To admit it now seems silly. Almost shameful. Before reading this book, Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape, I had heard the name Galen Rowell, but didn’t know who he was or what he meant to landscape photography. The fact I knew his name was largely because it is tied to the Singh Ray neutral density filters he helped develop. Additionally, his name is tossed about by folks who talk about individuals who influenced them. For whatever reason his images aren’t widely shared (more on that later) as others who are considered great masters in the field.
Reading this book changed that naivety. This 25th anniversary copy, printed in 2011, is now permanent in my collection. As mentioned before, admitting that the name didn’t mean anything significant only a few months ago seems completely amateurish. In a way it very much was. This book is a window into film photography and provides great professional insight. After reading it there is no question as to why I’d seen it included on scattered lists of the best landscape photography books ever written. His passion gushes from the pages. The greatest held “myths” of beginner landscape shooters are dispelled. Not in a myth busting sort of way. Rather, it’s done in a way where the reader see’s behind the mythical curtain to the insight and thinking of someone who worked hard to ensure they got their shot.
Writing this review wasn’t difficult. Making it short was. My father-in-law quipped, “Are you writing a book review, or a book?” He was right. The influence was strong, and the review gushed. This version is 2 pages shorter than the original.
As with the previous book review, this one is overdue. The book was finished in early April. Gary Crabbe (Galen’s former studio manager/assistant) received a rambling email upon the reading completion. Again life moved on and time had to be carved out to write this. During an April discussion, Richard Bernabe described Galen as a “phantom mentor.” He recommended another of Galen’s books, “Inner Game of Outdoor Photography”. That book has been purchased and is patiently waiting its turn to have its pages turned. Soon. The review… sometime thereafter.
This book fell in line behind the previous two reads. Digital Landscape Photography by Michael Frye and Exploring North American Landscapes by Marc Muench. The first book was an introduction. The second was more technical. This one was both technical and inspirational. The forward was written by Marc’s father, David Muench. This book had defined chapters and text written specifically to support individual images. Information is provided on the gear used to produce the images, but the text is much more enlightening. It tells of Galens’ journeys and fieldwork to produce the images. This information is more useful for those hoping to progress in their photographic journey.
Three items stood out, even mores than the images. They are: insight, inspiration, and honesty. Additionally, he talks about the three, or four, separate elements needed to create powerful images. Galen starts out with a powerfully honest statement: “One of the biggest mistakes a photographer can make is to look at the real world and cling to the vain hope that next time his film will somehow bear a closer resemblance to it.” Talk about coming out honestly and taking on the myth that a camera never lies from the onset. He continues with: “Sometimes film and human imagination work together to produce truly remarkable images that are more powerful than reality.” The following 215+ pages do a great job of showing his vision and how he went about producing those truly remarkable images.
Galen summarized the most interesting times, and the most interesting locations. He wrote of the “edges.” He covers the geographic edges of oceans, land, and forests. He continue with the visual edge of light of daybreak and storms. He shares that the combination of geographic edges and visual edges come together to form his favorite images. This was something I understood but couldn’t quickly summarize until reading. If you look through your favorite images this is something that’ll also probably ring true. It’s these edges that allow unique conditions to combine. These edges are fleeting and are not accessible at all times. This fleeting nature makes them naturally interesting. Combining several of them increases their appeal.
Despite all of the effort that he put into being knowledgeable and prepared to make an outstanding image he didn’t disregard the influence that luck imparts. “Regardless of being in the right place at the right time with the right equipment, a photographer will fail to make a remarkable image if any one of those elements is deficient. In wild places my ability to control those three factors is never absolute. Luck has a hand in each one of them, but the kind of luck I am talking about differs from the random kind that wins jackpots at casinos.” Additionally, “[t]he element that I have not yet discussed is luck, and many photographers are afraid to confront its importance. Luck plays a role in all great photographs, especially this of the natural world; yet it is not to be found in the indexes of photography manuals or on the agendas of photography classes and workshops. Luck is what makes photography and entirely different medium from art forms based only on planned creative arts.” To admit that luck has a large influence on images is something that most photographers would be afraid to ever admit.
The three times (insight, inspiration, and honesty) can be broken out into several themes that were found in all chapters of the book. Those themes were: mythbusting, wisdom, foresight, technical, experience, tips, work, and vision. These themes will be handled in list format. That is because to summarize, I’m afraid, would be diluting the power of his own words.
