Book Review: “Mountain Light” by Galen Rowell

Galen Rowell’s ::amazon(“0871563673”, “Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape”):: might seem an odd first choice for a book for teaching photography, not because of Rowell’s talent (which is undeniable) but because of the age of the book, first published in 1986, long before the digital revolution. And yet when students in my photo workshops ask for a first recommendation for a book that will teach them something beyond basic photographic mechanics, Mountain Light is always my first suggestion: It provides, more than any other book on color nature photography, a clear and holistic view into the inner workings of Rowell’s photographic process.

The book is alternates between chapters and exhibits, the chapters containing larger essays, the exhibits containing a group of images each accompanied by a detailed essay describing the “making of” that image.

The book would be worthwhile for the chapter essays alone. Rowell’s “first person” description of how your eye sees and how that varies from how your camera sees is a personal favorite, addressing in detail the forces behind the frustrations nearly all photographers face when learning to record the landscape at first, problems of white balance, of depth, of the enormous differences of dynamic range. Another provides a great reminder of the many and varied optical affects that play into the natural world, and how best to capture those ephemera in images, yet another provides a story of how Rowell came to be a photographer himself.

And yet, while I enjoy the longer essays, what really keeps me coming back to Mountain Light are the smaller, image-by-image essays, I’d imagine over a hundred of them, each ranging from around five to twelve paragraphs, Mountain Light is both a large and a dense book. Most of these smaller essays manage to combine the story behind how Rowell came to be where the photograph along with a description of the specific artistic, logistical and technological challenges that each image presented. Those challenges range from communicating with Goloks in Tibet without a language in common, conveying the scope and size of large mountains peaks, or clawing for two more stops of shutter speed (one from pushing the film, one from resting the camera on a parka covering a window ledge) to capture an image of a lynx in dark glade.

Were there only a few such image essays, the impact of the lessons presented would be muted, part of what really works about Mountain Light is the repetition of ideas, presented time and time again but only when the image demands that idea, a repetition that provides emphasis on important points as well as context for when those issues raise their heads. While a few of the technical ideas might seem dated on the surface (e.g., push processing film to get an effective higher ISO at the cost of more film grain), the ideas still nearly universally relate easily to modern concepts (using a higher ISO on a digital camera at the cost of more sensor noise). And more importantly, the conceptual and compositional ideas are and always will be every bit as valid today as they were when Mountain Light was written.

In the preface to the 1995 second edition, written nearly a decade after the book was originally published, Rowell wrote:

“Photographic styles … based on the qualities of light and form will remain equally valid in whatever new technologies evolve.”

Rowell’s prophecy is amply evidenced by the continued relevance of ::amazon(“0871563673”, “Mountain Light”):: to today’s photographers, it’s a fantastic book, and one that deserves an honored place on your bookshelf.

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