Photo: Cloud rising out of the Owens Valley at sunrise, Eastern Sierra, California

Photo (Above): Cloud rising out of the Owens Valley at sunrise, Eastern Sierra, California

Fifteen years ago last month, I received a phone call from my friend and former fellow co-worker (and now a very accomplished photographer) Jerry Dodrill informing me that our boss(es), Galen Rowell, and his wife Barbara, had been killed in a plane crash on a late night approach into the Bishop airport. The accident happened just miles from where they lived and had re-established their business and gallery, Mountain Light Photography after relocating from the Bay Area. In fact, just last month I wrote a post celebrating Galen’s legacy passing on some of my favorite photo tips that I learned from him over the course of nearly a decade of working for him. What I remember most about that phone call was the feeling of disbelief and the wind being sucked out of me.

Last night I had those same feelings return, albeit to a lesser extent, when Jerry tagged me in a post on Facebook letting folks know that the beautiful Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop would be closing its doors. The Gallery, which was truly Barbara’s child and her passion, served as an ideal place to showcase Galen’s amazing photography, and had become a landmark destination stop for so many photographers who traveled to the Eastern Sierra. After their tragic deaths, the family choose to continue to run the gallery as a great business that offered educational photo workshops, exhibits, print and stock sales, and was known for hosting many community events. I’m sure they must have struggled with this decision.

The thought of going to the Eastern Sierra without stopping in at Mountain Light seems almost alien to me. Although to be totally honest, and probably due in great part to the closeness I had with Barbara and Galen and the time spent working for them, my visits to the gallery were always tinged with a bit of sadness. A melancholy swept over me each time I saw the lives of two such extraordinary people reduced to trinkets in a bookcase. But alas, I knew in my heart that those few little items were nothing in comparison to the gallery itself and the pictures hanging on the wall. That was the true legacy and memory they carried forward. Yet each visit highlighted the growing gap of time that lay between what once was and what is now. Perhaps it’s inevitable that the time came to say goodbye to that physical legacy. One other sad aspect for me was that I always thought Mountain Light had a chance to be something more, to grow above and beyond its roots. But its legacy was nonetheless treasured and carried forward by the family, the community, and fellow photographers in a way that would make anyone proud, and the beauty that was constantly on display left visitors in awe for the special splendor of our natural world that Galen captured so magnificently.

The above photo is one that lives with me as a reminder to the spirit of Galen, Barbara, and Mountain Light. It was shot from roughly the same area as Galen’s famous Split Rock and Cloud image which graces the cover of his seminal book, Mountain Light. I see this image, and I feel their spirit. The memories of the Rowell’s and Mountain Light will live on in myself and the countless number of others whose work and lives they touched.

Woof.

(While there’s no official announcement by the Mountain Light Gallery on its website or Facebook page other than a “Gallery Closing Print Sale” banner, the best information available is that the gallery will likely close sometime after the middle of October, 2017.)



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Gary Crabbe is an award-winning commercial and editorial outdoor travel photographer and author based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, California. He has seven published books on California to his credit, including “Photographing California; v1-North”, which won the prestigious 2013 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal award as Best Regional title. His client and publication credits include the National Geographic Society, the New York Times, Forbes Magazine, TIME, The North Face, Subaru, L.L. Bean, Victoria’s Secret, Sunset Magazine, The Nature Conservancy, and many more. Gary is also a photography instructor and consultant, offering both public and private photo workshops. He also works occasionally a professional freelance Photo Editor.

Join the discussion 17 Comments

  • Richard Wong says:

    Truly sad to hear this Gary and lovely tribute photo. Perhaps it is a sign of the times but I have to be honest and say they haven’t really done themselves any favors with marketing since their website hasn’t been updated since Galen’s passing either. The world has changed a lot in those years. Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered but I would think there is enough of a market for Galen’s work to make sales on the web.

  • Hall Kelley says:

    Gary,

    8.11.2002 is etched deeply into my mind. For some reason it occurred to you to call me that day with the news of the Rowell’s passing and that you were leaving shortly for Bishop to help in any way you could.

    In an odd way, Mountain Light Gallery’s closing is like losing Galen and Barbara again. Their gallery is a truly unique achievement in a world where great photography seems to have become confused with the hardware used to create it. People want to talk about pixels instead of ideas and inspiration. They want to get “Likes” instead of standing in front of superb images printed superbly.

