The Great Artists

Galen Rowell: The Great Artists, Part 8

Galen Rowell was a famous nature and outdoor adventure photographer, as well as an accomplished mountaineer. An avid mountain climber from a young age, he turned this love into a remarkable career in photography and mountaineering. Here is his story.

    Born August 23, 1940, Galen Avery Rowell was a well-known wilderness photographer and adventure photojournalist. He was born in Oakland, California to Edward Rowell and Margaret Avery. At a young age, his parents introduced him to photography, and it became a lifelong passion for him. He also became interested in outdoor adventures very early in life, beginning as a mountain climber when he was only ten years old. Galen never trained formally as a photographer, but his amateur work was so exemplary and high quality, as well as unique, that he was able to begin doing it as his full-time career when he was only thirty-two years old.

    His passion for the outdoors continued for the rest of his life. Initially, he began taking pictures of his outdoor adventures to share with family and friends, so they could feel like they went on the adventures with him. Galen graduated high school in 1958, and went to the University of California at Berkeley for four years, but dropped out without graduating. Instead, he opened a small automotive business and began working in that full-time while taking photographs in his spare time, when he went on his outdoor adventures.

    Feeling unfulfilled in the automotive business, Galen sold it in 1972 and began working full-time as a photographer. He really put himself out there and hussled for his work, so that the next year, he was able to sell his first major work to National Geographic as their cover photo for one of their issues. This assignment came when he was asked by a photographer friend to assist him on an assignment for National Geographic, but was called away during it. Galen finished the assignment on his own, and added his own flair to it by suggesting a climb of the Half Dome at Yosemite National Park. Galen completed and documented this climb on his own, and it became National Geographic’s cover photo.

    National Geographic was so impressed with the photo they turned it into a story totally separate from the one of the friends Galen was originally assisting. This is how Galen got his real start in the world of professional photography. He pioneered a new type of photography that blended his love of taking pictures with his love of outdoor adventures. In Galen’s photography, he was not merely an observer of what he photographed but also an active participant in the adventures he documented. This was a first for commercial photography.

    Galen used a 35 mm Nikon camera for most of his career, mostly because they were easily portable and known for their durability. Since he was taking his cameras into some wild and rough environments, he needed cameras that could stand up to those demands. He also preferred to use color slide film, starting with Kodak Kodachrome, and then switching to Fuji Velvia when it was introduced in 1990.

    Galen even developed his own, unique type of filter. It was a graduated neutral density filter, which he used because it extended the dynamic range he was able to capture on film. He initially created these filters in the field, cobbling them together with whatever he had with him. Eventually, he had them commercially manufactured by Singh-Ray, and they were sold to the public using his name. Galen’s filters became the standard in the industry for using with high contrast scenes.

    Galen won the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography in 1984. Over the course of his career, he did photographic assignments for a variety of well-known and popular publications, many of which were prestigious. Galen’s work can be found in Life Magazine, Outdoor Photographer, National Geographic, and more.

    He was particularly interested in looking for and photographing optical phenomena in the natural, wild world. He looked for the best camera position at the optimal moment, and his photographs are recognized for their fast-changing light and environmental conditions, as well as their energy. A Galen Rowell photograph is obviously taken by someone who loves what he does, which is having outdoor adventures. He even wrote three books on the subject of questing for the perfect outdoor image. The Sierra Club also published a retrospective on his work.

    In fact, in addition to being a photographer, Galen was quite a writer. He wrote on subjects he was passionate about, such as mountaineering, environmental issues, photography, human visual cognition, and more. In addition to dozens of articles he published during his life, he also published eighteen books. One of them, In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, is considered a classic in the genre of mountaineering literature. He also wrote one of the best-selling how-to photography books of all time, 1986’s Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape.

    Being passionate about the environment, Galen also advocated for it, serving on the board of numerous organizations and groups. Some of the groups which he advised and served were the Committee of 100 for Tibet and the World Wildlife Fund.

    Galen was married twice and had two children, a son, and a daughter. He and his second wife, Barbara, were killed in a plane crash on August 11, 2002. The pilot, Tom Reid, and Reid’s friend Carol McAffee were also killed in the crash. Galen and his wife were returning home from a photography workshop in Alaska. The plane crashed a little after one a.m., and the National Transportation Safety Board later determined Reid did not have enough training hours in his flight training to be transporting passengers after dark.

    He left behind a large body of nature photography work, as well as a long list of firsts in the outdoor adventure world. He was the first person to climb to the summit of Cholatse, which was the last major peak in the region of Mount Everest. He was the first to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro in a day. And, he was the oldest person to climb El Capitan in Yosemite in a day, when he was fifty-seven years old. These and many other firsts in the natural and mountaineering world, along with his photography, make Galen Rowell a name to remember and a pioneer in the nature photography field.

    About the author

    Will Moneymaker

    Will has been creating photographs and exploring his surroundings through his lens since 2000. Follow along as he shares his thoughts and adventures in photography.