Physically, at least, Galen Rowell's life has had its ups and downs. Since 1972, when he sold his auto repair shop in Berkeley, Calif., and committed himself full time to nature and adventure photography, he has participated in more than 40 expeditions on six continents (including 22 to the Himalaya Mountains), climbed more than 1,000 mountains (100 of them first ascents), fallen into crevasses, recorded avalanches as they closed in on the camera, nearly frozen to death on Patagonia's FitzRoy peak, barely avoided a 3,000-foot plunge off Mount McKinley and generally has experienced a rugged though high old time, both literally and metaphorically.
Artistically, though, Rowell's life has been an upper all the way. Nowhere is the scope of his work better displayed than in The Art of Adventure (Collins Publishers, $45), a midcareer retrospective of his photographs and his ninth book in 15 years. While it reprises some of Rowell's best earlier work, nearly 80% of the photos in this 166-page, large-format book have never been published. So dazzling are some of the panoramas that the publishers could well have included a warning, CAUTION: EXPOSURE TO THE MATERIAL CONTAINED HEREIN MAY CAUSE SYMPATHETIC SNOW BLINDNESS, ALTITUDE SICKNESS AND IRREGULAR HEARTBEAT.
Viewed from within, a slot canyon in Arizona lighted by the noon sun glows orange and red, transmuting polished sandstone into what might pass for a chamber of the earth's hidden heart. In contrast, gritty textures dominate a scene from western China's Pamir Mountains in which two Kirghiz horsemen—dwarfed by the landscape's immensity—pass beneath a giant, bone-white sand dune. Alpenglow suffuses many of the photos, from Mono Lake in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Annapurna Range in Nepal to a reflecting pond in Alaska's Denali National Park: eerie almost extraterrestrial pinks, mauves and purples. Of the Alaskan photo, one of his personal favorites, Rowell says, "I had fine light coming in from three different places: alpenglow up in the clouds, sidelight coming onto the grasses, and the soft light from the sky on the berries and leaves in the foreground." He fails to mention the fourth light—that of the inspiration that led him to compose the scene.
Like Ansel Adams, to whom he is often compared (though Adams worked in black and white), Rowell seems most at home with the massive, abstract shapes of cloud, rock and rushing water, all washed in clear mountain light. But in this collection he also displays a growing skill at rendering animate emotions: A lone paddler in an orange kayak shoots a "slot of no return" amid jaws of rock and ice on the Braldu River in the Himalayas—frailty and fearlessness personified. A beturbaned Punjabi stares haughtily into the camera: blue robes, hawklike eyes and a carefully trimmed beard combine in an artful prècis of ethnic pride. A series of pictures that were taken during a six-week ski traversal of Himalayan glaciers (which Rowell calls "far more difficult and strenuous than my expeditions up K2 and Mount Everest") shows his companions bent over ski poles under their 120-pound backpacks or flaked out in camp with their faces frost-rimmed—the essence of human effort and exhaustion.
December 25, 1989
Other photos are equally telling. A traditional but clearly playful greeting; a band of kiang (Asian asses) trots across the Tibetan grassland while, a world apart, a herd of wild horses thunders past against a background of spiky Patagonia peaks—equine symbols of speed and freedom on an ever-more-crowded planet. You can almost taste the dust storm into which a Balti herdsman leans in a grim photograph that might be titled "Asia Is Blowing Away." These photographs carry messages—some bleak, some joyful.
At 49, Rowell has arrived as one of the world's finest photographers. As this retrospective demonstrates, he transcends genre to emerge as an artist capable of telling truth more deeply than mere representation. Top of the world? You bet.