Galen Rowell And Outdoor Photographer Style

April 30th, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Galen Rowell, Philip Hyde And The Finding Of A Personal Outdoor Photographer Style

Lone Pine Peak, Alabama Hills, East Side of the Sierra Nevada, California, 1978 by Philip Hyde. This photograph is an example of Philip Hyde's receptive approach. He often went against the standard wisdom and made photographs in the middle of the day. He was in the vicinity at this time and had a hunch to turn off and visit the Alabama Hills because of the fresh snow on the Sierra Nevada peaks. He drove around and got out of the vehicle and walked around with his view camera. The picturesque parallel curves of the three boulders with the angular peaks in the background presented themselves to him. This image is in contrast to photographs by Galen Rowell, who lived in the area, could visit the Alabama Hills when lighting conditions or the alpenglow was at its best. Galen Rowell made a number of memorable images of the Eastern Sierra Nevada. Carr Clifton was the first to photograph the Alabama Hills' Mobius Arch with the Sierra Nevada behind in March 1983. Carr Clifton's photograph was first published in the 1985 Sierra Club Wilderness Engagement Calendar. Galen Rowell made a different photograph of the arch much later in 2001, but he may have made an earlier photograph of the arch. Since then the image has been copied over and over by subsequent outdoor photographers who rather than using Galen Rowell's visioning, Philip Hyde's receptive approach, or any creative method of their own, came to the landscape looking for a specific landmark to add to their checklist.

(See the Photograph full screen Click Here. To see Galen Rowell’s photographs of the East Side of the Sierra Nevada Click Here. To see Philip Hyde’s never before seen new prints on display at Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light Gallery May 8 through August 31, 2010 see the blog post, “New Philip Hyde Releases At Mountain Light Gallery Exhibition.”)

Galen Rowell and Philip Hyde differed in their process for choosing photographs. Galen Rowell observed certain elements in the natural setting and then visualized a scenario where those elements came together. By sheer will, attractive power and personal dynamic energy, he would very often vision into being the very circumstances for the photograph he had imagined.

Philip Hyde had a nearly opposite approach to finding photographs. His was a yin, receptive, and contemplative method.  He would still his own inner processes, tune into the land around him, and allow it to fill his being until a photograph came forward. He was interested in letting photographs present themselves by attaining a quiet composure and seeing carefully.

As can readily be seen in the work of these two outdoor photographers, either method can result in spectacular images. A developing outdoor photographer can experiment with these two differing styles, see which he or she prefers overall, or use each method in different circumstances. I’m sure that both Galen Rowell and Philip Hyde used an opposite approach to their standard one at times, or tried a hybrid sometimes too. In my own experimenting with the two ways, I have found that in most instances the two methods produce very different photographs, but there are instances when they produce the same photograph. Sometimes I find I am meant to make a certain image whatever process I use. At other times the two methods themselves can even end up feeling the same or merged, as opposites sometimes do.

Galen Rowell’s Vision And The Outdoor Photographer

Galen Rowell applied his visionary process when he made his most famous photograph, “Rainbow Over The Potala Palace.” He described it in his book, Galen Rowell’s Inner Game of Outdoor Photography. Galen Rowell for years studied atmospheric conditions in the Sierra Nevada, interested in discovering what caused alpenglow and how he could capture it more consistently. He also had studied the physics of light and how it affected conditions for the outdoor photographer. In the book, Galen Rowell explained that he saw the rainbow beginning to form, observed the water vapor conditions that cause rainbows and ran a great distance across the field knowing that odds were good that if he positioned himself just right, the rainbow would end on the Dali Lama’s Potala Palace. Getting these factors to line up this way not only took mental focus and determination, but also specialized knowledge and diligence in understanding the science behind the craft of the outdoor photographer.  “My vision came true as the sunlit curtain of falling rain stayed in place while the rainbow moved with me in relation to the sun,” Galen Rowell wrote. “I used a telephoto lens to magnify part of the bow as a spot of light came through the clouds onto the palace.” Galen Rowell described his whole process more in his book.

In Search of An Outdoor Photographer Style

In the book Galen Rowell’s Vision: The Art of Adventure Photography, Galen Rowell wrote an essay called “In Search of Style.” In this essay, excerpted here, Galen Rowell shares some of the elements that bring out this elusive thread running through a photographers work:

