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Galen Rowell Discusses Nature Photography and Protecting the Environment

April 21, 2000
Web posted at: 5:00 p.m. EDT

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(CNN) -- Galen Rowell has traveled around the globe in his pursuit of capturing unforgettable landscapes on film to share with the world. In 1984 he received the Ansel Adams Award for his contributions to the art of wilderness photography.

Mr. Rowell has, to his credit, completed numerous assignments for National Geographic, Life, and Outdoor Photographer magazine and many large-format books.

Galen Rowell pioneered "active participant" photography, a form where the photographer goes beyond simply being an observer to becoming an actively involved in the image being made. In his own words: [It is] "a continuing pursuit in which the art becomes the adventure, and vice-versa".

Chat Moderator: Welcome to CNN, Galen Rowell.

Galen Rowell: Hello! How are you out there?

Chat Moderator: Why do you call your type of photography "participatory" photography?

Galen Rowell: Because I don't feel as if I'm taking photographs of subjects that are separate from me. I feel as if I'm a part of the natural world I'm photographing. Itís the difference between photographing a sporting event as a spectator on the sidelines or photographing a mountain climb as you are climbing the mountain.

Question from scampee: Galen, how many times does a great photograph just happen because you are in the right place at the right time?

Galen Rowell: Lots of times I've been at the right place at the right time, but it hasn't been by chance. Even though I've been lucky, I'm usually lucky when I'm prepared for a lucky event to happen.

I might go out in the wild on several miles of trail and check out exactly where I want to be the next morning before dawn. Then Iíll get up when itís dark and be out there a half hour when the light comes, and know exactly what I want to photograph if and when magical light appears. There's a saying: "Chance favors the prepared mind."

Question from KC: On your expeditions to delicate environments, what do you do to protect these environments and reduce your impact?

Galen Rowell: I travel as lightly as possible, and do everything I can to not leave any sign of my presence. Sometimes itís not easy!

Question from bckpkrs: Galen, congrats on a great segment! Do you worry that the public is becoming desensitized to great landscape photography, or distrustful of it in the digital age, and does it change how effective great pictures can be in calling attention to the threatened wilderness?

Galen Rowell: Very good question. I worry about that a lot. We used to trust nature photographs because of 160 years of belief in photography. Now when people see an isolated great photograph, they first think: How was that done? How was it digitally composed?

I've written many articles about the need for photographers to never alter the content of a nature photograph without disclosure. And I've also tried to present my work in venues like books and galleries where they will have known credibility with statements that no images have been altered.

Question from Kathe: How should environmentally conscious photographers and journalists best use their work to help preserve wild places, for instance on California's Central Coast?

Galen Rowell: I think that each person needs to use their photography in ways that they have personal connections. For me, I was able to do a story about the failure of peregrine falcon nests on the Central California Coast for the National Geographic. That led me into many other concerns for that beautiful area. And I became a member of the advisory board of Friends of the Sea Otter.

Question from Krauty: Do you consider yourself an activist for the preservation of the nature?

Galen Rowell: Yes I do. I'm an activist for things that I personally observe that I become passionate about. And I've already seen enough to fill many lifetimes of activism!

Question from Atticus: How do you feel about David Meunch's work? Can you compare it to your own?

Galen Rowell: David Meunch is a splendid landscape photographer whom I consider a friend. Until recently his work has been with larger cameras and more limited to landscapes than mine, with smaller cameras which has enabled me to cover the whole breadth of personal experience in the wilderness, from wildlife to mountaineering in the Himalayas.

Question from PhotoKid: Have you ever looked into or tried underwater photography?

Galen Rowell: I'm a recently certified scuba diver and underwater photography is a fantastic challenge.

Question from hello: Which is your favorite spot for taking pictures?

Galen Rowell: My favorite spot is the southern High Sierra of California, but I had to go to the seven continents and both poles to know that! It is my favorite because it evokes the most passion in me from a lifetime of experience and memories.

