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Closing of the Mountain Light Gallery

Sunday, October 1st, 2017

Last week, the Mountain Light Gallery in California’s eastern Sierra announced it is closing its doors. Showcasing the work of photographers Galen and Barbara Rowell, the Mountain Light had been a standard stop for many photographers, hikers, and tourists stopping through Bishop since they first opened their doors in 1983. To say I was taken aback by this announcement is an understatement. Gary Crabbe, a past employee of Galen’s, shared his views on the closing of Mountain Light in his blog. I can’t begin to replicate Gary’s sentiments, but I wanted to share a bit of my history with Mountain Light.

photo of a barren mountain landscape with late day sunlight with receding mountain ridges behind it

Galen Rowell was a San Francisco Bay Area photographer and climber whose images of the mountains are simply iconic. From his home range, the Sierra Nevada, to mountaineering expeditions in South America and Tibet, Galen’s work set the bar for adventure and backcountry landscape photography. In the days when I cared about such things, his were the images I compared mine against.

On August 11, 2002, on their way home from an expedition through northern Tibet, Galen and Barbara were flying into the Bishop airport when the plane they were in crashed, killing both of them. The same day as Galen and Barbara’s passing is the day I moved from California from Wyoming. I remember hearing the news that day on the radio as I unloaded boxes into my apartment. Not long after that I made my first trip to Bishop (I did graduate work at the White Mountain Research Station whose offices are in Bishop). The gallery was one of the first places we stopped. Galen’s images were always inspirational and moving, a grand welcome to the Golden State.

Perhaps most importantly, Galen’s was the first photography I became familiar with that had a “voice,” and I’ve often used his work as an example when trying to describe this somewhat abstract concept. Galen’s presence in his images was evident the moment you step foot in the gallery. His sense of adventure, eye for the subtleties of light, love of life, and even his devotion to his wife are all palpable when you walk through its doors. I have never gone to the eastern Sierra without stopping in at Mountain Light Gallery and I have never walked out of there without feeling a little choked up. Like the Rowells, their gallery will be truly missed.

photo of yellow grasses on a high altitude plateau with peaks in the distance and white cumulus clouds in the blue sky above

The images in this blog post are throwbacks to my graduate school days (probably both are from 2003 or 2004). They are scanned Fuji Sensia slides from the Barcroft Plateau in the White Mountains not far from Bishop.

Revisiting the White Mountains

Friday, July 27th, 2012

Just a few posts ago, I mentioned how I spent several summers working in the White Mountains of eastern California when I was in graduate school.  The Whites are an interesting mountain range.  Comprising the eastern border of the Owens Valley, they are certainly imposing, with California’s 3rd highest peak (White Mountain Peak, 14,252′) as well the highest point in Nevada (Boundary Peak, 13,147′), but despite their prominence, the Whites are visited far less than the nearby Sierra Nevada.

The Sierra is a relatively wet mountain range, receiving anywhere from 20-80 inches of precipitation a year (for the arid west, that’s wet).  The Whites, in the rain shadow of the Sierra, stand in stark contrast, fully embodying the characteristics of the Basin and Range province, to which they are included–dry, windy, desolate, and strikingly beautiful.

Detail of a bristlecone pine trunk

In the Details, July 2012

I have always loved the Whites, primarily because the lower elevations remind me of my home in northwestern New Mexico: piñon-juniper scrubland and sagebrush dominate the landscape, giving way to primarily lower-growing sage above about 8,000 feet.  Deer, coyotes, wild horses, pika, and marmots are common here.  However, the real draw–accounting for the bulk of visitation–is the presence of the Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva).  With the exception of organisms that self-replicate (clones), bristlecones are the longest-living organisms on earth.  One tree in the Whites, Methuselah, is estimated to be 4,500 years old.   If the Whites have a persona of incredibly difficult growing conditions, then the bristlecones fit that quite well.  Their gnarled trunks and otherworldly shapes are a favorite of photographers.

Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) and summer storm clouds

Weathering the Storm, July 2012

After nearly seven years away, I recently returned to the White Mountains.  Walking around in the ancient bristlecone pine forest is an act of humility.  Before leaving on my recent trip, a friend and I had a conversation about life and the value of living in the moment.  This conversation was heavy on my mind as summer storm clouds moved through the Whites at sunset, giving these grand trees an equally grand backdrop.

Of all things on earth, these trees have given their best shot at living forever, and even they can’t quite do it.  Once they die, the dry air preserves them leaving funky skeletons on several hillsides.  What advice would they give, after 4,500 years, to someone just starting out?  Would it be to live in the moment, to not let the little things get you down, and to hold close the things in life that make you deeply happy?

I’m anthropormorphizing a little bit more here than my contract allows, so I’ll stop.  Suffice it to say, I think that’s pretty good advice.

Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) and storm clouds, California

The Sentinel, July 2012

We spent one night at 11,000′ in the bristlecones, and I was reminded of a few things that have kept the White Mountains on my mind all these years:

  1. Yes, it can snow in July in California.  Even if only for a few minutes.
  2. The White Mountains are the only place I’ve ever experienced altitude sickness (manifested by trouble sleeping).  I attribute it to the dry air.
  3. The warm-toned trunks of the bristlecones contrast very nicely with stormy skies.
  4. Everyone should experience quiet like the Whites afford once in their lifetime.
  5. Everyone should experience a night sky like the Whites afford once in their lifetime.

From a photographic point of view, I find it amazing that several images can come out of one place in a short amount of time.  This is probably due to luck, inspiration, and visualization, but I have been updating my portfolios with new images and have added several from the White Mountains.  Please visit my Mountains and Intimate Perspectives portfolios to see these and other new images.

It’s funny how some places can be a huge part of our lives, exit for several years, and then re-enter.  I guess they never really leave us.

Sunset in the Patriarch Grove of Bristlecone Pines

Pastel sunset, July 2012