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John Fielder

Colorado photographer sees the big picture

Fielder talks new book, the environment, the joy of solitude


From his Summit County home near Silverthorne, 9,000 feet above sea level, John Fielder watches an approaching storm front, waiting to find if it will bring rain or snow.

“One the edge of bad weather is where I get my best shots,” Fielder says. “Right now I’m watching aspen leaves turning and blowing off of trees, that’s a very sensuous moment in time …. On Monday morning, if the storm brings snow, I’ll have leaves on the ground and snow on the peaks, that’s another one of those moments.”

The renowned photographer recently published “A Colorado Winter,” a book of frozen landscapes from around the state. The snow-covered scenes represent a departure from the vibrant foliage in much of Fielder’s work, and presented a challenge to prioritize shape over shade.

“You don’t have all of that massive color to work with, you have to work more with shapes and textures,” he said. But “if you can do it the right way, you can produce extraordinarily creative photography.”

Fielder spends much of the winter huddled in his snow-packed home, editing photos from the previous year. But when the impulse strikes, he gets up in the dark and hikes or skis a few miles into the wild to make images in the early morning light. Through the late morning and afternoon he warms up in one of dozens of huts in the 10th Mountain Division trail system, then re-emerges before sunset to make a few more images and ski downhill toward home.

“One reason I love Colorado is that we have four distinct seasons,” he said. “I tell people it’s like we have four years in each one … I consider myself to be 268 years old.”

Advocacy through art

In 1993 the Sierra Club awarded Fielder its Ansel Adams Award for influencing policy through art, and his celebrity has boosted the profiles of nonprofit groups such as Conservation Colorado as well as legislation including the Great Outdoors Colorado initiative in 1992 and the Responsible Growth initiative in 2000.

“It would be hypocritical of me to make a living off of nature and to not give back,” he said. “We are intelligent beings on a very special place, planet Earth. I’ve been so lucky to see and to feel just how special it really is, it’s my obligation to perpetuate what it contains for my grandkids.”

His biggest concerns outside Colorado’s borders are overpopulation and global warming — he thinks the term “climate change” is a cop-out — but he acknowledges the cliché that all politics are local and applies his time accordingly. His latest work is urging nonprofit groups to lobby lawmakers to put growth back on the legislative table.

“There is clear evidence that growth is compromising everything we came to Colorado for and stay here for,” Fielder said. “We can’t build a geographical fence around the place and tell people not to come, all we can do is create legislation to preserve the things we all love.”

Changed approach

Advocacy pushed Fielder into the public eye, a potentially uncomfortable place for a wilderness photographer. Perhaps it’s one reason he’s come to cherish being alone.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found I love my solitude,” he said. “When I go into the wilderness I try to take full advantage of what it offers, the peace and quiet, the smells, the sounds.”

Expeditions in years past required heavy equipment and several human assistants, but as digital technology advanced he pared his staff down. A typical outing now consists of Fielder and two rented llamas, Roberto and Gustavus, who carry his tent, lenses and the occasional six-pack of beer.

“Their English is pretty poor,” he said, and the silence lets him focus on the big picture.

“It allows me to appreciate how lucky we are. To be sentient beings with two eyes, two ears two arms and two legs, and who live on a planet, in a galaxy, in a solar system, in a universe, in a multiverse,” Fielder said. “We’re distracted from the underlying big picture in our everyday lives, but when you’re alone and you don’t have those sensory distractions, your mind becomes incredibly lucid.”


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