Every photographer has a definable style, but I spent at least a decade worrying that I didn’t. If someone asked me what my artistic goals were, I would mumble platitudes about capturing my vision of the wilderness and pursuing light. I feared that my diverse work was adrift in an ocean of outdoor photography…. I also had a disdain for externally directed photographic styles, which continues to this day. For example, I was deeply offended by work that called attention to itself by some artificial device (such as an introduced color filtration, weird lens, strange darkroom twist, or exaggerated grain) to stylistically link photos that otherwise lacked an internal message. I liked deceptively simple pictures that drew more attention to honest vision than to technique…. Ansel Adams wrote eloquently about the difference between external and internal photographic events. The most meaningful photographic styles are always reflections of the internal. We react not so much to what an outdoor photographer sees, but to how he or she sees and renders the subject for us. Personal style comes from within, from a photographer’s unconscious and conscious choices. We usually pass over a photograph devoid of emotional reaction to its subject and say, ‘This doesn’t do anything for me.’ Of course it doesn’t. The photographer didn’t have his or her heart in it. Devoting personal energy to a photograph isn’t enough unless that energy is internalized. An easy way to block the internal message is to be overly concerned about results. For example, knowing their top images will be critiqued in front of the group, workshop participants out for an afternoon shoot often wander around shooting nothing because they have created unrealistic expectations for themselves…. Pros on a major assignment can easily allow externally directed cues to block the very style that caused the client to hire them…. One solution for a blocked-up photographer is to write an imaginary letter to an internal self: Wish you were here to see this. You wouldn’t take the boring photo I’m considering right now because you’d respond by… People avoid developing a personal style by emotionally distancing themselves from their work…. However, some sort of personal stamp does sneak through, even in the most banal photography. The balance of foregrounds to backgrounds and the choice of subject matter are among the subtle clues that the images were made by a thoughtful human being rather than by a monkey or some machine. The central process of art is not to render something exactly as it appears, but to simplify it so that meaning, clarity, emotional response, and a sense of wonder combine to create a style from within.

Besides being a great outdoor photographer, you can see that Galen Rowell was also a great writer. He put into words in more than 20 books, the methods, style and inner awareness that translated powerfully to the page and produced a body of photography and texts that will endure. The Philip Hyde exhibition at Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light Gallery is first time the two photographer’s work will be shown together in the same building, see the blog post, “Pioneer Photography Of Philip Hyde At Mountain Light Gallery.” To read more on Galen Rowell’s influence and how his choice of film changed landscape photography see the blog post, “Did Velvia Film Change Landscape Photography?

Which of the two approaches does your own method most resemble for outdoor photography?



  1. Steve Sieren says:

    David, They both were visually creative in their own ways but it should be quite interesting to see the large prints from each and know they are from a time period in history. I like to view your father’s work as the link in time between Ansel and Galen. It will be a treat for my eyes to see and remember, looking forward to it.

    As for the checklist, I think most of us photogs start out with the checklist you mention and maybe keep it for several years but some never move on from it. All of the photographers mentioned in the article are remembered and well known for their individualism and not their collecting skills. I think it’s funny how some of the photographers that feel they are the important ones refer to their own readers as dummies and other terms that refer to sub par qualities some photographers might have. We all just do what we love and when we get something good we are happy and at one with ourselves. I don’t think we ever really know our own style until we’re dead. The problem then is do we get look back on it and know?

  2. Hi Steve, thank you for the insights. Come to think of it, you are right about most photographers starting with the checklist. I’ve done some of it, but my checklist is not for the purpose of following the famous photographers to the same tripod holes, it is to enrich my writing about the places I went with my dad as a kid, to relive a little and make sure the places are still there that Dad worked so hard to protect. Surprisingly, in most cases they aren’t, at least not in the same shape they were 30-40 years ago. Each place has shown significant wear and tear at the hands of man, some more than others. Some are hardly recognizable and not easily photographed any more. I recognize my ego that thinks, “I’ll go to the Grand Canyon or Yosemite and see if I can improve on what has been done by the masters. Then I will have something to measure my work against.” Many people may have this thought, but it is those that let go of this sort of thinking that make a lasting impression with their work as they find something new and unusual to photograph, perhaps even in the same locations. As you say, the mark of a good photographer is whether he or she outgrows the checklist. On the other hand there are photographers who run their entire operation on ego. I know of one in particular that makes an unbelievable $30,000,000 a year schmoozing celebrities. He goes to all the same locations that Dad, Ansel Adams, David Muench and others did. He thinks (just ask him) he has captured better photographs than anyone using the same or close framing as those before him. All of this said, I made what I thought were nice exposures at Point Lobos last year, but I was there mainly to pay my respects to Edward Weston and to get a sense of where the photography classes might have photographed with him. According to many curators and exhibition juries, style is important, not that what they say is the end all, be all. Dad had a strong sense of his own style, perhaps voice is a better word, but I doubt all photographers find theirs in this life, which is a tragedy if they are atheists. Galen Rowell writes eloquently and extensively about developing style.

  3. Richard Wong says:

    Galen’s philosophy really spoke to me and is what fits my personality the best. In reality though, I choose whichever methods I need to accomplish my goals. Sometimes those goals are to get portfolio-worthy landscapes and for personal enrichment. In those instances, for me it’s usually about chasing the light or a certain type of environmental condition such as flower or fall color. Other times it’s to fill my archive for “stock coverage” or blog material so those are generally with a photojournalistic mind-set.

