Saving Galen Rowell

I stopped in at a neighborhood thrift shop to poke around among the throwaway things. I'm a regular now, recognized as familiar to attendants who sort and arrange items others have surrendered. Most times, I walk out with nothing but feeling satisfied I looked. Other times, I have left with a treasure or two. There's the Bierstadt reproduction above the fireplace and the David Stewart pot adorned with St. Francis and the bluebirds on top of the kitchen cabinet. There's a loon on the television stand carved and painted in 1992 by Rudy and Diane Kolinchinsky from Minnesota. I have a Navajo sand painting by Joe Ben Jr. among a small collection of clay pots and other relics from native cultures. These are fondly found artifacts to name a few. I am drawn to both original and facsimile creations that artists are willing to put their name on. But on this day, I came upon something that had me scratching my head.

I was looking at a signed and framed photograph print of El Capitan, that magnificent geologic formation in Yosemite National Park. Apparently, the image was made by Galen Rowell. I knew the name. Think John Fielder, Beverly Steveson, and Thomas Mangelsen. Galen Rowell is listed among these who have won the Ansel Adams Conservation Photography Award. Think National Geographic magazine covers. Think of the distinguishing mission of the Sierra Club to which Rowell was associated since his childhood. I have seen his work and thought highly of it not only as a means to further the cause but as an element of the primitive itself, a fractal of origin, a timeless moment shared with his viewers, people who are seeking and finding both solace and solemnity in images of the Range of Light and other places across the earth. Rowell's ethos, in the composite, was both contemplation and activism. His untimely death in 2002 in a plane crash along with his wife, Barbara and two other friends was a clarion flare into the darkness of our looming ecological crisis.  He was and still is a legend.

Thus my reaction to the piece I found in the thrift shop. First, the autograph alone caused me to stand and stare. Secondly, the poor production and presentation quality caused me to churn with feelings of regret and perplexity. The print was double matted and framed in gold colored metal popular in times past when "art" was posterized and placed rather thoughtlessly on walls almost anywhere. Finally, I wrestled with Rowell himself, asking his ghost for some explanation. I needed to know why he would "sign off" on a reproduction that was nothing near the original. I knew there were compromises at play in whatever circumstances were at hand when he put his name on it. The disintegrity felt like a violation of something sacred, like a bobblehead Jesus or a Chia-pet Ghandi. I literally uttered "Oh, Galen" when I saw what had been done whether to him or by him. 

There are those skilled in the technical analysis of printed images. This might be a matter of color saturation and the density of pixelation or its late 20th century equivalent. Or, it might be the cruder technology available to us in 1973 (the year Rowell captured the image). They could speak to the quality of archival paper and ink designed to hold and preserve the reproduction for as long as possible. The understandable aging and fading that naturally occurs when a print is framed without the use of UV resistant glass could be a factor. Later, I briefly surveyed the history of image printing and preservation technology and got lost in the details. This wasn't my chief concern anyway. However, the Galen Rowell print I was looking at was evidently poorly produced and then mistreated over the years.

My more earnest complaint was that of overall image quality and the composition of the photograph itself. There seemed to be no anchoring foreground, no sharp definition of the overshadowed trees pointing toward the lifting clouds shrouding the summit of El Capitan. The "negative space" was missing making for a claustrophobic perspective. The light seemed flat and evenly diffused, unremarkable. I thought I might have stumbled on one of Rowell's earliest works when he didn't know what he was doing. Obviously, this is a projection of my own painful memories of thinking my images were good when in fact they were at most pedestrian or simply awful. I desperately needed Rowell's print to be better than it was. I would look away and then back only to grow in my disappointment that this Galen Rowell signed print was a misrepresentation of his work and the Cosmos was not encountering itself in this piece of "art". I left the shop empty handed.

