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Working with a Legend; Galen Rowell

by Gary Crabbe | June 22, 2010

© Gary CrabbeMany people that know me, or have followed my photography, are aware that I got my start in the industry working for the internationally renowned photographer and adventurer, Galen Rowell. It quickly became apparent that I had stumbled into a position that many people, especially other photographers, would have happily considered sacrificing the proverbial body part in exchange for that experience and opportunity. Throughout the years, and even today, one of the questions that I am most often asked is, “What was it like to work for Galen?”

The other question that I am often asked in close follow-up is, “How did I get the job working for him? What kind of experience did I have?” Let’s start there, since that makes for a good beginning. The experience part is relatively easy to answer; practically none. I had a single basic black-and-white photography course as an art elective in college, and 10 years experience working as a cook. One day I saw an ad in the newspaper for someone looking for help in an outdoor photo agency, and who must like dogs. I said to myself, “I don’t know what an outdoor photo agency is, but I like the outdoors and dogs” I sent in a resume. When I got the call to come in for an interview, I immediately recognized his name and the Mountain Light logo. It turns out that a number of years prior, I had seen Galen’s Mountain Light exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Outside of work by Ansel Adams, it had been the only other photography exhibit I had seen. I admit, I sat there a bit star-struck during the interview as he and his wife Barbara explained quite clearly that they weren’t looking for photographers or people to help Galen in the field. Rather, they were looking for people who would be happy to stay in the office and be the backbone of the business. I had no interest or intention of ever becoming a photographer, and my only priority at that point in life was to quit my cooking job. I was offered a position and hired to be the ‘file boy,’ responsible for sorting out and putting back slides that had been returned from various magazines, calendar, and ad agency submissions.

Nine days later, I left on my three-week honeymoon. I’d just had nearly two full weeks of exposure to some of the world’s greatest landscape and adventure photography. I enthusiastically took my manual Minolta x370 camera and 10 rolls of Kodak Gold film to Hawaii, naively thinking I would return with all of these great shots. That naivety was confirmed in full when I picked up my prints at the local grocery store.

Banner Peak © Gary Crabbe

Banner Peak reflected in 1000 Island Lake at sunrise, Eastern Sierra, California

As soon as I walked into the office after my honeymoon, I was immediately told that Barbara and Galen needed to see me in the office. “Gulp!” I could almost hear the axe falling and the words “your services are no longer needed,” echoing through the office. Instead, they advised me that they had fired the person responsible for running his stock photography department, which at the time consisted of nearly 300,000 color transparencies. They asked if I thought I was up to handling the demands of the job, and gave me 90 days to prove myself. That began a nearly a decade long run managing the Mountain Light Stock Department.

So what was it like to work for Galen? The easiest way I can describe it to most people is with the rhetorical question, “You’ve heard of a Type-A personality, right?” Well, Galen was a Type-AAA. Galen was known as an avid and accomplished climber and mountaineer before becoming widely known for his photography. Members of the climbing community would often describe Galen as a bulldog in terms of his strength, stubbornness, and perseverance. Galen’s tireless work ethic and depth of knowledge was equal to his tenacity and passion. Since I was jumping into the business right at the very top level of the industry, Galen taught me two core mantras that I’ve carried with me ever since; always be professional, and always pay attention to details.

Over the course of the next nine years, there were so many stories and anecdotes about what it was like to work for him that it is hard to pick one or two standouts. But far and away, one of the best perks was getting to learn about photography, and understanding how he approached his craft. By the end of my tenure, I had probably worked at more than thirty of his photographic workshops that he taught at his Berkeley and Emeryville offices. Foremost of those lessons was the understanding that the camera and film (pre-digital) saw and rendered the world differently than our eyes and brain. He taught that learning to see like film was like learning a foreign language, and that once you understood how to translate what was coming in the lens, your success rate on what came out on film would definitely go up.

He also stressed to his workshop students the idea of taking things a little slower and paying finer attention to the details. He thoroughly advocated the use of a tripod, and treating the 35mm camera with the same deliberate consciousness as if one were shooting with a large format camera. I think most of my own photographic knowledge came from this repeated exposure to his workshop lectures, and watching him during the student slide reviews. He would crop photos this way and that, and point out what parts of the scene were working, and what was not.

Owens Valley at sunrise © Gary Crabbe

Cloud rising out of the Owens Valley at sunrise, Eastern Sierra, California. I consider this shot on a spiritual level a “Gift from Galen.” It was taken this last year, and is a cloud reminiscent of “Split Rock & Cloud” that graces the cover of Galen’s book, Mountain Light. The cloud appears directly over Galen and Barbara’s home in Bishop.

Watching Galen approach a scene was like watching a creative dynamo. I always likened it to the cartoon Tasmanian Devil with a camera. He definitely took his brand of photography and brought it into the realm of being an action sport. His approach, whether photographing world-famous climbers or a solitary landscape, was that of being an active participant. He always advocated that in order for a viewer to become emotionally invested in a photograph, the photographer had to be emotionally vested in what he was photographing.