  4. Thank you, Richard. So do you sometimes even while at home start to visualize certain scenes you need and then think about where they might be found and go get them? Is that one part of your process?

  5. Richard wong says:

    Sort of I guess in that I research ahead of time or have already been to those places so I arive in time to catch a specific type of light.

  6. Interesting Richard. Thank you for giving me/us a peek into what you do.

  7. Greg Russell says:

    This is a really nice post, and comparison, David. On the surface, I’d say that my photographic style is more like Galen’s than your Dad’s. Due in part to my work schedule, I’m not able to spend a lot of time in the field, so I plan ahead, and visualize what shots I want before I get to a shot, hoping for “epic” light (I am not as fortunate in that sense as Galen was!).

    However, I think your observation that the styles merge (much like they’re on a continuum) is a really good one. More often than not, especially in the last 6 months or so, I find myself in a location where I’d visualized x, y, and z shots, but once there am inspired by the landscape to go in a much different direction. Its during these times that I create some of my favorite photographs.

  8. Hi Greg, thanks for the insight into your method. It is fascinating to me to discuss the approach to making art with various artists. Interesting about your visualizing, yet remaining open to going in a completely different direction when you get to your destination. Without that flexibility, the Galen Rowell visualizing approach could be limiting rather than inspiring as he taught it. From what I have learned about Galen Rowell he was a very powerful and determined individual, but with that he also excelled at being flexible. Having both of those traits is probably part of what made him so good.

  9. I’ve come back to this article several times, thinking about it in relation to how I work. I may wait to photograph a certain spot at high/low tide or when the moon is at a certain angle. But pre-visualizing isn’t really too accurate when your primary subject is the ocean. It just won’t sit still and say cheese. 🙂

    But a lot of oceanography (my appropriation of the word) allows you to watch the waves for a while to see how they are behaving that particular day. Then I can plan a shot and wait for the waves to fulfill it. I do that quite a bit.


  10. Hi Sharon, thank you for that glimpse into how you photograph the seashore. It sounds like you are perhaps in several places along the continuum of where the two approaches overlap, or you have created your own watery way, which is both yin and yang, like the ocean.

  11. Derrick says:

    I remember reading about Ansel’s visualizing a scene and am only just barely beginning to understand it. Like has been posted above, a lot of times I’ve visualized something I get there only to find the light or weather is not cooperating. So I make do with what I’m given, like your father or Steve in his latest blog post.

    I am finding out so much is just trial and error!

    I’ve only been chasing the light for a bit over a year and don’t know that I’ve developed a style per se, other than trying to have an accurate representation of what I am seeing and not something overdone or overly manipulated.

  12. Hi Derrick, thank you for your comments about style and for mentioning Ansel Adam’s visualization in this context. The visualization process that Ansel Adams placed as the cornerstone of his teaching method and upon which the zone system rested, long before Galen Rowell’s visualizing of photographs, is related but not the same concept. With Ansel Adam’s visualization that I write about in the blog post, “Photography’s Golden Era 4”, he is talking about knowing your medium and materials so well that as you make the photograph you pre-visualize what the finished print will look like, make the corresponding allowances and know ahead of time how to get the finished print to look like what your eye is seeing, as opposed to what the camera will record. Galen Rowell’s visualization involved seeing certain conditions in the field and visualizing them coming together to form a particular arrangement for a good photograph, or even visualizing a certain type of photograph at home and then literally ‘manifesting’ it in the outdoors. Steve Sieren’s blog post is superb writing and photography. Yet as you imply, his process seems to be for all practical purposes, wholly spontaneous and much more like my dad’s process in that he is out there a lot, and gets himself into places that he knows are highly photogenic and then lets nature put on the show. My dad never left home and drove hundreds of miles at the spur of the moment to climb a 13,000 foot plus mountain, but after careful planning and preparation once Dad arrived on location, he would rely on the spontaneity of nature to bring him whatever would come rather than visualizing a particular scene. However, Dad did use his own variation on Ansel Adam’s visualization process for what the final print would look like every time. Reading between the lines I imagine that Steve Sieren used a bit of Galen Rowell’s visualizing too.

  13. Bruce says:

    Galen’s philosophy really spoke to me and is what fits my personality the best. In reality though, I choose whichever methods I need to accomplish my goals. Sometimes those goals are to get portfolio-worthy landscapes and for personal enrichment. In those instances, for me it’s usually about chasing the light or a certain type of environmental condition such as flower or fall color. Other times it’s to fill my archive for “stock coverage” or blog material so those are generally with a photojournalistic mind-set.

  14. Hi Bruce, thank you for sharing your process and adding to the discussion.

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