Mythbusting came in several forms, since there were several “myths” dispelled without the direct intention to do so.
• “With hindsight I would kick myself for saving film and making only two exposures of this scene. I wouldn’t change a thing in my primary visualization of this image, but if confronted by the same situation today, I would cover myself in many additional ways, shooting at least a full thirty-six-exposure roll. Why settle for one original? What if a flaw in the film or processing is on the best frame? How easy it would have been at the source to make backup originals that would have cost eleven cents a piece at the time.”
• “The source of these selective visions has nothing to do with precision. If photography depends on precision, modern inventions such as automatic exposure, automatic focus, and computer-designed optics would already be delivering predictably perfect pictures. They don’t however, because the aptitude for selective vision defies automation. What is important is a nearly opposite virtue; a finely tuned sense of compromise.”
• “Most professional photographers have a very high failure ratio.”
• “During my first years of photography, I felt too insecure about my work to directly confront the role of luck until it stared me in the face. I knew that sometimes I was luckier than I was other times, but I held dearly to the belief that my best work was based on technique and vision rather than on chance.”
• “Since 1971 I have spent more than thirty nights sleeping in the same area, hoping for a repeat performance of light that has never arrived. If I witnessed it again, I will begin with a composition similar to this image, bracing four exposures in half-stops. Then I will shoot the same scene in verticals. Switching to a wider lens, I will repeat all with images, with space in the sky or foreground for copy. Finally, I will repeat the whole business all over again with a gradated neutral-density filter adjusted to hold back light from the foreground in order to bring out the mountains. After I finish all the creative variants I can think of, I’ll start all over again and go for insurance shots of my favorites if the light still holds… but I have yet to see anything even close to a repeat performance of this remarkable juxtaposition of light and landscape.”
The wisdom provided is still applicable, as it transcends technology and lands on fieldwork and self-assurance.
• “It underscores for me the importance of going with my gut reactions – in this case stopping when I saw a picture situation – rather than continuing on with hopes that things will get better. Time and again I’ve lost shots by being too lazy to stop and take out my camera.”
• “When the light is right, my camera is out long before I know what I want to photograph.”
• “In a very basic sense nothing I do is unique. Everyone who knows how to see with a camera went through an early stage of learning to recognize and trust his or her own perceptions.
• “The most powerful images present viewers not only with beauty, but also with a challenge to visual assumptions. To accomplish that, a photographer’s mind must go beyond the known and the accepted. … The best images of figures in a landscape accomplish a lesser but similar task. They take an expected piece of information, a landscape, and give it an entirely new meaning.”
• “ “Lucky photographers” quickly arrive at the right place at the right time as if they were carrying a secret map. In a sense they are. Because the language of light in which they are thinking leads their eyes, instead of being an afterthought, they read clues that others pass by.”
• “The possibilities of integrating light with landscapes are infinite, as it is the photographer’s task to choose moments that best express the meaning of the subject. The search for rare situations where light underscores meaning is a major part of why photography continues to hold my interest over the years. I almost never set out to photograph a landscape, nor do I think of my camera as a means of recording a mountain or an animal unless I absolutely need a “record” shot. My first thought is always of light.”
Galen knew that times were changing. Even back in 1984 he saw the influence that computers were going to have on the field of photography. He didn’t advise people to avoid them, but rather to embrace the new technology and integrate it.
• “When I began photography, it was tightly defined as a science involving chemistry, radiant energy, and photosensitivity, without mention of any aesthetic goals. The error in this way of thinking is now apparent; any type of future music will fit music’s nontechnical definitional – combining tones expressively – but photography of the future, which is beginning to arrive in the form of video and other electronic imagery, is already surpassing the old narrow definition.”
• “By using traditional devices such as illusion, montage, multiple exposure, and contrived sets in combination with new methods of adding or subtracting from the image by computer, photography has become a medium without limits – unless the originate within the photographers themselves.”
• “Media touched by the electronic age have not lost all creditability; we have learned to make distinctions. Words lie, for example, but we trust certain authors, even if they use word processors.”
• “Still photography will hold its present hallowed place in the world of art and communication only as long as it respects the natural integrity of the world it depicts and doesn’t overtly try to compete with high-tech media.”
