Galen Rowell took photographs where few others could go — in the remote reaches of Nepal and Tibet, in the High Sierras, in Alaska and Patagonia. Whether in his 16 books or in the pages of magazines like National Geographic, his photographs of the wilderness and of wildlife captured a world that few had seen before and inspired many to go where he had been.
He almost became the Pied Piper of landscapes, calling us out to them.
"Galen Rowell, I think, was the important photographer of the end of the 20th century," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "I think he took the place in the legacy of Ansel Adams and Ellot Porter and became the pre-eminent person who used photography to connect Americans with the wild world."
Galen was a unsual photographer: He had the body of an athlete and the mind of a philosopher.
"He was able to go where no other photographers could," said friend and fellow photographer Frans Lanting. "He would climb mountains and he was able to produce fine images under conditions where other people would be content to survive. He would literally head out on a trail and run distances and photograph along the way. Out of that active approach, he was able to distill images that can be considered fine art."
Galen left many classic images that can be called icons of the American landscape or a worldwide wilderness legacy, said Lanting.
"His most famous image is that of the rainbow over the Potala Palace in Tibet," said Lanting. "It shows a rainbow that connects with the Dalai Lama's palace but Galen told us that he saw the rainbow didn't come down to the palace. He actually ran for one or two miles to line the two of them up together. He chased the light, he saw it in his mind's eye and then he got to the place where he needed to be to capture the image."
Galen often described photography as an action sport, because for him it was. He was never content to simply set up a tripod and photograph what was in front of him — even in the most picturesque of landscapes.
"A lot of people think that when you have grand scenery, such as you have in Yosemite, that photography must be easy," said Galen in a past interview. "I find it some of the hardest photography and the most challenging photography I've ever done. It's a real challenge to work with the natural features and the natural light."
Back in 1990, CBS News Sunday Morning spent a day with Galen. It was perhaps only fitting that Sunday Morning followed him while he photographed a group of children in Yosemite National Park. When he was a young boy, Rowell's parents first took him to Yosemite. And it was that trip that set him on the course of his career.
"During World War II, they saved up gas rationing stamps to be able to take me here when I was 3 years old. And that was my first visit. I loved it," recalled Galen in the interview more than a decade ago. "Then when I was 16, I began doing serious rock climbing here and that was a whole new thing, to have the adventure realm."
He said he started taking pictures to record the world. He couldn't explain to people how he felt on his mini-adventures. He couldn't tell them what it was like being up on a rock and looking down and looking around. So he started taking photographs.
"And most of my early pictures failed but about one in a 100 somehow looked better than what I saw," said Rowell. "And that intrigued me."
Galen's wife, Barbara, was equally intrigued. She accompanied Galen on many of his photographic expeditions around the world and, over time, became a noted photographer in her own right.
"She became a photographer by being with Galen," said Lanting. "And Barbara and Galen never accepted any obstacles in their life. They only saw opportunities. And Barbara had to test her own photographic skills and she became quite good."
It wasn't only his wife who was intrigued by Galen's photographs.
"I think the most important thing to know about Galen is that he invigorated a great American tradition of appreciating the outdoors, appreciating nature, appreciating wilderness and that he made it a contemporary pursuit," said Lanting. "That parallels the explosion of interest in participatory activities, whether they're mountain biking or trail hiking or any of those things. And he applied that to photography and in doing so he gave outdoor photography a whole new meaning."
Even if you were lucky enough to go just where Galen Rowell had been, the odds are you never saw just what he saw, you saw your vision of it. Something that looks like what Galen Rowell photographed. Something that was certainly magnificent. But it just wasn't the same. In some ways his pictures looked better than the real thing. That was his gift, his art. Galen created images that at times seemed more majestic than the creation itself.
"I like to feel that all my best photographs had strong personal visions and that a photograph that doesn't have a personal vision or doesn't communicate emotion fails," said Rowell. "It's a photograph that we'll look at and it may be technically perfect and our eyes wander around and think, 'wWat is this about?'"
Galen Rowell once wrote that still photographs, especially those matched with a strong personal vision, are virtually unforgettable. He was right.