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Mixed Media


Loss and Legacy

Galen Rowell, 1940–2002

By Reed McManus

When 31-year-old Galen Rowell showed up at the Sierra Club Bulletin office one day in 1972 with a portfolio of his images, Associate Editor Roger Olmsted was awestruck. "So where would you like to go next, Galen?" he asked the fledgling photographer. "But Roger, I don’t have a camera," came the reply. "This one is borrowed." Olmsted quickly wrote a check to cover the essentials, and sent Rowell out to prepare "Fragile Nature, Fragile Man," the lead story in the January 1973 Bulletin (now Sierra). Attuned to wilderness issues from an early age when his parents introduced him to mountaineering on Sierra Club outings, Rowell knew that some places were best left untouristed, so he refused to identify the Northwest Territories peak that graced the issue’s cover. That was just fine with folks at the Club, who knew a kindred soul when they met him—particularly one bursting with artistry and enthusiasm for all things alpine.

So began a long collaboration.

In 1977, Sierra Club Books published Rowell’s first tome, In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, an account of the 1975 U.S. expedition to Pakistan’s K2. Eight Sierra Club books followed, including Galen Rowell’s Vision and Mountain Light, Rowell’s 1985 classic (reissued in 1995). The latter lays out the photographer’s philosophy and techniques for creating "dynamic landscapes," in which the principles of action photography are used to capture convergences of light and form in seemingly unrepeatable moments. An accomplished mountaineer, Rowell described his approach as "a continuing pursuit in which the art becomes the adventure, and vice versa." Rowell’s images have graced Sierra Club calendars almost continually since 1977, and one will be on the cover of the 2004 engagement calendar.

So it was with particular sadness that Club members and staff learned of Rowell’s untimely death, along with that of his wife, Barbara, and two others, in a plane crash this August. The Rowells were returning to their home in Bishop, California, after leading a photo workshop in Alaska. A few weeks before, Galen Rowell had returned from a seven-week trek through Tibet with 165 rolls of exposed film.

Rowell’s legacy is summed up by Club member Louise Woo of South Pasadena, California, who named her son after the photographer: "I can’t think of how many times over the past twenty years, sitting in a cubicle and grinding away at a computer, I have looked at his photos on my desk and been reminded that there is a whole world out there. We need that vision, whether we escape for five seconds or five days."

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