Renowned outdoor photographer Galen Rowell distinguished himself by photographing places nobody else could get to. A world-class climber with an insatiable appetite for adventure and a perpetual motor, Rowell pushed personal limits every time he went outside.
I won’t speak for anyone else, but my personal threshold is in fact somewhat lower than Rowell’s. When it comes to “getting the shot,” I have no problem with hard work and extreme discomfort. But for whatever reason, Horseshoe Bend’s 2,000 foot drop to the Colorado River has always stopped me about five feet from the rim (Galen Rowell I’m not), almost as if an invisible force field guarded the rim. Each visit would leave me lamenting the images left uncaptured, and vowing things would be different next time.
Well “next time” finally came last spring, when I somehow broke through the force field to inch my way to the edge. For the first time I was able to peer all the way down to the Colorado River at the bend’s midpoint to view the scene as I’d never seen it. I don’t believe I actually captured anything that hadn’t been captured at this frequently photographed location, but overcoming a personal limitation to get something new for me was a source of great personal satisfaction.
The value in this case is less in the image itself than it is in the reminder that we’re all constrained by our own (unique) self-imposed boundaries. Some of these boundaries are pretty obvious and easily addressed, like the impulse to forgo a sunrise shoot in favor of sleep and warmth. Other boundaries—like a fear of heights, or maybe financial constraints that prevent you from visiting coveted locations—are a bit more difficult to overcome, but probably not impossible.
And then there the most insidious boundaries, those imposed by our self-view and that become self-fulfilling: “I’m not artistic,” “Metering is too technical,” “I just don’t see things,” and so on. The good news is that these boundaries are an illusion: As someone who has taught photographers for nearly ten years (and technical professionals for fifteen years before that), I’ve never encountered anyone who couldn’t do more than they believed they were capable of by simply expanding their idea of what they’re capable of.
Galen Rowell died tragically about ten years ago, not climbing mountains but in a plane crash. Greater than Rowell’s legacy of memorable images is a legacy of spirit that can be an example to all of us. You don’t need to snow-camp in the Himalayas, pioneer a route up El Capitan, or befriend the Dalai Lama to achieve personal greatness—you just need to be better today than you were yesterday. So what are you waiting for?