I think of wilderness landscape photography as the pursuit of visual “peak experiences.” I’m borrowing a term here from humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, who studied human potential ‒ the heights to which humans can aspire, not the depths to which they can sink. According to Maslow, peak experiences can give “a sense of the sacred, glimpsed in and through the particular instance of the momentary, the secular, the worldly.” Whoa! That sounds awfully pretentious. But when I think back on the most beautiful scenes I've ever witnessed, they start to approach what Maslow was talking about. Visual peak experiences are moments of extraordinary natural beauty, often ephemeral, that I seek to capture in such a way that a viewer of the photograph can share my sense of wonder and joy. Granted, my photographs rarely, if ever, achieve such lofty heights. Perhaps they never truly will. But it is the pursuit of visual peak experiences, and the arduous, ecstatic struggle to capture them on my sensor, that keeps landscape photography endlessly fascinating.
For me, these marvelous moments occur most often in wild places, particularly in the mountains. More than forty years later, I still remember a peak experience that occurred during a camping trip with my parents in the desert mountains of southern California. I was 12 then, yearning for independence and hungry for child-size adventure.
Alone, I walked away from our campsite to a saddle in a ridge overlooking an endless desert valley and the mountain ranges beyond. It was a journey that an adult would have measured in mundane yards and minutes; I measured it in emotional light-years. For a timeless interlude I meditated on the ridge, soaking in the silence and the unfathomable sweep of land. I remember feeling utterly isolated in a desolate world, and yet I recall no desire to flee back down the path to camp. Something about the sheer unrepentant emptiness of the land, its total indifference to human vanity, compelled my awestruck attention and has demanded my return to the mountains again and again.
F.W. Bourdillon, a British mountaineer who attempted Everest nearly a century ago, captured my feelings then and now when he explained the secret motivation of mountain-lovers as “a feeling so deep and so pure and so personal as to be almost sacred ‒ too intimate for ordinary mention.” Mountains, he went on to say, “... move us in some way which nothing else does ... and we feel that a world that can give such rapture must be a good world, a life capable of such feeling must be worth the living.”
In my early teen years I hiked the mountain valleys and scrambled up the easy peaks in California's Sierra Nevada. Then, at 15, I took up technical rock-climbing. When I moved to Boulder, Colorado, to go to college in 1975, I added ice-climbing to my quiver of mountain skills and began tackling difficult routes from Alaska to Argentina.
Glenn Randall on a shoot in the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado
Glenn Randall atop Peak 12,847 in January with Kit Carson, Crestone Peak, and Crestone Needle behind, Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, Colorado
In my mid-30s, after 20 years of intense mountaineering, my interest in climbing high peaks began to wane, while my interest in photographing them blossomed. Landscape photography, I found, could be just as much of an adventure as mountaineering. True, the challenges were different, but the pulse-pounding excitement and the need to perform gracefully under pressure were still there. Once I had struggled out of bed at 1 a.m. to climb a long, demanding route on a high peak before the afternoon thunderstorms struck; now I rose at the same ungodly hour to race the rising sun to a photogenic vantage point. My motto for these shoots is simple: “Sleep is for photographers who don’t drink enough coffee.”
I'm now well into my fifth decade of full-time freelance writing and photography, and have much to be thankful for: the support of my wonderful wife Cora, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Colorado; the love of our two daughters, Ember, born in 1994, and Audrey, born in 1996; and the career advice my father, a down-to-earth civil engineer, gave me
long ago. He said, "Find the job that makes you want to get up on Monday morning and go to work." I'm grateful I found that job, which I prefer to think of as a calling. I hope you find it as rewarding to view my images as I found it rewarding to make them.