• “Over the next decade or two today’s finest landscape photographs could become as obsolete as those IBM cards produced by early computers. The laborious process of exposing and processing firm will almost certainly be replaced by electronic imagery that can be stored and reproduced by computer.”
The first of his three, or four, elements needed to create powerful photographs was technical proficiency. Without this a photographer will simply acquire worthwhile images through dumb luck. Galens’ understanding of his cameras and film is evident as you read his summaries. To know one’s gear is how one will rise above its standard limitations and get images others simply cannot. I like to say that the camera has a sixth grade education. To go beyond that one must know more than the camera. My gut instinct is that Galen would agree. This knowledge must go beyond knowing ones camera. It must also encompass the nature and virtues of light and nature itself.
• “Trying to duplicate a scene that pleases your eye without knowing how your camera will render it is as futile as trying to duplicate a meal that once pleased your palate without the benefit of a recipe.”
• “My challenge, then, was to understand how those rarely produced images came about and to learn to repeat them well enough, at least, to coincide with the high moments of my experience. I knew there was an extremely fragile balance between maintaining enough technical awareness to ensure competence and keeping an open mind to make the intuitive leap as often as possible, avoiding the fatal attraction of repeating only what had worked successfully before.”
• “It takes a 20mm lens to barely encompass a full single rainbow, and a 15mm lens to handle a double rainbow, which displays an additional, weaker arc at a wider, fifty-on-degree angular radius.”
• “My camera was ready for the peak moment of the gust, preset at an exposure for the back of my hand – so my meter wouldn’t be fooled by the backlit snow.”
• “I calculated the angular movement across the field of my 500mm lens according to two basic pieces of information. First, the moon and stars shift one degree across the sky every four minutes. Second, the horizontal field of view of a 500mm lens is four degrees. In sixteen minutes the moon moves completely across my frame. Knowing that. I was able to approximate how much motion I could tolerate and still retain the proper outline of the crescent. Experiments confirmed eight seconds as my maximum exposure.”
• “I then compensated for the reciprocity failure of the film at this slow speed by giving it an extra stop of shutter speed – a one-second exposure. I used no filters, knowing that reciprocity failure would slightly warm up tones under the cool, stormy sky.”
• “The lesson to be learned from this is not just that colors in nature are relative, but that they can be consistently photographed only by understanding their sources. In natural light all visual events fit into one of four categories: (1) real phenomena that appear on film much as they do to the eye, (2) real phenomena that appear differently on film than to the eye, (3) psychological illusions that cannot be photographed, and (4) psychological illusions that can be photographed.”
• “All objects are colorless – black, that is – until they reflect or transmit light. This simple realization, which I should have recalled from my physics classes, completely turned around my photographic approach. Instead of looking at the natural world for objects to photograph in color, I began to look for light. When I found magical light at the beginning or end of a day or during the clearing of a storm, I dashed about to find something earthbound to match it with. Eventually my eyes became finely tuned to natural light and it nuances in much the same way that people engaged in other outdoor pursuits develop heightened sensed because of their direct experiences.”
There is a saying I hold true. That is “experience is expensive.” To redo something is costly. Not just monetarily, but also in time. Usually in landscape photography there is no second chance. Learning from ones past experiences is imperative.
• “I have yet to find a student who solved this problem by looking at other people’s images or by reading books. It becomes clear only after the three fold process of shooting one’s own images, studying them, then shooting again. I cannot overemphasize the importance of paying close attention to poor photos as well as to good ones, for it is in the rejects that our own conceptual errors are the most apparent. Too many of us get back our slides, pull out the good ones, then banish the rest.”
• “A series of unusual circumstances came together to make this photograph possible, but of equal importance was the fact that I was prepared for just such a situation to confront me.”
• “Actually it is quite rare for me to be in just the right place at the right time, see a pretty landscape, photograph it, and have it become a favorite image. Almost all of my favorites are photographed when a little stroke of intuition enables me to “step outside” my normal way of seeing. Thus, I create images that I wouldn’t necessarily have noticed if I had been simply walking through a place.”
• “Thus, Doug helped to combine the two approaches to outdoor scenes. His plotting of the sunrise gave me a precise idea of the lighting I would have on any given clear morning, yet my final composition turned out to be very dependent on my own imagination. As Doug concluded, “It is usually taken for granted where the sun rises and sets, but this added knowledge can be put to use by the artistic photographer to create a fantastic photograph.”’
• “Over the years I have developed a method to avoid thinking in terms of halves, thirds, quarters, or the golden mean as I compose a landscape: I always begin by spontaneously balancing the features I have chased by intuition. I look for the most important convergence of light or form and try to decide where to place it in my pictures. If a certain framing feels right, I go with it. Only when it doesn’t, or when I have too many other factors to consider, do I use a rigid procedure to achieve a blanched composition that does not appear contrived.”
• “Because I want to record the full range of my experiences – landscapes, interplay of light, wild animals, plant life, and people out there doing things – my methods have to be second nature, thereby providing the freedom my mind needs to explore the selective visions that make an image far more interesting than a simple attempt to duplicate reality.”
Galen provides numerous tips in the book. These are different than the technical knowledge as they aren’t limited to a specific lens or film. They are still applicable today.
• “Another concept I use is called “visual sea level,” which means simply including a visual point of reference in any photo that may be difficult for the viewer to interpret. An isolated photo of a mountain climber can be very hard to orient unless part of the horizon or a profile of the steepness of the mountain is included.”
• “Research has shown that people judge objects on the horizon to be 2.5 to 3.5 times larger than the same objects seen higher in the sky. This exceptionally strong illusion is related to the way our eyes upturn.”
• “By befriending her subject before trying to photograph them, she dissolved their resistance. Instead of an intruder with a black box that steals parts of people’s souls, Barbara became an honored house guest.”
• “The limiting-factor method instantly streamlines and reorders my mental checklist for each photo situation. I simply think of every photo as having one problem to be solved, a limiting factor, and I begin with that. If there is more than one, I pick the most crucial. If I can’t think of one, I know I’m in one of those rare right-place/right-time situations where I can’t miss.”
At this point no one should believe that good images aren’t accompanied by a good amount of work. Galen’s description of how the rainbow/monastery image came into existence is the best example. The full text can be found in the last chapter. Specifically on pages 210-211. Other examples are:
• “On the flight to Pakistan, I begin another list. This one is of photo situations. Since I have been to the Karakoram Himalaya three times before, I have some idea of the kind of situations that will make my coverage complete. I know that if I photograph just on impulse, my results will not pull together into the tight photo essay the Geographic wants. I must carefully plan key images and check them off my list only when I feel certain I have them in the can.”
• “Nothing similarly had happened on the other sixty-odd morning I had gotten up before five beneath K2. Usually my reward for being an early riser was seeing white cloud and white snow merging into white sky.”
• “This is not a found image. I imagined it before seeing the place, spotted the location as I walked over a snowfield on my way to an unclimbed route on the east face of Mount Tyndall, and returned when I knew the light would be optimal. The spot was not photogenic when I passed it at midday, and I didn’t take a single photograph. I was aware of its special potential only because I had been thinking about two different photographs during the hike, and my ideas converged here.”
• “Just as such active thought can influence a photographer’s luck, so can physical action. In the first chapter I described how a photographer’s actions behind the camera have a way of becoming part of his image even though he may not be aware of it. The majority of my dynamic landscapes have involved dynamic actions during their creation. The existence of my own action behind the lens has added a creative fourth dimension to my work. It is by no means one of the required ingredients for a fine photograph of the natural world, but rather it is a catalyst for the other three components, a force that helps me “get lucky” more often.”
• “Most of the images in this exhibit appear as if I happened to be in the right place at the right time and had simply to lift my camera and make an image. That is how I want them to look. But like the tricks of a magician, there is more than meets the eye. When I’m hoping to create the appearance of an unexpected convergence, I usually work backward. Instead of trying to discover that perfect harmony fully assembled, I begin with one unusual condition, then use thought and action to turn it into an unexpected convergence. My success rate is not very high, but when I do orchestrate a coincidence of light and form by combining my own efforts with the luck of the draw, I feel incredibly well rewarded. Because I pursue this kind of photography, I have been able to witness many extraordinary moments that I would not otherwise have seen.”
An experienced landscape photographer develops a vision. This vision is another way of seeing the world directly in front of our eyes. This may sound like rubbish to the inexperienced, but it truly is not. It’s an acquired skill that is developed overtime.
