Two knee replacements have done little to weaken this intrepid photographer. “I’ll be back on skis November 1st,” John Fielder replies when I asked him in August about his recovery. 25 years of a 40-year career spent carrying 65 pounds of German Linhof large format 4×5 view camera equipment up and down fourteeners, through alpine meadows, and over desert mesas has taken a physical toll, but Fielder loves every second of it. “I do what I do first and foremost because I love being outdoors. Number one, if I had a camera or not, I’d be outdoors enjoying nature.”
Fielder’s iconic images have not only inspired a whole genre of grand Western landscape photography, it has also garnered him national attention within the environmentalist movement. In 1993, the Sierra Club awarded Fielder with the Ansel Adam’s Award and, in 2011 he earned the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s first Achievement Award given to an individual. We talked creative process, environmentalism, and some of the most poignant moments of his photographic career.
Did you formally study photography or did you come by it through an organic learning process?
You know, I was a pretty good art student in high school. I loved painting, but I wasn’t really good, I didn’t have that mind-eye-hand coordination that great painters have. I became an outdoorsman when I was very young in North Carolina where I grew up going to summer camp in the Appalachian Mountains. I moved to Colorado after graduation from college, and I fell in love with the state. I wanted to be creative, but I knew that it would be difficult to take paintbrushes and canvases into the wilderness remotely. So one day I rented a Pentax 35 mm film camera from a store in Denver, and I purchased some Kodachrome film (which was the film of the day), and I hoofed up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of central Colorado. I came back with the worst photos you could ever imagine. That made me so mad, I was determined to try to understand why my photographs didn’t look like what I saw with my eye and so that became the catalyst for understanding this language between how the eye sees and how the camera and film sees (it’s actually no different substantially then how the digital sensor sees). Once I got better at that, photography became my passion. But I was self taught, never took any classes. I was in the department store business in my first career, and I had no time. I was raising a family so there was no money to engage in photography. All of my outdoor time was weekend or week-long vacations while I was working my other career.
But I did use a photographer as my perspective. A man named Elliot Porter who was the Ansel Adams of the 20th century—he was my hero. The way that he saw the landscape and photographed it I thought was unique to any other landscape photographer that I had seen. So Elliot Porter’s photographs became my perspective for whether I was doing good or not. If I could shoot like Elliot Porter, I knew I had made progress. But of course I’ve never been able to shoot like Elliot Porter, but I still found a way to make progress.
How has your photography evolved since you first started your professional work 40 years ago?
Photography is like any endeavor or business—the more you do it, hopefully the better you get. In the case of photography, [the more you practice], the more perceptive or perspicacious your eye becomes. For example, I could go back to a place that I first went to thirty years ago, make ten times as many good photos, and see things that I had never seen. Your eye becomes trained to understand color, texture, and form, and then with design skills that you develop over the years, you find a way to put all of those ingredients together within the viewfinder of the camera to make an image pleasing to the eye.
Every time I go out, I try to see nature in ways that maybe I hadn’t seen her before. I’m always pushing the limits of the creative side of making an image. A lot of the product of that effort ends up being unique photography that I never could have imagined doing if I hadn’t stretched the constraints that I have created for myself.
Tell me about your creative process.
Number one, I’m never presumptuous. I don’t assume that things are going look the same in a place that I’ve been to before, and it never does. That’s the beauty of having concentrated on one state (Colorado) for my own personal photography and my business. One might think that it would become boring or that you would be constrained by the subject matter, but because nature changes season to season and from year to year, the way that the trees bloom their leaves or the wildflowers in Crested Butte – every year, one species of wildflower dominates every other and it’s different every year. So the opportunities for me are infinite. I never have any preconceived notions. I really let nature come to me, and I take what she gives me every trip that I’ve taken in the last 40 years.
So you’re searching for nature candids. Do you ever go into a particular location with shots in mind?
That’s a really good question. It’s 50% planning, 50% spontaneity. One reason why I’ve been able to cover most of Colorado for the past forty years is because of really good planning. I study my topographic maps fastidiously. I try to preemptively imagine what a place might look like before I get there just by studying topographic maps. I try to understand where the sun will rise and set and how that lighting will effect my photos both during the magic hours (one hour after sunrise, one hour before sunset). I’ll get to a location, whether by road or on foot, and I typically get to a location (whether by road or on foot) in the afternoon about 4:30 pm, and I scout, looking for the best bouquets of flowers, rocks with lichens and compose those with the lakes and the mountains in the background. I try to presuppose what it might look like during the magic hours. In my mind, I might have a dozen photos that I want to make each for sunrise and sunset, but in the end, only half of those end up being close to what I would have imagined. The other half of the photos are the ones that are spontaneous – things, that as a function of light and weather, I never could have imagined. And therefore, I have to be quick because some moments are transitory and might last for 30 seconds, others might last for 5 minutes, and if I’m not quick and good with the mechanics of my gear, I’ll never get that spontaneous photo on film or on digital.
What does environmentalism mean to you, and how do you live those values?
In the beginning of my career, photography was all about making a living and feeding small children with whatever photos I could sell and books that I could publish. But the more time that I spent in nature, the more time that I was outdoors, —not just viewing but smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing—the miracle of the 4 billion years of the evolution of life on Earth became more profound for me. One can’t help but be impressed with protecting nature because it’s so special, so glorious, and so unique. Then you start raising kids and grandkids, and you want them to be able to experience nature as well. It was a natural decision for me to become an environmentalist at the same time that I was trying to make a living off of photography. And the amazing thing is, it was the smartest business decision that I ever made—forget the morality of it. To sell a photo, you need to have name recognition, and to be recognized, typically you have to promote yourself, and I found that as I became known for working in cooperation with Colorado’s community of environmental and conservation nonprofits that the media was more apt to cover me and talk about my latest project or book. I would get far more press from my environmental advocacy than I would have if people had perceived me as just a photographer who wanted to make a living out of making nature photos. So the two ventures became a symbiosis, as we say in nature — the more time that I donated to environmental and conservation nonprofits, the more press I got and the more books I sold. The more books that I sold, the more freedom I had to do nonprofit work. It was a wonderful marriage between morality and economics.