    I defer to the words of Ansel Adams from 1943 in “A Personal Credo” when he wrote: “I have often thought that if photography were difficult in the true sense of the term — meaning that the creation of a simple photograph would entail as much time and effort as the production of a good watercolor or etching — there would be a vast improvement in total output. The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster.” Percent much — as of 9.17.2017, 136,000 photos are uploaded every 60 seconds to Facebook alone. I believe photography has become devalued by the ease of making images by virtually everyone.

    Perhaps the gallery’s closing is another sign of the times. Once again I yield to the master when I say I believe he predicted much of what we are experiencing in an interview with Paul Hill in 1975: “For me the future of the image is going to be in electronic form. … You will see perfectly beautiful images on an electronic screen. And I’d say that would be very handsome. They would be almost as close as the best reproductions.” —Ansel Adams

    I feel beyond fortunate to have worked with you and Galen starting in the early 1990s. It was the impetus to dust off a long-deferred passion of mine.

    Hall

  • Thank you for this, Gary. I still remember the shock I felt when my son told me that Galen and Barbara had died. Galen was and always will be my first great inspiration.

  • Susan Neiswinger says:

    Poignantly and eloquently spoken, Gary! You express yourself as well in prose as with photos and it always leaves an impression on my heart. Such a tragedy and unfortunate loss. Clearly their light is still burning in your heart and in the hearts of many others; that is a beautiful gift you can always treasure, along with your lovely warm-hearted wife and beautiful kind-hearted children.

  • mary says:

    Very sad to hear, the gallery is so beautiful-stunning photographs from all over the world. When friends are visiting, it is one of the places we take them-they are always in awe. The building was remodeled and opened in 1981 as a replica of the original bank from the early 1900’s. I was one of the original staff that worked there.

  • I knew Gslen and Barbara. I was working on some VR imaging for their website and was to meet with Barbara that coming Thursday to work on it.

    Galen worked wonders within the limited capabilities of film. Sadly he left before having the chance to create with the digital tools he recognized early would be the future.

  • QT Luong says:

    I am of course saddened by the news, but in my opinion the Mountain Light Gallery represents only a small part of Galen’s legacy.

    Compared for instance to Ansel Adams, Galen was not a great printer, and with his choice of the 35mm format, the printed page was possibly the best expression of his art, especially since his writings were so powerful. We will no longer have a permanent exhibit space, but his books remain in print.

    Moreover, even Ansel Adams legacy as a printer does not live at the Ansel Adams Gallery (a somehow anomalous institution in a national park) but in the museums and curated galleries that regularly exhibit his work.

  • I’m sorry to see this happen. I was once lucky to see him present a slide show to a small gathering of fans in an alley behind the Western Mountaineering store in Santa Cruz, California. This was in 1981and, for me, it was like seeing Elvis give a concert in a small venue.

    I was (and still am) an admirer of his visual and verbal talents.

  • Rodney Ninow says:

    Thank you for sharing your memories and feelings, Gary. I, too, am saddened by the closing of the gallery. Galen was my inspiration, through his books, then my teacher, through a couple workshops out of Emeryville, and I’m forever grateful for the passion he ignited in me. Through his teachings and examples I’ve been inspired for over twenty years to explore and capture the natural world.

    It’s been a few years since I had the chance to visit the gallery and I fear that my last visit truly will become my last. Galen’s legacy deserves a place in history and in my own way I do what I can to help by including his bio and some images when I give my famous photographers lecture to my beginning photography students. The closing of the gallery marks the end of an era, I fear. But he will live forever in our memories and through his work.

  • Galen was a true inspiration to all of us. I for one will always be thankful for the essays he left us in his books and the photographs. Thank you Galen.

  • It is downright astonishing how well Galen was able to predict what we would face today in digital photography and photomanipulation, even a decade-plus following his death. I’ve read through the ML website archive of articles numerous times, and many of the things he said still haunt me today while I am out in the field, and also in the modern digital darkroom…

    1998: “When we alter an image to draw attention to an effect that wasn’t there on the original film or in the eye of the beholder, we are using the belief system inherent in 160 years of photography to create a false impression that this unusual image represents something film recorded in the natural world. To say that somewhere in there remains a real vision of nature is as bogus as trying to convince someone that a counterfeit $1000 bill created by adding zeros to a ten-spot is really okay because the original bill does represent a certain value held in trust in the national coffers. The operative word here is greed.”