• “I cannot overemphasize the importance of this shift in perspective and how much “luckier” it makes me in the field. I can automatically deal with situations where film differs from human vision, and, as with any second language, I can switch back and forth at any time and compare the difference (there is always a difference) between film’s way of seeing the world and my own.”
• “The greatest source of my luck in nature photography centers around the discovery of fine light. Unless I consciously think in the language of light, I find my eyes adjusting to color changes of light so automatically and imperceptibly that I am liable to miss the onset of unusual light. By training myself to detect the coming of fine light as early as possible, I am able to put myself into a position where I can carefully combine it with other light and natural forms. When I see a fully developed photo situation from a distance, it is often too late.”
• “In the making of dynamic landscape images, I recognize that my images must register with three different audiences; myself, my film, and my viewers. What is happening here is clear in terms of Bronowski’s “Unity of hidden likenesses.” Myself, my film, and my viewers are really nothing more than manifestations of three basic components that must merge at the instant an image is made. Personal vision is how I see my subject. Technical proficiency is how I put that vision onto film. Lighting is what translates my vision to my viewers.”
There were four portions that stood out beyond the rest because they existed, for me, as a personally shared experience.
• “In my early twenties I found that my experiences in wild places were imprinting me with the most powerful memories of my life, memories that were difficult to share with people who hadn’t been there. My original goal in photography was simply to create images that would facilitate my sharing.” This holds true. I grew tired of visiting some of the most beautiful places in the world and coming back with some of the worst picture ever made from those locations.
• “My interest in photography did not begin with books or mentors, or with any burning desire to see the world through a camera. It evolved from an intense devotion to mountains and wilderness that eventually shaped all the parts of my life and brought them together. Photography was never simply a hobby or a profession for me. Once I began taking pictures, it became an integral part of my life.” There was a head first dive into the world. Its become more than a hobby. It’s something I’m trying to turn into a profession.
• “I asked Dick to wear a red sweater so his tiny form would stand out on the rock from my vantage point high on the opposite wall, where I would be dead parallel with the middle of the climb, thus ensuring an undistorted image.” This fell in line with my purchases of vibrant clothing. One never knows if they will need to stand in to help complete an image. When doing so it’s best to wear clothes that feature colors not commonly found in nature. It allows the individual to be a part of the scene but also to stand out from it.
• “I came away from the interview feeling that I had never before been in the presence of anyone so enthusiastic, informed, and articulate about what he was doing as Brower was. Brower and his job were one.” Some of the best conversations one can have is to talk to another about their passion.
Based on the length of this article, even at this point, the list of positives is overwhelming. There were a few drawbacks to this book. Sadly, I have to say that some of the simply do not hold up to today’s standards for professional photography. This is not due to his lack of skill. Or even his lack of foresight. It is due to the medium and tools of his time versus those utilized today. The images still covey the passion and moment he intended to capture, but are lacking in the now required super sharpness and perfect tonality one acquires through the use of software. The sharpness issue is one recently written about by Gary Crabbe. You can find his thoughts here: Are my images shot on slide film now dead? The use of the GND, a filter he helped develop, is the other issue. This was cutting edge technology of its time. It helped create images that were previously impossible. There is an inherent design constraint in them however (unless one is photographing a perfectly straight horizon). That constraint is that as the filter holds back part of the exposure for the sky it also darkens well lit objects that protrude above its gradation. This is illustrated on images found on page xii (foreword), 48, 140, 190, and 193. This is one of the reasons I believe his images aren’t as widely shared as other masters. If you compare his images to those of Ansel Adams you can see that Ansel’s stand the test of time and are still commonly shared today. What then is the difference? The difference came from Ansel’s mastery of the darkroom. His preferred films were black and white. This allowed Ansel to work on the images in the darkroom to great extent. It allowed him the ability to massage the image into a more polished final product. Additionally, his use of larger format cameras in less precarious locations allowed further control. Galen was a forerunner in taking the 35mm camera to places it hadn’t before been taken. The limit format size, equipment list, and controllability of the final products has hindered him in the long run, sadly. Those negatives shouldn’t hinder anyone from purchasing and embracing this book. They are small speed bumps to the way of deep personal inspiration.
To end I share one last quote. For those who learn the tools, the journey never ends. “Now I know that the combination of light and form I seek in nature are virtually infinite and that I will always have new and inspiring subject matter to pursue.”