I bought my first camera in 1997 in a Quebec City pawnshop. It was an old Minolta X-370s with a 50mm lens. From the moment I left the shop and for the next few months, that camera stayed warm in my hands as I relentlessly made awful pictures on grocery store 35mm film.
Supremely disappointed with my results, I realized I couldn’t blame my poor results on camera malfunctions because my girlfriend at the time was getting better pictures from the same camera. She cared less about pursuing the photo arts than I did. I had the passion, but no understanding of composition and exposure. I was frustrated, but I carried on.
Still, with the abandon of the amateur, and despite the ample evidence of the awful photographs I took, I believed that photography was my medium. Painting took too long, and my Germanic cultural ancestry predisposed me to an appreciation of precision tools. The immediacy of making a picture and the sound of 1/500th of a second was irresistible.
Back in those days, when digital photography was just a gleam in George Smith and Willard Boyle’s eyes, we had to wait an hour or more to see the results from the lab. It was like opening up a present on Christmas Day. I looked forward to disappointment with such dedication that I knew one day my photographic skill would have to undergo a transformation. Surely, no one who cares this much about their craft could possibly fail.
Of course my transformation as a photographer did not come because of a better camera or nicer stock of film. Even though I hoped new gear would make me a better photographer, I had to face reality and seek some technical guidance.
About a year after purchasing my Minolta, I picked up my first copy of Photo Life magazine in a small photo retail shop in Jasper, Alberta. While browsing superior cameras, a wonderful clerk – who ended up becoming a good friend – mentioned I could take a copy of the magazine for free. And thus began my journey of knowledge. Photo Life, full of helpful tips for the amateur like me, opened my eyes to the craft of Photography, featuring articles on exposure, film types, depth of field, ISO and composition.
I quickly became a photography magazine addict. Eventually I discovered a column in another magazine that would be instrumental in guiding my approach to taking pictures. Outdoor Photographer published short essays by Galen Rowell on thoughts and anecdotes concerning outdoor photography. He wrote about gear and techniques similar in other magazines but his work stood apart because his anecdotes were written in a personal qualitative manner, with an emphasis on the physiology and psychology of making pictures. I became a dedicated fan and follower of his work and for the next couple of years I never missed an issue.
Inspired by Rowell’s writing and by the beauty of the Canadian Rockies and British Columbia, I started taking nature shots. Like many a seeker before me, I hit the road. In a dilapidated Volkswagen camper, I travelled throughout BC, working odd jobs along the way to maintain the minimal life support necessary for taking pictures. Then one day, somewhere along the way, while browsing the photography section of a bookstore, I discovered Galen Rowell’s The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography.
I had read many of Rowell’s essays, published in Outdoor Photographer, but this book is structured in a way that takes you on a journey. I felt lucky that I had not previously read most of the essays chosen for the book; all told, it was exactly what I was craving.
Every morning during the next couple of months camping on Haida Gwaii, coffee in hand, I curled up in my ’82 VW camper to learn about the inner discipline that must be joined with the outer in photography. I finished Rowell’s book. Closing it after reading the last chapter, I started a new chapter in my approach to nature photography. I realized photography is not just about composition and light. It is more about how I incorporate photography into my life.
To be satisfied with my art, I knew my technical skills were fundamental. But, I now understood that my creative vision is what is most important. It was as though I had been reintroduced to myself. With my original passion reignited and my photographic naivety still present, this time around I felt more prepared.
Rowell’s foundational method is to pre-visualize the results you want and then become an active participant in the picture making process. His research into the psychology of photography arms the photographer with the understanding of how humans see. I discovered that colours are not primary qualities and that dynamic tension and oblique angles in a photograph activate the viewer’s defence system on a subconscious level because predatory animals typically approach us from the side or above. These insights helped me into understanding what makes a great photograph before clicking the shutter or knowing whether to choose f8 at 1/100th or f11 at 1/50th of a second.
Excited by these new understandings, I went to Victoria to get a formal education in photography. I felt it was time to make a serious go at the craft. After being on Haida Gwaii for weeks with little access to big-city services, I was eager to seek out a shop where I could pick up the latest issue of Outdoor Photographer. I found the magazine. There, on the cover, was a picture of Galen Rowell. My excitement quickly turned to sadness. Two dates were found at the bottom of the cover: 1940-2002.
Galen Rowell was gone, and this issue of the magazine was dedicated to his life and work. He and his wife, Barbara, had both died in a small plane crash over Inyo County, coming back from Alaska at roughly the same time I was on Haida Gwaii, reading his book.
Thereafter, every time I would pick up a copy of Outdoor Photographer and realize that Rowell’s column was the only reason I bought the magazine, a void opened in my photographic life.
I searched for and read other articles and books, such as Susan Sontag’s infamous On Photography. It was a good read but I didn’t connect with her work on the level I did with Rowell’s since she was not concerned with practical considerations of the medium. There are many books on how to sell, take and run a business of photography, but there seems to be a peculiar lack of material on the spiritual, ethical and psychological approach to photography and how this art form contributes to society.
I discovered that besides Rowell’s work, there really isn’t any published material that I have been able to find in the same vein. Rowell’s work may not have been the authoritative reference, but The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography was a refreshing and unique approach to much more than the nuts and bolts of the craft.
The book hit the shelves about a year before digital SLRs became available in high-enough resolution and at a low-enough price to meet the needs and budget of most outdoor photographers. Rowell’s book briefly mentions digital, but it was written in the era of film. It was two years after that I bought my first digital camera, a Canon 5D. I haven’t touched my film camera since. Having the instant results of digital in the field has helped to improve my technical skills. Not only has digital given me more confidence and control when shooting, it has improved my organisation and the delivery of a final product.
One negative consequence of the digital revolution, however, is that it has brought about an almost exclusive focus among photographers on the technical side of photography. These days, all our discourse—in books and blogs and magazines, at shoots—tends to centre on technical matters. Tech talk can be useful, of course, but it can also distract us from doing the continual questioning about why we are taking photographs at all. Furthermore, all that talk can crowd out or leave little room for acting upon our understanding of photography as a holistic process with subjectivity—a photographer—at its centre.
After becoming a devout digital photographer, I reread Rowell’s book and found a pleasant affirmation that it doesn’t matter what format or camera I shoot with. What matters is the Inner Game of Outdoor Photography.*
Visit Mountain Lights website for more information on Galen Rowell and his published works here