    “Photographs are like gems: the real and the synthetic are often physically indistinguishable, but there is no question as to the ultimate value. A photograph that depicts a moment of real life, whether that of a human activity or of the natural world, is of a higher order than the most perfect replication created by or for the camera with luck removed from the formula.”

    Rest in peace, Mountain Light. You will not be forgotten.

  • Paul Wellens says:

    I was stunned when a friend of mine showed me a printout and said: read this. It was a report of the fatal accident of Barbara and Galen . I could only consider myself lucky that I was able to shake Galens hand in his gallery only a few weeks before his passing. Before that I learned about him in Bay Area Backroads episodes and the episode deicated to him I will never erase
    I since then moved back to Belgium but on October 16 I will be driving through Bishop and if they are still open I will buy , probably more than I can afford, beautiful Galen Rowell art

  • I was fortunate enough to meet Galen in the winter of 1985, at Rock Creek Winter Lodge, at a three-day photo-seminar-on-skis. He was then, and remains, probably the most important person in making 35mm landscape photography a high-quality (and very portable) option to lugging heavy 4×5 or 8×10 view camera and tripod into the wilderness. He had already proved this with his Sierra Club books. After an introductory evening where Galen showed (to us 9 or so ‘students’) two or three 36-exposure sets of Kodachrome transparencies (just received, and unexpurgated) . many of which were quite awful, I’m sure everyone felt better. Even the Master shot a lot of really terrible photos. The next day, we all did our own photography, while skiing higher up the canyon where RCWL was located. Wanting to catch the full moon rising, I was the laggard, as everyone else headed back to RCWL for dinner. By the time I arrived back at RCWL, alone, after dark, everyone was a bit worried, but I had gotten (I hoped) the photos I wanted, to go with a touch of hypothermia. The color-slide film we had taken that day was rushed overnight (by car) to LA and back, as transparencies, the next afternoon. That evening, Galen had each of us show our “five best, and five worst” via slide projector. Simply a brilliant approach. Galen was vary complimentary of my ‘best’ images (not surprising to me, as we were clearly similar in perspective), and I would join him a year later for a winter ascent of Bear Creek Spire (Galen as guide for 9 aspirants, including me). Eight years before, I had done a solo trans-Sierra ski journey, but true winter-mountaineering I had never done. Thanks in large part to Galen’s inspiration and encouragement, many years of my own shows, and some workshops/seminars, in Yosemite, would follow. Galen was, in his own passionate way, a ‘spark’ for many of us.

  • Sean Bagshaw says:

    Very sad news, Gary. Like for so many of us, Galen had an immeasurable impact on my life (and my career). For years I have paid homage and found inspiration by making an annual visit to the Mountain Light Gallery. My trips to the Eastern Sierra will never be the same.

  • Dave Wyman says:

    I’m sorry to learn of the end of the Mountain Light Gallery. I’ve rarely passed through Bishop and not made a stop there. I’ve brought many friends to the gallery, too.

    I first encountered Galen in his magazine articles, which I read at the Los Angeles backpacking shop I worked at, West Ridge, in the mid-1970s. I recall one piece about leading a group on a trans Sierra ski trip. To me, combining photography with guiding groups seemed an awesome way to make a living. In fact I was a Sierra Cub trip leader and I had a long time, mostly amateur interest in photography.

    By the early 1970s I made a living taking people on wilderness tours, too. I signed up for what I believe may have been Galen’s first photo workshop, about 1982, which was also conducted by Lito Tenaya Flores and Gordon Wiltsie. With that terrific experience under my belt, I began to conduct outdoor photo workshops, too, and for a couple of years I hired Gordon as my co-leader on a number of outings.

    I sold some photos and articles to outdoor oriented publications. Eventually I was hired to write and supply the photos for a few books. So it’s no exaggeration on my part to say that Galen Rowell had a profound effect on my life.

    I learned of the Rowell’s deaths in an email that had been forwarded by many photographers. I thought at first it was a sick joke. The closing of Mountain Light seems like a death to me, too. I had a sense of shock when I received an email this morning from the gallery. I hope there will be a way to keep Galen’s legacy alive in Bishop. He’s certainly alive for me when I look at or think about his photos. He’s alive because part of who he was is part of who I am.

  • Bruce L. says:

    This is so sad. Galen Rowell was such an inspiration to me. I have visited the gallery many times, most recently just over a month ago where I was able to share it with three friends. I am always amazed at the skill of Galen who shot only with film and achieved such wonderful results.

    The gallery will be sorely missed by many photographers and the town of Bishop.

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