Mountain Light
and Sporting Life

By Peter Howe

The photographic firmament is much darker than the last time I wrote this column. Two of its brightest stars are missing, both dying within eight days of each other in early August. One was the groundbreaking sports photographer John G. Zimmerman who died of lymphoma in Monterey California. The other was the poetic visionary of nature photography, Galen Rowell, who tragically perished with his wife Barbara in the crash of a light aircraft returning to their home in Bishop, also in California. I worked with both of them during my time as a picture editor, on many occasions with Galen, but only once with John.

The word "pioneer" is one of those words like "hero" that is used so loosely as to devalue its meaning, but if it was ever an appropriate description of a photographer it would be to describe John Zimmerman. Nowadays we are so used to seeing the techniques that he invented and perfected that we forget that forty years ago they were revolutionary. He was the first to use remote cameras placed in unlikely places such as ice hockey nets, or on the backboards of basketball hoops; nobody had used blur to express rather than capture the motion of sports; he used multiple strobe techniques to reveal the grace and complexity of athletic movement as he did in a masterful way in a 1980 sequence showing US Olympic diver Jenny Chandler arc through the air, enter the pool and swim towards the camera underwater. His techniques have often been imitated since he created them, but they have rarely been equaled, because to John these were not merely technological tricks, but a way of involving the reader in the action to a degree that still photography had been unable to achieve before him. With John at a hockey match you weren't by the ice but on it; the best seats in a Nicks game didn't get you as close to those swirling giants as his spreads in Sports Illustrated. With Zimmerman behind the lens you weren't just a fan, you were a fan with access.

The one time that I worked with him at LIFE Magazine there wasn't a remote control camera or multiple strobe in sight. What we needed from him then was another side of his talents as a photographer. The story was about Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley. At the time Lisa Marie was suffering from the double emotional burden of being a teenager and the King's only offspring, and Priscilla was, well, Priscilla. Both needed handling with the utmost care and delicacy, and John's decades of experience of dealing with the super-egos of sport (as well as the models in the swimsuit issue) came through for us big time. He was like a fly fisherman gently luring his prey through his intense understanding of its nature. He made them feel that his ideas were their ideas; he was respectful without fawning, calm but determined, and exuded a quiet self-confidence. He was how I want to be when I grow up. I wish that I'd had more opportunities to imitate him rather than his photographic techniques.

I did have many occasions to observe and admire Galen Rowell. We worked together at LIFE, Audubon, and on several Day In The Life books. Galen himself was the author of eighteen books, and his company was named after the most famous of them, Mountain Light published in 1986. After hearing about his death I leafed through one, Galen Rowell's Vision that is based on a collection of his columns in Outdoor Photography. In it he reveals his secrets of taking outstanding photographs in the wilderness. I'm sure, knowing Galen, that he did this with generous intentions, honestly wanting the reader to be able to share his pleasures of the outdoors and photography, because Galen was generous and honest in all his dealings. What I don't know is whether he fully realized that no matter how many times you read this book, even if you memorized it from cover to cover, you would never be able to take photographs equal to Galen Rowell's unless you had a vision and a passion equal to his. The book is full of practical advice - "Any photo class with more than twenty students is not a workshop regardless of how it is promoted" - as well as philosophical advice. My favorite is in the preface:

"My style of photography is adventure. The art of adventure is highly participatory, but not necessarily in the physical sense of carrying a camera to the top of a mountain to get the best picture. Even if taken on the summit, passive snapshots made from the point of view of the spectator are rarely considered art. The art of adventure implies active visual exploration that is more mental than physical. The art becomes an adventure and vice versa. Where there is certainty the adventure disappears."

This was the way that Galen lived his life, exploring the realms of uncertainty in Nepal, Tibet, Africa, China, Alaska, Siberia or Patagonia. If you look through any of his books you will see the vision of a voyager, an explorer of lands, emotions and ideas, and in every one of them you will see his beloved mountains. Galen made his first rope climb in the Yosemite Valley at the age of sixteen, and he was as well known in the world of rock climbing as that of photography.

Galen was an adventurer and he was also married to one. Barbara, his wife of twenty one years, was a photographer in her own right as well as an experienced and accomplished pilot who would often fly both of them to locations or workshops in her own plane. However Galen did once say of her: "Given the choice of a hotel room with a shower or an icy dawn in a sleeping bag with the chance of alpenglow, she would take the room and I would take the photograph." But the other thing that I admired about these two wanderers was that they were both attuned to and skilled at the business of photography. They had a gallery, both physical and on the web, from which they sold prints; Galen wrote books, columns and articles about photography and adventuring; they produced posters, gave lectures and organized workshops; Galen even developed and marketed graduated neutral density filters. They did all this while traveling hundreds of thousand of miles per year doing assignments for National Geographic, Outside and many other magazines. Those of you that have read my constant pleas for photographers to take care of business as well as photography will realize how much this endeared them to me.

For two adventurers, who regularly took risks that for many people were outside of the imaginable, to be killed in a chartered plane from Oakland to Bishop after returning from the Bering Sea has an irony that is painful. For Galen to die by crashing into the majestic Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains is grotesque. For Barbara, the author of a book entitled Flying South: A Pilot's Inner Journey, to end her life in a small plane that she wasn't piloting is equally distressing.

The legacy that both John and Galen have bequeathed to our industry is the example of being photographers of vision and uncompromising determination who pursued their calling with honor and grace. But unless those who will propel this profession into the future take up that legacy it will be a hollow bequest. Emulation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, but the best memorial that we could give them.

© 2002 Peter Howe

Contributing Editor

Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist