A Tribute to John Fielder (1950 - 2023)
Updated: Sep 10
Every kid needs a hero or two and John Fielder, Colorado's premier nature photographer, was one of mine. As a kid, I'd pour over his coffee table books and hang my favorite images from his calendars and on my walls. After reading his book, Along the Colorado Trail, I dreamed of future adventures in Colorado's high country. Once I got my driver's license, I traveled further and further west of Denver exploring and photographing the rooftop of the Rockies.
Based out of my hometown, I'd heard rumors that John hired sherpas to carry some of his photographic gear on his summer expeditions. Tagging along with a professional photographer sounded like a phenomenal experience so when I was 19, I called his office to inquire about a sherpa opportunity. To my surprise, when I asked to speak to John Fielder, his secretary transferred me directly to him! I explained that I was a cross country runner studying watershed science at CSU and that I had a passion for nature photography. And then I asked if I could be his sherpa.
He was surprisingly receptive and asked me to send him a backcountry resume. I promptly prepared one by listing the mountains I'd climbed, my Bolder Boulder time, and Horsetooth Half Marathon time. I was ecstatic when he called to say I could carry his gear on a trip through the Eagle's Nest Wilderness later that summer!
So in July 1997, I met John and his high school-aged son, JT, and a group of JT's friends at a Gore Range trailhead. I was surprised at John's physical stature (he was a basketball player). I'd heard he was able to hike anyone into the ground with his seasoned mountain legs and lungs.
In a swarm of mosquitoes, we hoisted our heavy packs in the heat and climbed the steep trail. He set a blazing pace out of the gate, maybe to test his backpacking breaking point against mine. We left JT and his buddies in the dust. We must have been 20 minutes ahead of the boys so we stopped and waited. As we chatted, I sensed that I'd passed an unspoken fitness test.
We spent the next 5 days hiking to preselected postcards. We would set up camp in time for him to do some scouting before dinner and then after dinner, he would set up his 4x5 film camera and move from scene to scene in the waning golden light. At dawn, he'd capture silhouettes and reflections created by the first rays of light. As the sun rose higher in the sky, he'd put away his camera and return to camp. There was tremendous planning and effort to capture short sessions of golden light.
After breakfast, we'd pack up camp and hike to the next dreamy destination, and repeat the process. He wouldn't take his camera out during midday unless the clouds created soft, diffuse light.
John probably didn't need me on that trip. He had his son and his son's buddies to divide his gear. Maybe he wanted to pass some tips along to a member of a younger generation who shared the same passion for photographing and protecting wild places.
After I graduated from college, I moved to the San Juan Mountains, which was the dramatic, mythical mountain range at the end of his books. The San Juans were always a little out of my reach since they were so far from home, but his images endured and eventually lured me to live within them by the time I turned 22.
Although I've been following his backcountry footsteps since high school, I don't earn my living as a photographer. However, as a science teacher for the past 20 years, I've shared my love of science and nature with over 2000 students. For a few of those students, I taught a photography elective based on his book, Photographing the Landscape, The Art of Seeing. I challenged my students to compose images containing elements that he outlined: form, moment, view, texture, and scale. Over his career, John was awarded numerous conservation awards and I think he'd be proud that I was awarded the San Juan Conservation District's Outstanding Conservation Educator.
Because of John, I was drawn to the heart of the Weminuche Wilderness and I always hoped our paths would cross again. In fact, this summer, my boys and I came across a camp with llamas during our 40-mile trek through the Weminuche. John often packed with llamas so my first thought was the camp might be his. When we discovered that the camp wasn't his, I remembered his recent cancer diagnosis.
After learning of his passing last month, I began looking through a small portion of the 6000 images that he donated to the public. As I studied his images from the Weminuche Wilderness, many of which I'd never seen before, it was clear that my boys literally followed his footsteps this summer. By coincidence, we camped on the same watershed divide surrounded by dramatic, competing compositions.
I have a picture of my boys with the same backdrop as his llamas and I serendipitously photographed a moose with the same mountain backdrop as the pair of moose he photographed a decade ago.
In thinking about John's work, I am reminded of photographer William Henry Jackson, who accompanied surveyors and scientists on U.S. government-sponsored expeditions to survey undocumented portions of the Rockies in the late 1800s. The images that Jackson captured were printed in early newspapers and captured the imagination of Easterns and eventually led to the creation of our nation's first national parks.
In one of John's most successful projects, Colorado 1870-2000, Volumes 1 and 2, John completed an ambitious task of replicating 300 of Jackson's images by painstakingly identifying and hiking to the exact location over 100 years later. In doing so, John was able to document how our state has evolved over the past century. The exhaustive John Fielder collection will also serve as a benchmark for future changes to the Colorado landscape.
And like William Henry Jackson's photographs, John's images captured my imagination as well as the imaginations of countless Coloradans. May his images continue to inspire us to follow in his footsteps by appreciating, exploring, and protecting our breathtaking landscape. Thank you John Fielder for the impact that you had on my life and for leaving a lasting legacy that will benefit future generations of Coloradans.