He’s been shooting Colorado for four decades and has 50 photography books to his credit, but John Fielder, 66, is not done yet. There are still too many places to be captured with his camera. “These days, I just like to wander,” he says. “I’ll pick out a place on a topographic map and just go and see what I will see. Long ago I decided I didn’t want to photograph what everybody else does. For me, at this stage of my life, the most satisfying thing is enjoying the sensuousness of nature without distractions. I feel solace, I make decisions, I solve problems when I’m in the middle of nowhere. It’s as good as life gets for me.” We sat down with Fielder at his gallery on Santa Fe Drive to talk about his long career.
What first brought you to Colorado? Every year, my middle school science teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mrs. Hickman, would take seven students in her station wagon, towing a pop-up camper, for five weeks, visiting archaeological, biological, geological and paleontological places we had studied. The first summer, we crossed the southern U.S., cracking open geodes in Texas, going down to Mexico and exploring Olmec and Toltec ruins. My deportment was bad, but not so bad that I wasn’t invited again the next summer. This time we went across the middle of the U.S. and into Rocky Mountain National Park, which had these prodigious mountains with snow on top, so unlike the Appalachians. I told Mrs. Hickman, “I’m going to live here someday, so remember that.” She and I lost touch, but 20 years later I said, “We need to reconnect.” We stayed in touch until the day she died two years ago. She was 96. I always give her credit for my success.
And were you already photographing the scenery back then? No, I wasn’t one of those kids with a camera, but I had a wonderful art teacher, too, and I loved being creative on canvases in high school and college (Fielder went to Duke). When I moved to Colorado after college, I found that paints weren’t facile in the woods, so I rented a camera, which seemed like a good tool to express myself with. I was a senior department store manager—with one child and another on the way—when I told my wife, “I’m quitting my job and turning nature photography into a career.” She said, “No way,” but we worked out a deal: I’d try it for a year, and if it didn’t work out, I would go back into the department store business.
Clearly it did work out. I was left-brained, everything neat and clean and symmetrical on my desk. When I became a photographer, that was a deficiency, so I had to teach myself to be asymmetrical to make better photos. But I had the business and merchandising skills from the department store business. I started Westcliffe Publishing out of my garage, publishing a book about Colorado and two calendars. Then I began publishing other photographers and built up a pretty good-sized company selling books and calendars covering up to 35 states. Our timing was perfect.
And today? How do you spend your time now? I have a lifestyle where everything fits together just right. I’ve been massaging it for about 10 years. From January to April, all I do is edit photos from the year before. In April and May, before the photography gets really good, I do lots of public speaking. Then from May through October, I do photography, including photo workshops, which are my chance to share with people what I’ve learned by the seat of my pants: how to make a good photo, how to work the camera. We go to Crested Butte for summer wildflowers, Telluride for fall color, Steamboat Springs for the world of white in winter.
And what does make a good photo? I’ve identified five ingredients: color, like yellow trees against a blue sky; form, meaning shapes and edges; moment, which is a function of light and weather; perspective, which has to do with depth of field; and finally, view—you are standing in one place with a 180-degree view of chaos, so how do you isolate the order out of the chaos?
Do you still get out on your own to shoot? Yes. These days, I have the opportunity to travel to bucket-list places, like the LeMans car race in France and then eight days in Iceland, where I photographed lupine meadows: 3,000 acres of solid purple. It was unbelievable—but I still come back and think Colorado is better. It happens every time. And when I talk about the environment, it reinforces in everybody’s mind how lucky we are to live here—and that’s the firmament for convincing them to be active.
Let’s talk about your environmental activism, now that the presidency has so drastically changed hands. I’m in the middle of a massive slide show campaign about Colorado’s national parks and monuments, for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Since the election, talking to crowds, it’s been like: You’ve got to be active. Join the Sierra Club, or the Nature Conservancy. Get involved because we have a fight on our hands for the next four years.
After all your success, why such fidelity to this state? I am a nature egalitarian, but my favorite ecosystem on earth is typically a mountain place. The infinite views above it all. No trees—I love being above tree line. The fecundity of the alpine zone with the wildflowers and gurgling brooks and cascading waterfalls and peaks as far as the eye can see and the cobalt-blue skies behind it all. Even the threatening weather and the challenge of survival in those places. It is my home.
What would the photographer John Fielder of today advise the photographer John Fielder of 30 years ago? I can’t remember faces, but I can remember not only a place, but the sounds and the smell and the environment of a place. In terms of view, I see far more now in a place than I might have 30 years ago. The more you do something, the better you get. In the case of visual things, the more perspicacious you become, so I will go back to a place I was 30 years ago and I will make 10 times more good photos. Because I see color, form, moment. I’m more perceptive. I see things.