LAY OF THE LAND
If you’ve looked at a stunning image of the Colorado landscape in recent decades, odds are good you were looking at it through the lens of John Fielder. For that matter, you probably have one of his lavish photo books.
The photographer, the preeminent chronicler of the Centennial State’s singular landscape, died on Aug. 11 at age 73 from pancreatic cancer.
Photo courtesy of John Fielder.
John Fielder: A Life Well-Lived
Fielder grew up on the East Coast and graduated from Duke University with an accounting degree before moving in 1977 to Colorado, where he had been a frequent visitor growing up. His first job was far from photography: Fielder told the Denver Post that he started at May D&F, then the state’s biggest department store chain. “I worked my way up to general manager of the Southglenn May D&F. I was at the executive level, and it paid well.”
But Fielder had been sneaking away into the wilderness most weekends and days off, taking increasingly high-quality images. “One day I said to (my wife), What would you think if I quit my job and turned my nature-photography hobby into a full-time job?’ She said ‘Are you crazy? I’ll divorce you if you do.’ ”
She later relented with one condition: he had one year to make money at photography. That was 1982, the year he published the successful Colorado Scenic Calendar. It was followed in 1983 by his first coffee table book, Colorado’s Hidden Valleys, which eventually sold 100,000 copies. Fielder ultimately would publish 50 books.
Fielder always noted he was a ‘landscape’ photographer. As he explained on his website: “I photograph nature because I love nature … In particular, I photograph the landscape, not wildlife. To be a good wildlife photographer, one needs patience and a great knowledge about animals. Landscape photography is more spontaneous, that is, I can take pictures where and when I please.”
Did he ever! Perhaps most spectacularly, in 1998 Fielder hit the road (driving 25,000 miles) and the trail (backpacking 500 miles) across the state to create his most notable achievement: Colorado, 1870-2000. The project found Fielder literally standing in the footsteps of pioneering western photographer William Henry Jackson, re-taking 156 of Jackson’s photos across the state to illustrate the passage of time, for better and for worse. The eye-opening book that resulted is Colorado’s all-time best-selling regional title, with more than 200,000 copies in print. (He completed the project in 2005 with 110 more comparison photos in Colorado 1870-2000 II.)
Conserving a Legacy
Fielder was a fierce advocate for preserving the beauty that he captured. In addition to speaking to groups large and small for decades about the importance of preservation, he lent his images and energy to help pass initiatives designed to preserve the state’s pristine landscapes. Those efforts included the successful 1992 passage, working alongside The Nature Conservancy, of the Great Outdoors Colorado initiative. Fielder’s website notes it has since protected “2 million acres of open space, parks, trails, wildlife habitat, and ranches worth $2 billion.” He also was “proud of the fact that my photographs were used to help pass the 1993 Colorado Wilderness Bill.”
Fielder’s advocacy wasn’t always on a large scale. David O. Williams, Managing Editor at RealVail, wrote in the wake of Fielder’s death how he “indirectly ‘worked’ with (Fielder) getting the word out about a proposed Aurora and Colorado Springs’ dam … near Vail that would create what’s being called Whitney Reservoir – another transmountain water diversion to the Front Range.” Fielder shared “photos of the ancient fens that would be inundated in the proposed reservoir area and of the nearby Holy Cross Wilderness Area to the Writers on the Range syndicate, which prompted me to write a piece for them in exchange for using the Fielder photos with my stories.”
JE Canyon Ranch. Photo by John Fielder.
A Love of Photography and the Outdoors
Lest you think shooting photos of landscapes is easy work, Fielder noted on his website that for much of his career, he worked “with a large format 4×5 film view camera — the kind that requires me to place a dark cloth over my head so that I can focus on a ground glass. Along with my camera, it requires that I carry 7 lenses, as well as 30 sheet film holders and about 400 sheets of color film in a large pack, in order to be able to photograph for a week. With a large tripod, it all weighs about 65 pounds!”
Longtime Colorado preservationist Sydney Shafroth Macy expanded on that ethic in the Colorado Sun, writing about a mid-1990s photo shoot for the book Along Colorado’s Continental Divide Trail on which she and her husband joined Fielder for three nights. “I gained a new respect for how hard (John) worked for each image. He was always up in the dark, hiking to the right spot with his large camera on a tripod balanced on his shoulder, waiting for the light so he could capture the magnificence. Then back to camp to reload his film in the tent. Hiking for many miles and setting up a new camp. Eating early, photographing late, loading film, and sleeping. He worked hard.”
Ranches of Colorado
I had the good fortune to work with John in 2009 during my time as President of the Board of the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts on Ranches of Colorado, a project and book celebrating private state ranchlands. John’s first-time excursion into photographing exclusively on private ranches captured 50 locations in every corner of our state, including three we have worked on and sold: Mantle Ranch, Dakan Ranch, and JE Canyon Ranch. And we’re currently marketing parts of Cross Mountain Ranch, also in the book. Mirr Ranch Group was a proud sponsor of the project.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
Even as he was dying, Fielder was looking to the future, announcing early in 2023 that he had “decided to donate my life’s work of photography to you, the people of Colorado. As our state’s historical preservation arm, History Colorado will be the repository of this collection of more than 7,500 photos distilled from 200,000 made since 1973.” Find his amazing photos here. Subsequently, Fielder curated the exhibition Revealed: John Fielder’s Favorite Place now on display at the History Colorado Center in Denver.
The vibrancy of Fielder’s life suggested his work would go on forever. Katy, his youngest daughter, confirmed that in an interview. “I’d always imagined my dad — with what an outdoorsman he was — hiking and skiing until he was 90 years old and never having any issues with it. It’s a huge, huge loss.”
It is a huge loss. But when you consider the images captured and policy accomplishments in his lifetime, you get the picture: John Fielder will endure.
Lay of the Land is a monthly column by Ken Mirr, the Founder and Managing Broker of Mirr Ranch Group, that highlights news of the West impacting the ranch lifestyle. Have a question about the West? Email him at Ken@MirrRanchGroup.com.