One of the greatest things about Galen was his passion for sharing his experiences and his images. Often, when he came back from a trip, he would spend hours in his office sorting and editing his film. Every so often, like a child on Christmas morning, his voice would ring out of his office with this gleeful enthusiasm, saying, “Come here! Stop what you’re doing. You have to see this.” He would honestly and sincerely want to know what we thought. Most of the time of course, it was all Ohh’s & Ahh’s, although on a couple occasions we were known to say that we didn’t quite get it. As soon as he would finish his edit, he would put all of the slides into carousels and treat the staff to our own private slideshow. It was quite special to know that we were the first people (aside from him) to see what would become many of his best-known images.

Lenticular cloud at sunset © Gary Crabbe

Lenticular cloud at sunset over Ragged Peak and Toulumne Meadows, Tioga Pass Road, Yosemite National Park, California

Of the many instances that I recall, a few really stand out as being so typically Galen. One time he asked me to pick him up at his house at 3 AM and drive him to Lodgepole in Sequoia National Park. When I asked him what his plans were, looked at me with this devilish smile, and explained that he was going to run to Bishop. On another occasion he called the office, just so he could tell us where he was: smack in the middle of climbing the northwest face of Half Dome. (This was back in the day when the average cell phone was the size and weight of a brick.) You could hear the joy in his voice as he explained where he was, as if he had never made a phone call from such an unusual location ever before.

Working for Galen was always a challenge, and he always expected good work. He could tolerate a mistake, as long as you stood up and took ownership, and didn’t make the same mistake twice. As a boss, he and Barbara were extremely generous and giving, and ran their business as a casual family-type operation. Galen did have a couple personal faults that would occasionally slip through the cracks. The first stems from his younger days as an auto mechanic and rebel racing his car around the streets of Berkeley, California. Galen was known to be a bit of crazy driver. On more than several occasions, workshop students that rode to a location with Galen in his truck would opt to make the return trip in the tepid and slow comfort of the passenger van that I usually drove.

El Capitan © Gary Crabbe

“Native Spirit” Bird flying through trees and morning light with clearing storm clouds on El Capitan,Yosemite National Park, California

On the very rare occasion, like many people whose time is in high demand, Galen could have a little bit of a temper. He would rarely ever get irate with a person, but if he got around a piece of malfunctioning equipment, watch out. I’ll never forget the day I walked into his office one morning to find the scattered remains of a 140-slide carousel. Apparently at some point during the night before, when preparing for an upcoming presentation, a slide jammed in the narrow little slots one too many times. The note on the floor said, “This is the last 140 tray I will try to use for a slideshow. It did not die a natural death. Give it a suitable burial. – Galen.” In a black humor kind of way, it was so beautifully Galen that I just had to take a picture. Ahhh—Memories. 🙂

Busted 140-slide carousel © Gary Crabbe

Busted 140-slide carousel on the floor in Galen’s office.

In the years since I left Mountain Light in 1999, and the subsequent accident that claimed Galen and Barbara’s life only a few years later, I’ve heard one thing from people I’ve talked to over and over. They would all tell stories about how they wandered in one day to the gallery and would ask a question about a particular photo. They then told about how Galen would pop out of his office, and with a bright gleam in his eye, share whatever time he had available. Often people would say they thought or expected Galen to be unapproachable or arrogant, and yet were surprised at how open and friendly he was when meeting him in person.

Moonset over Basin Mountain © Gary Crabbe

Moonset at sunrise over Basin Mountain, from the Buttermilk Region, near Bishop Eastern Sierra, California. This image was shot on the morning of Galen and Barbara’s memorial in Bishop.

Today, the legacy that Galen left for all of us with his extraordinary vision and insightful writing continues to be felt throughout the world of outdoor nature and adventure travel photography. He opened the door and inspired many people, including myself, to use photography as an outlet for communicating their personal passions and interests to the world. As I look around through numerous online photographic communities and venues, there is so much talent out there that it shows Galen’s influence remains alive and vital.

About the Author

Gary currently resides in Pleasant Hill, California, just outside San Francisco. Gary began taking pictures while attending Humboldt State University, where he received a Bachelors Degree in Social and Adolescent Psychology, and a Masters Degree in Directing, Acting, Writing, and Production for the Theater. His interest in photography began to grow after taking an elective class in Black & White, but he soon found his passion was the pursuit of color and form in nature.

After graduation, a twist of fate led Gary to the studio of World-Famous photographer Galen Rowell, where he managed the Stock Department of Mountain Light Photography for nine years. Known for his industry expertise and unwavering professionalism, Gary has worked with many of the world's best-known advertising agencies, magazines, and publishers. He has been happy to offer his knowledge and opinions consulting with other photographers, and has been quoted several times in Photo District News, Wired Magazine, Mother Jones, and numerous other trade publications.

He has five coffee-table format books to his credit; The California Coast (2001) which won "Book-of-the-Year 2002" by the California Outdoor Travel Writers Association, and Our San Francisco (2003). Both titles have been published by Voyageur Press. The third book, Yosemite & The Eastern Sierra was published in the fall of 2004 by Welcome Books. The fourth book, Backroads of the California Wine Country, was published by Voyageur Press in the Spring of 2006. His fifth title, Backroads of the California Coast, was published in the Spring of 2009. He has just completed work on his sixth title, California; Yesterday & Today, due for release in late of 2010. In addition, His web site was awarded "Editors Choice" in the Netscape, AOL, and Lycos directories and had been one of the most popular individual photographer sites on the Internet. Visit Gary's web site at www.enlightphoto.com.

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