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Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape

Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape. Galen Rowell. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1986. 224 pages, 80 color photographs. $35.00.

I once read in a review of another of Galen Rowell’s books the complaint that Rowell’s photographs were, in fact, “fairly ordinary,” that if you compared them with pictures taken by other mountaineering photographers, the final portfolios would be quite similar.

With the publication of Mountain Light: In Search of The Dynamic Landscape, Galen Rowell’s photographic autobiography of twenty years of landscape photography, such deprecatory remarks must be silenced. The viewer is stunned into reverent silence by the collective power of eighty of Rowell’s favorite photographs, including several of his strongest images, like the fabled, “Rainbow Over The Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet.” These are captured jewels from nature’s mixed palate of light, pictures taken by a masterful hand and eye, and superbly reproduced as only Dai Nippon can. They challenge our preconceptions of the limits of landscape photography. Warm light, cold light, artist’s light, light-upon-light, all are carefully preserved by Rowell’s skilled vision, the interpretive chemistry of photographic film and camera. Balancing the photographs is an informative text which makes fascinating reading all on its own and illuminates how each of the final images was achieved.

Fortunately Rowell’s original idea of“—a little book of photographs and the stories behind them —” grew into this large-format book. With the photographs divided into eight exhibits, variously entitled “Magic Hour,” “Figures on a Landscape,” and “Unexpected Convergence,” amongst others, Rowell also describes, in alternate chapters, his evolution from unknowledgeable amateur shutterbug to world-class photo-journalist, from childhood to the early 1970s in Yosemite and the High Sierra to the present day. The book resists being pigeon holed as an autobiography, a technical photo manual, or a philosophical treatise on photography. It is, rather, an agreeable blend of all three, that go into this account of Rowell’s search for mountain light.

The photographer, like any artist, must also be a technician. But Rowell does not belabor the technical aspects of 35mm photography. Instead he describes technique only in relation to how it helps him capture the peak moments of mountain experience. His results are achieved by a near religious pursuit of technical proficiency and an identifiable personal vision. The roots of photographic style, Galen insists, lie in one’s personal vision and not primarily in photographic techniques.

Photography for Rowell is a hunt and mountain light is the quarry. Through years of experience, practice, and patience, he consciously tries to place himself in strategic locations at “the magic hour,” sunrise and sunset, when juxtapositions of unusual light occur naturally, particularly in high mountain settings where the air is sharp and clean. “There are only two variations of light anywhere in the world,” writes Rowell, “the warming of direct light as it is transmitted through the atmosphere, and the cooling of indirect light by scattering and reflection.” At sunrise and sunset, these two very different types of light meet and mingle, in “edges” of light. This unusual pattern of converging light, with the twilight wedge meeting the earth’s shadow, is best exemplified by his image, “Twilight In The White Mountains, California.”

Beyond their role of factually recording an event, pictures are not worth taking, Rowell continues, unless they involve both intellectual and emotional stimulation. In these days of computer-generated and manipulated photography, Rowell feels a stronger commitment than ever that his brand of outdoor landscape photography must preserve an inner-directed approach, or outwardly the resulting image will only portray a particular photographic technique. “Only those (photographs) based on the qualities of light and form will remain equally valid in whatever new technologies evolve,” he observes. What gives Galen Rowell’s photographs such vibrant life, after all, and their almost transcendental glow is the resulting inner communication which occurs between the photographer and viewer through the excitement of the image itself, through the picture’s power to evoke an emotional or intellectual response from the viewer. With pictures like “Lynx in Alpine Flowers, Teklanika River, Alaska Range,” “Climber on Mt. Dickey, Alaska Range,” “Late Summer Snow under Mount Williamson, Southern Sierra, California,” and others, Rowell spellbinds us with his art and craftsmanship.

It is only when internal and external events collide, with a measured dose of good luck (which in the final chapter Rowell does acknowledge to exist), that this “unexpected convergence” of creating a uniquely expressive image takes place. While these occasions of synthesis are indeed rare and by their nature essentially unrepeatable, that is their very attraction.

Luck, how important an ingredient is it in photography? Having attempted to repeat certain favorite photographs of my own, and failed, I was relieved to hear Rowell acknowledge the importance of luck in obtaining an exceptional image. What separates him from the crowd of landscape photographers is his ability to predict a unique situation well in advance, realize the scene’s potential, and act swiftly to capture the fleeting moment.

His advice on photographic gear, tripods, time exposures, reciprocity failure, depth of field and the use of his favorite split-level, neutral-density filter all make excellent reading for interested outdoor photographers. The underlying theme of Chapter Six, “Operative Vision,” is the constant creative need to shed the skin of old technical proficiencies, those comfortable, but ultimately restrictive habits, and learn anew.

“Chance favors the prepared mind,” said Louis Pasteur, whom Rowell quotes on page 131. In Mountain Light, Galen Rowell reveals the painstaking preparation of his own mind for the capture of mountain light on film, and his truly extraordinary results. Your record collection wasn’t complete without “Springsteen Live.” The same can now be said of mountaineering libraries and Mountain Light. Treasure it.

Ed Webster