Question from Kathe: But yours are heavy footsteps to walk behind. When artists such as Rowell, Adams, Lepp and others have shared their visions of beautiful areas, some would say there are no new ways to share the beauty. How should a photographer find his or her "voice" on film?

Galen Rowell: First of all, whenever I teach a photo workshop and take 15 people to the same place at the same time, we come back with 16 very different photographs of that place. Everyone has a unique way of looking at the world. When a photographer develops the consistency to express that on film, itís called "style." That's what it is all about.

Question from digitalshooter: What kind of workshops do you have?

Galen Rowell: We teach two, three-day field workshops out of our gallery and offices in Emoryville, CA in March and September. That's two in March and two in September. We also offer one-day seminars and four-day advanced workshops. For more info, check out our website www.mountainlight.com, or call 510/601-9000.

Question from elephanto: Do you have any suggestions on buying a camera for beginner photographers?

Galen Rowell: I think its best to start with a SLR (single lens reflex). And my personal choice is Nikon. Nikon has just announced a new N-80 camera that is perfect for beginners. And I like to use it for lightweight adventures, too.

Question from Newsguy: "Developing consistency" implies sticking with certain techniques, i.e. film, camera, lenses. Are you willing to tell us about what you use or favor?

Galen Rowell: I've published all of my personal equipment choices in Outdoor Photographer Magazine. And they will also be in a Fall 2000 book, "Galen Rowell's Inner Game of Outdoor Photography." I use strictly Nikon cameras and mainly shoot Fuji Velvia film. I do use some Kodak film for special situations.

Question from dave: What would you say was your most difficult photography moment?

Galen Rowell: Being near the top of the great Trango Tower in the Himalayas, making the first ascent in 1977, and having a camera strap that I was testing for a company fail, so that my camera fell 5000 feet. I borrowed a friend's camera to take pictures on the summit.

Question from Ozymandias: Out of all of your excursions in the natural world, what place has been the most fulfilling-- emotionally and artistically?

Galen Rowell: I think we can go back to that answer and say definitely the Yosemite and the Sierra of California, not because they are any more beautiful than any other place in the world, but because I have a passionate personal connection with them since childhood. That heartfelt connection is as important as your choice of camera and lens.

Question from Witch: Have you ever thought of combining the use of infrared film into your photography, or do you think it would be an unacceptable format?

Galen Rowell: I experimented with infrared in the Ď60s. But my choice is to show the world as closely as I can to the way it appears to my eye. Thatís why I favor standard daylight films.

Question from KC: Mr. Rowell, what advice would you give an amateur nature photographer?

Galen Rowell: Woo...(laughing).. my first word of advice would be to learn to see like film. Film sees the world very differently than the human eye in almost every way. Once you understand that a photograph never looks like what you see in every way, then you learn how to translate your vision into the foreign visual language of film.

Question from dennsdmnce: Do you find black & white photography less fulfilling than color?

Galen Rowell: For myself, yes. I did both for many years. And then decided to stick with color. When I began, many of my sales were for black and white publications. While I prefer color, I certainly revere the work of great black and white photographers and know that for some artists and some subject matters, it is the best choice.

Chat Moderator: What have you learned about the environment as a landscape photographer?

Galen Rowell: As a landscape photographer, I've seen more beauty and more unusual scenes than I ever would have as just a casual traveler into wild places. And I think that learning to see deeply whether as a photographer, a botanist, a geologist, a writer, or a zoologist, is the important thing. When you have a special passion that draws you into a wild place, you soon begin to see the interconnectedness of it all and the need for stewardship.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us?

Galen Rowell: Wherever photography goes in the future from film to wholly digital still images to high definition video, the central core mission remains the same. Photography is a means of visual communication. And human beings take in more information more quickly from images than they do from words, even the words of this chatroom.

Chat Moderator: Thank you, Galen Rowell, for joining us tonight to talk about your philosophy of photography.

Galen Rowell: Good bye and thanks for joining us!


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