During the last 40 years, John Fielder has hiked, rafted and skied in Colorado’s wildest places to take extraordinary landscape photographs. Since he jumpstarted his career in 1981, his photographs have appeared in 50 coffee table, guide and children’s books, all but four on Colorado. His book, Colorado: 1870-2000, that juxtaposes historic photographer William Henry Jackson’s photos with his own is Colorado’s best-selling book ever. Based north of Silverthorne, Colo., Fielder continues to photograph, teach and serve as a champion of environmental causes.
He was the featured speaker for National Park Trips Media’s second annual event, “Celebrating 100 Years of Colorado’s National Parks & Monument: Rivers, Ruins & Monuments” on May 6, 2016, in Boulder, Colorado.
Q: What brought you to Colorado?
A: I grew up a city slicker kid in North Carolina, but in middle school, I had a science teacher who would take seven kids in a station wagon towing a pop-top camper across the United States to visit geological, archaeological and paleontological sites. On one of our trips to the Pacific Northwest and Canada, she took us through Colorado. I took one look at Longs Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park in 1964, and told her, “Someday, I am going to live here.”
Q: Talk about the first time you spent a significant amount of time in Rocky Mountain National Park.
A: My career started in 1981 when my eye [as a photographer] was developing, and I was intimidated by Rocky Mountain National Park. I knew how sublime of a mountain place it was, if not the most beautiful place in all of the Rocky Mountains. In 1993, I approached Jim Thompson, the park superintendent, and said, “I need special access to place and light.”
National parks can be really restrictive in where you can camp. I do my best work in a high-alpine environment. I am out from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. photographing a place. I said, “I’ll give the park 4X5 transparencies to use as a scorecard of the ecosystem if you give me the rule of the roost.” They gave me special permits for two summers.
I camped 50 nights in the park. I photographed each of 130 alpine and subalpine lakes. I covered the entire 400 square miles of the park on foot, 90 percent off trail. It became the beginning of a book Rocky Mountain National Park: A 100 Year Perspective [co-authored by T.A. Barron with historic photographs and writing by Enos Mills]. Those two years were the heart of my experience in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Q: After nearly 40 years of photographing landscapes in Colorado, what keeps you going back out there?
A: It’s partly the camera and photography, but mostly I love being outdoors. I am most comfortable in wilderness. Early on in my career, I had 65 pounds of camera gear to haul, so I recruited young people to help carry food, sleeping bags and tents.
Today, with digital cameras, I can use llamas instead of young humans. And now I can go a week or more by myself for greater solitude. I love the smell, taste, touch and sounds of nature, the sensuousness, as well as views. It’s the foundation for all I do. And why I’ll do it until the day I die.
Q: What kinds of environmental causes do you support?
A: Anything that threatens the planet and specifically Colorado’s natural heritage. I work with a lot of environmental groups, and they are usually the antennae for new threats. Photographs are a necessary complement to words to show environmental threats.
Last year, I published the book Yampa’s Colorado River: Free Flowing and Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green, with Patrick Tierney. I did it because protecting water is just an important as protecting land. The Yampa is the last free-flowing river in the Colorado River Basin. With so many people moving to Colorado, there is a threat [of a proposal from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District] to export Yampa water in a $3.9 billion pipeline to fuel growth in the Front Range.
Q: Why is spending time outdoors and in national parks important?
A: It’s simple. If nature goes away, humans go away. The more species we lose, the more we dismember biodiversity. It will make it more difficult for us to survive.
I talk a lot about economy and ecology. When you protect the blue sky, clean air and water, national, state and local parks and ranches (with conservation easements), you create and sustain an economy. New numbers show that as of 2014, Colorado generated $34 billion in revenue from outdoor recreation and created 313,000 jobs, which is 12 percent of Colorado’s workforce. As a comparison in 2014, oil and gas generated $20 billion and 100,000 in jobs. And that was before the bust.