, and one of his favorite places was the lesser-trammeled eastern Sierra Nevada above California's spectacular Owens Valley. He began to consider this home, and a year and a half before their deaths, he and Barbara moved there.

During seemingly rocket-propelled forays out of Berkeley, Mr. Rowell took ever-improving pictures - not just of climbing, but of myriad panoramas and natural moments. Even in his early days he seemed to need no sleep and was always up well before dawn, his camera poised for some miracle of natural lighting that might illuminate a scene he already had composed.

Indeed, over the years Mr. Rowell would become best known for his phenomenal ability to put himself into the right place at just the right time to capture supernatural colors and almost sacred illumination.

"Galen invented his own genre," says Jack Dykinga, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist turned large-format landscape photographer. "By using 35mm cameras instead of something bigger, some might say that he wasn't a 'photographer's photographer' in terms of design, composition and detail, but he was definitely an outstanding adventure photojournalist."

Mr. Rowell first demonstrated this to a huge audience after a daring ascent of Yosemite's Half Dome, his first assignment for National Geographic. His images vividly conveyed the hard-core details of big wall climbing and showed one of America's most famous national parks in a totally different way. No way could Mr. Adams have shot such a story with his 8-by-10 view cameras.

But Mr. Rowell also had a more reflective side, which was often evidenced by thoughts in his columns for Outdoor Photographer and the peaceful, radiant landscape images that constitute the bulk of his most recent work. On occasion he would wait hours - even days - for the perfect light to paint his scenes.

What astonishes many of his peers the most, however, is how prolifically he produced beautiful pictures that truly showed the wonders of our planet.

At its heart and soul, the essence of Mr. Rowell and his work was that he loved doing it so much. Justin Black, manager of Mr. Rowell's photo library and Mountain Light gallery, laughs when he describes how Mr. Rowell always reacted when he got back a batch of film and started tearing through the boxes.

"He was like a little boy on Christmas Day," Mr. Black says.

Gordon Wiltsie is a mountaineer, polar explorer and photographer whose work appears regularly in magazines, including National Geographic, Outside and numerous other publications. His own pictures can be seen at http://www.alpenimage.com

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