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A Tribute to Galen Rowell

I never met Galen Rowell. Nevertheless, I was shocked and deeply saddened when I learned of his and his wife's death in a plane crash a few days ago. His death has affected me more than any other person I've never met.

Over the past few years, I've purchased several of his books, visited his gallery in Emeryville several times (before they moved to Bishop), and read his monthly column in Outdoor Photographer. I own one of the graduated neutral density filters he so often raved about and which bears his name.

I haven't finished reading one of his books, and it's going to be very hard to do so now. It will also be very hard reading his next Outdoor Photographer column, which I'm guessing he already wrote. He had a very personable way of writing which made you feel as if you were right there with him, on his expeditions around the world or in California.

There are a lot of professional nature photographers, but Galen is one of the only ones whose work I truly respected. When I look at other work, I often find myself critiquing or finding the images don't evoke any response from me. But visiting Galen's gallery in Emeryville was always a treat. Two of his images hang on the walls of my home.

I think what makes me feel connected to Galen more is the fact that we lived in the same area and both enjoyed the Sierras. He once wrote that despite his worldly travels, he still loved the Sierras the most. I feel the same way so far, in my much less intensive travels. I recall reading Galen write enthusiastically about moving from the crowded Bay Area to Bishop. I've only driven through Bishop once, but had hoped to visit his new gallery there sometime this year. It sounded like he was very much enjoying the move, the easy accessibility to the mountains. It seems so sad that he was only able to enjoy that for a year and a half.

Though he was 61, he kept himself in great physical condition and would clearly have enjoyed making photographs for another 15 or 20 years. When I learned of his death, after the shock began to wear off, I didn't think so much about the images he had yet to make. I didn't think about his impact on the art of nature photography. What I thought about was myself, leaving camp early in the morning or at sunset to catch images of beautiful mountain light while others are in their tents. I thought about that quiet mountain air and how he would never be able to experience that again.

The next time I go out on a hiking or backpacking trip, camera in hand, it's going to be hard for me. I'm sure thoughts of him will creep into my mind as I press the shutter button each time.

I haven't even mentioned his wife, Barbara, yet. She had just finished a book -- she looks so happy standing next to her plane on the cover of her book. It was clear that they had a wonderful marriage and that's another reason it's such a sad loss. I know some people will romanticize the idea of dying with your partner. But I think it's sad because at least if she had survived, she could have kept his memory alive and continued running the Mountain Light Gallery. Now I can only hope that the gallery will remain open to share his work with others for years to come.

You may be wondering why I'm writing this. I'm not sure. I have no moral to end this story with. I guess I would just like to share my feelings with readers who may understand what a great loss this was. I'm sure Galen has inspired many people. If the Mountain Light guest book is any indication, that is clearly the case. I hope that despite his death, he will continue to be an inspiration for years to come.

- Kevin Gong, 17 August 2002

To leave your thoughts for the friends and families of Galen and Barbara Rowell, visit the Mountain Light web page.

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