Galen Rowell’s Vision: The Art of Adventure Photography. Galen Rowell. Mountain Light Press, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1993. 288 pages, 138 color photographs. $25.00
Galen Rowell’s Vision: The Art of Adventure Photography is a worthwhile read. That is not to say that the photographs in the book do not merit attention, but I think Galen Rowell is an even better writer than photographer. His sixty essays in the book are culled and reworked from years of magazine articles contributed to Outdoor Photography.
The book is divided into four basic sections—Goals: transforming dreams into realities through personal vision; Preparations: pushing the limits of equipment, film and technique; Journeys: merging visions with realities; and Realizations: communicating your world view through photography.
When not preoccupied with being judgmental about other photographers or too self-centered about his own talents, Rowell shares some astute observations as well as practical, easily understood technical advice on taking better photographs. He defines adventure photography not as being the action or adventure itself but as the adventure of active visual exploration, a process that is more mental than physical. He makes an astute comment on the oft heard lament: “If I were there, I could have taken that picture.” Rowell knows that this is simply wishful thinking as shown by his own observations of workshop participants working in the same area who always turn out markedly different images! Rowell makes considerable effort in communicating the need for “connecting internally.” To photograph otherwise is equivalent to looking without seeing, or conversely seeing without looking. He also makes a great deal of spiritual connections. Interestingly, I found that many of his images had a “staged” feel to them, a feeling that did not help me connect with his spiritualism, but one image in particular did stand out as inspirational: Kailas in western Tibet. This will stay with me—for me, a measure of whether the image succeeds or not.
Technical insights and advice are abundant and include such topics as the use of strobes, graduated neutral density filters, advantages of various focal-length lenses, hyperfocal depth of field and perspective control especially for climbing photography. Here again, his writing skills complement his knowledge nicely, communicating the subject matter that is easily readable as well as understandable.
Photography is, for me, a visual medium, and sometimes more photographs and fewer words work more effectively. Of course one of the functions of this book is “how to,” but I still can’t help but wish there were more images that stayed with me. The verbal articulation of his vision is well executed, but the visual proof of this vision is lacking in the book. His essays are those of a good storyteller, traveler and adventurer. When he stays within this role, his insights and recollections are at times brilliant, always delightful. When he reaches outside this domain into the role of photo critic taking on the likes of Frederick Evans in a condescending tone, he ventures out into water over his head.