Shining Light


Dear Artist,

Photographers, unencumbered by a thousand years of process, have shone their light onto new levels of pictorial creativity. Good examples are Galen Rowell and his wife, Barbara. Through countless adventure-photography assignments to the Rockies, Tibet, Patagonia, Galapagos, Antarctica — even to a falcon’s nest at skyscraper top, Galen’s eye and brain have reassessed the business of viewfinder seeing. As well as taking spectacular photos, he has written about the process with clarity and charm. Noted for his invention of selective neutral-density filtering, he has also helped re-define other systems. For artists of all stripes, many of his ideas and observations are worthy of naming and claiming.


Arch beneath Mount Whitney
in the Alabama Hills
Owens Valley, California, 2001
photograph by Galen Rowell (1940-2002)

More than a dozen of Galen’s books expand the artistic potential. In Galen Rowell’s Vision: the Art of Adventure Photography, he takes us into an exhaustive world of the shot list, sense of place, dream imagery, man and scale, conscious visualization, internal messaging, external ideas, event thinking, finding the metaphor, fizzled-plan opportunity, superman mentality, visionary behavior, heightened symbolism, emotional transference, visual drama, image maturity and the science of chaos. Just as in the Eskimo language there are many words for snow, light and its effects in Galen’s universe come to be known by many names. Galen has an intensely curious mind that is able to make remarkable leaps of faith. Imagery, before and after the event, is examined for the emotional and intellectual responses that were expected and achieved.


Winter Sunset, Gates of the Valley
Yosemite National Park, 1990
photograph by Galen Rowell

Galen and Barbara take you with them and leap with you from pinnacle to pinnacle. Like many evolved artists they are at home discussing their favourite film-stock (Fuji Velvia) as well as defining a philosophy for their art. At the base of it all is a courageous heart and the capacity to be forever in a questioning mode.

Best regards,


PS: “Even though failures are certain to outnumber successes, the idea of pursuing a dream image in my imagination and going out to find the place where it actually happens is what keeps my creative juices flowing.” (Galen Rowell) “Chance favors the prepared mind.” (Louis Pasteur)

Galen-Rowell_Moonset at Sunrise-1972

Moonset at Sunrise, 1972
photo by Galen Rowell

Esoterica: Tragically, Galen and Barbara Rowell died in an airplane crash in central California on August 11, 2002. The images we have of the Rowells in life were often of them hanging upside down from some impossible escarpment. They thrived on new and dangerous assignments — new vistas seen with new eyes. An adventure-photographer hops between locations. He and she flew down into the volcano and through the circular rainbow. An adventure-photographer does not sit at an easel and stare at his shibboleths. An adventure-painter can learn from this.

This letter was originally published as “Shining Light” on February 18, 2003.



  1. It’s always interesting when I find I have a personal connection to one of these letters… as this was originally posted before I hooked up to the Painter’s Keys. Galen & Barbara Rowell died on my 49th birthday. Hmmm…

  2. This tribute to Galen and Barbara brought tears to my eyes. Admiring them, and then venturing into the wild blue yonder on my own inspires a greater passion for every creative facet of living. They followed their passion.

  3. I loved Galen’s quote, it struck me that his words are the same driving force within artists to capture that scene or dream and make it something incredibly special. That desire to keep the creative juices flowing drives us all to better paintings.

  4. I encountered Galen at a popular “bouldering” location in the SF Bay area. I was having trouble starting a climb at Indian Rock and he came along and literally did it with one hand behind his back. A gifted climber and photographer. I wanted to be like him, but found my own path.

  5. A beautiful tribute to one of my favorite photographer (the others are Ansel Adams and Tom Wolfe). I respect Galen for his ability to capture those amazing images and for his dedication to raise awareness on the plight of Tibet (I attended one of his Tibet campaign lecture and bought his book on photography in Tibet, which he autographed). A very courageous and generous soul; a talented and gifted artist. Thank you for posting this story.

  6. Galen Rowell was my inspiration for nature photography when I lived in Mammoth Lakes, CA in the Sierras where he loved to photograph the beautiful landscapes. He was definitely a “one of a kind” awesome person and photographer. I never really knew him but often think of him when I am out in nature with my camera, and think of a something he is often quoted as saying about nature photography; “F/8 and be there”. :) It was a terrible tragedy to die at the hands of an unskilled pilot while landing at the Mammoth Lakes airport.

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