The following day, I was processing my own images of dogs and birds and snowscapes when I got to thinking on the Rowell print in the thrift shop. It didn't take long to search and find Clearing Storm, El Capitan and when I saw it on the screen I realized its original version was majestic, ethereal, nuanced and explicit all at once. I sensed its deeper connection to the shadowy canyon and the soaring heights of mystery in misty clouds infused with radiant sunlight. I discovered the best of it was lost in the reproduction. The original is balanced even with its monolithic subject jutting upward toward the top of the frame. There was "what is not" in the eternal azure sky above the peak while the trees, though cloaked in foreboding darkness were holding a kind of snow-laden reverence for the piercing light on the vertical surface of the mountain. The foreground was there, a place to stand in awe. I began to feel some modicum of relief that Rowell had gotten it mostly right in the moment of truth. He made his camera see what he was seeing. In doing so, the Cosmos was explaining itself to itself and Rowell was conveying it.

Clearing Storm, El Capitan / Galen Rowell, 1973

Clearing Storm, El Capitan / Galen Rowell, 1973

I returned to the thrift shop, in a blizzard no less, and bought the print for a mere $13.85. Thinking back, I wanted it as a reminder of something important to the origin of things. I wanted it as a lesson to the middle story of passing things along. I wanted it as a testament of something lost in translation. I wanted to save someone the embarrassment of hanging it on their wall. Somehow, I wanted to save Galen Rowell. He never should have signed the thing to begin with and most of all, if he did, he should not have sold it even if all or part of the money was going to the Sierra Club or any other foundation with which he was associated.

Returning home, I propped the picture on the base of the frame next to my desk and simply gazed. In turn, I looked to Rowell's original image on my computer screen. Side by side, I was stuck between a rock (Rowell) and a hard place (His signature on a poorly produced artifact). He was a technical master, an innovator, meticulous, and articulate about his craft. He was no abstract expressionist. His passion was in the precise and participatory, of himself with others and with the earth itself. He wanted others to see what he was seeing. I knew there had to be some reason for my dilemma. After a few days of walking past the picture I decided to free it from the framing and matting to see what further clues I might find. The image was mounted on foamboard and easily slid from behind the dingy glass.

And there it was. Below the bottom of the printed image were the words THE WRUBEL GALLERY INAUGURAL EXHIBITION / GALEN ROWELL : CALIFORNIA VIEWS / NOV. 12 TO DEC. 31 1983 / THE NATURE COMPANY / FOURTH STREET CENTER / BERKELEY CALIFORNIA. I could find no further record or commentary on either the gallery or the exhibit. Someone decided to convert an original image into a promotional broadside that was signed by Rowell with what appears to be fine pencil. Someone may have simply asked for it, impromptu, spontaneously during the opening days of the event. Was there a moment of hesitation at the request? Did he mumble beneath his breath something of his consternation at the misguided cropping and lost virtue of his original? 

I heard Gary Snyder say that an artist would always place art above activism. I'm not sure if Galen Rowell would fully agree. I'm not sure if Rowell was "there" yet. While my impression of him is a mix of confronting his delivery of the natural world with spirited animism, he also seemed pointedly pragmatic, almost mechanistic. But there was a purpose, a drivenness about him that comes through in every interview still out there to see and hear. A retrospective on his life and work leaves me almost breathless. However, was Galen Rowell a true artist or was he more missionistic, discursive, a prodder, a "reasoner"? Obviously, the answers are less important than the questions but the clues and cairns are pointing me in the direction of the mystique of the man. People were and still are (as they should be) fascinated with Galen Rowell. He stood for the earth and made his point with his photography. So, why would I stand in a thrift shop and labor over this one artifact that seemed to defy both art and activism?

I think the answer is found where things are given up on, no longer useful or attractive or valued. I think it is in the venue of things surrendered. It is in the manner in which true art is woven into the reality of the primal domain and the fact that we miss this connection so much in our mishandling of the gift of conveyance. I think it is in what we are destroying and depleting of the earth and its biodiversity. It is in the misunderstood and misrepresented. It is in the profound lack of cultivation of human potential. It is in the "framing" we do of our world, its systems, its human cultures and its variant beauties. It is in the commingling of consciousness and Cosmos that few ever sense. It is in the fact that what an artist does each moment of her or his life is an act of invitation, of furtherance of the transformational nature of all that is. It is in the experience Rowell himself was so hungry for; for you and me to stand alongside and witness a clearing storm on El Capitan. What I found in the thrift shop would have never satisfied that desire. So, as I will not be placing my Galen Rowell print on display in my home, I may have taken it out of circulation for better reasons. 

James Scott Smith

March, 2019