Remembering John Fielder
Colorado's unofficial landscape photographer

Remembering John Fielder
Betsy Marston / Writers on the Range - 08/24/2023

If you’ve ever bought a calendar or coffee table book featuring the grandeur of Colorado’s 14ers, the stunning color photographs were almost certainly by John Fielder.

His output was stupendous. During his career as a nature photographer, which began in 1981, he published more than 40 books of Colorado landscapes. No doubt he had many more books to produce before pancreatic cancer took him on Aug. 11, 2023. He was 73.

One book, though, became his blockbuster, appealing to almost everybody’s curiosity about how Colorado had changed over the past 130 years. Called “Colorado, 1870-2000,” the large format book paired 156 historic photos by William Henry Jackson along with Fielder’s contemporary re-photographs.

In introducing the book, Fielder credited Eric Paddock, photo curator for the Colorado Historical Society, for the book’s genesis. Fielder was looking around for his next book, due out in 2000, when he called Paddock about Jackson’s iconic photo of the Mount of the Holy Cross, outlined in snow. When Paddock told him he had that negative along with 22,000 others of Jackson’s work, Fielder said he felt he’d won the jackpot. He could make more than a century of history come alive by showing how landscapes altered – or mostly stayed the same – over time.

For months, he pored over the negatives, selecting those he thought were most striking and reproducible. Then, with the help of student Eric Bellamy, he drove more than 25,000 miles and hiked 500 miles, carrying 70 pounds of equipment, to get the shots he needed.

Sometimes he had to climb mountains – it took two trips up 13,248-foot Notch Mountain to capture Jackson’s photo of Mount of the Holy Cross. Other times he photographed from office buildings or knocked on the door of someone’s house to ask if he could stand on their roof. He said he needed two landmarks to be confident he was photographing from the correct spot.

But Fielder wanted his historic book to include more than photos; he also wanted people to get other perspectives about the history of Colorado.

He asked Eric Paddock to write about Jackson’s life and time; historian Roderick Nash to write about civilization’s impact on nature; and Ed Marston to write about coming with his family to Colorado from the wilds of New York.

Marston titled his first chapter, “A slow motion invasion of the rural West” by environmentalists like himself, starting in the 1970s. Old mining towns with unpaved streets like Crested Butte were being discovered by ski bums and other young people, he wrote, who thought they’d found a promised land. Of course, what they found they immediately wanted to change.

He also wrote about the boom – and bust – of oil shale, along with the changing roles of federal agencies. From their emphasis on mining, logging and grazing, the Forest Service and BLM were coming to the reluctant realization the West needed restoration, not exploitation.

Marston said it was a treat working with Fielder, another workaholic, and to his surprise, the book’s huge sales actually made Fielder some money.

The book’s well-publicized debut in Denver was a heady time for Fielder and the book’s writers, and all were on hand at a long table to sign each copy. Some people even bought multiple copies as the line snaked around the block.

It was Fielder’s vision and stamina that led to the success of “Colorado 1870-2000.” He’d masterminded a wonderful book that still shows up on coffee tables and at banks and title companies.

Fielder said he always sought to celebrate the beauty of the natural environment while also inspiring people to become advocates for the land. Now, thanks to his generous donation of 7,263 of his images to History Colorado, much of his work will live forever.  

Betsy Marston is the editor of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an nonprofit dedicated to spurring conversation about the West. She lives in Paonia.?

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