You also have been involved in politics as well.
Politics and protecting 4 billion years of the evolution of life on Earth are inextricably connected because laws protect nature. In democratic societies, the only way to protect nature is with laws. No administrative decisions in any quantity can do what laws can do. As a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I recall the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Wild and Scenic Rivers act of 1968, and the creation of the [Environmental Protection Agency]. These are the foundations in America for all that we’ve done in the face of global warming and population run amok to protect the wildness that we have in America. If it wasn’t for those laws, therefore if it wasn’t for politics, nature would go to heck in a hand basket a heck of a lot faster than it has. So yes, I’ve been politically active, supporting candidates, supporting ballot initiatives in Colorado and around the country to be part of that protection mechanism.
Does your environmental advocacy work feed into a photographic mission? Is the main goal of your photography to capture beauty or to make the case for environmentalism?
It’s all of the above. I’ve been very fortunate and found a way 35 years ago to make a living out of taking pictures and that’s fun too from a creative standpoint. It’s all the same. In my family, I was raised to believe that one should give back to those people and entities that allow you to have the quality of life that you do, and I could not have lived with myself knowing that I was reaping the benefits of selling photos of nature without giving back to nature. The political things that I do and the environmental work that I do is all connected to the spirit of appreciating the uniqueness of life on Earth.
Have you ever taken a self-portrait? If not, how might you stage it?
In the beginning, I didn’t like taking pictures of people and nature. I was more concerned with the landscape itself. Then as my trips and journeys into remote wilderness areas became fascinating not just to me but to other people, I began to document the lifestyle of being in the wilderness with 65 pounds of large format cameras, five young people helping me carry all of the other gear, and packing with llamas. I realized that photos of people, me included, in these situations would help other people understand the lifestyle and the essence of wilderness too rather than just a scenic photo. So yeah, I’ve done some selfies so to speak with the SLR set up on the tripod with me in the foreground and a glorious sunset in the background.
Can you pinpoint a specific experience where you felt totally comfortable with your craft, and conversely, something where it was just the hardest trip you’ve ever been on and you were like, why am I doing this?
For sure. I began my career in Colorado, but along the way I began to photograph other states and places around the world. One of the places I always wanted to photograph was California. I did a couple of books about California in the ‘80s. I remember that the first week long trip that I took to the coast of California was one of the most disappointing weeks of my life because I felt like because I had been photographing Colorado for about ten years that I was a pretty good photographer and had a decent eye. But when I got a week’s worth of 4×5 sheet film back from the lab, I looked at 300 transparencies, and there wasn’t more than one or two photos that were any good. I was very disappointed with myself and felt that maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. But once I got over my emotions, I realized that the issue was not me and my eye, it was me understanding the ecosystem and the place and the light, which is totally different in a coastal environment. I went back for a week every month for the next two years. I got better and better as I began to learn about California’s nature, and I let nature be my guide.
A wonderful experience was what happened to me conversely in Rocky Mountain National Park. I didn’t photograph the most glorious National Park in America until I’d actually been a professional photographer for about 12 years. When I did go into the 400 square mile Park, I did it under circumstances that nobody before me nor since has been allowed to do: the Park gave me a permit to camp wherever I wanted. Normally, camping is limited to designated sites, almost all of which are below tree line. But I was allowed to be at all of the 130 lakes at sunrise and sunset for two summers, and I was experienced enough to come away with after two summers several thousand extraordinary transparencies of a place that very few people have seen the way that I got to see it.
Tell me about the making of your latest book, “Wildflowers of Colorado”.
Many of my books have an environmental purpose: For example, “Ranches of Colorado” was a book created to promote the use of a device called Conservation Easement to protect tens of thousands of acres of ranchland from development. But other books have been more generic in their purpose, just to celebrate an aspect of Colorado landscape. In the case of “Wildflowers”, I had never done a medium format coffee table book featuring the fecundity, the glory of color—i.e., Colorful Colorado, which is in large part because of the flowers that we have. Many of my books contain wildflower photos but nothing specific to wildflowers. I had been shooting digitally since 2008, and I had thousands and thousands of digital files of some of the best wildflower meadows in the whole state – remotely or off roads, whatever –and I decided it was time to put the best of those together. Last year, I edited probably 3,000 – 4,000 wildflower photos down to my 100 favorite scenes made over the last ten years and published this book Wildflowers of Colorado which contains not only photos, but I’ve given away (unfortunately for me) some of my secret places. The book is divided up into geographic sections (north, central, and south), and I talk about some of my favorite wildflower meadows and how to get to them. I just don’t want people stealing my thunder so if you take a photo, I have a guy named Guido, and Guido knows when somebody poaches one of my best wildflower photos. He actually has a way remotely of deleting that file from both the camera and the computer so we’ll know it when you get it.
Over 40 books have been published depicting his Colorado photography. He lives in Summit County, Colorado, and operates a fine art gallery, John Fielder’s Colorado, in Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe. He also teaches photography workshops to adults and children. His latest books are Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing & Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green and Wildflowers of Colorado. Information John’s work can be found at johnfielder.com.