Changing Nature

For more than three decades photographer John Fielder has focused his lens on the outdoors. Now, the Colorado icon is beginning to recognize the value of getting people into the frame.

September 2009

On an otherwise empty, beige wall of a corporate building, a dozen photographs, all about four feet by five feet, uniformly hang in queue. In one of the pictures is a mountaintop; in the foreground a serene lake bathes in a soft orange glow as pink clouds float overhead. Greenery sprouts along the edge of the water, and the lake's surface reflects a rust-colored, rocky expanse stretching to a snow-dusted peak. John Fielder waited for hours in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado to get that shot, his patience finally rewarded with Fielder's favorite moment of light: a magical orange-pink alpenglow that was a small miracle of convergence he hadn't seen before and hasn't seen since.

It's February 2009, and John Fielder, Colorado's best-known photographer and one of the state's most recognized name brands, is showing off his work inside the closest thing there is to a John Fielder museum: the 12-story, football-shaped headquarters of RE/MAX International Inc. at I-25 and Belleview, across a suburban parking lot from a Paradise Bakery. To those who think they know Fielder, a mega-Realtor's headquarters is an odd place for this collection. After all, for more than 30 years Fielder has photographed Colorado's outdoors, particularly the pure, undeveloped outdoors, forever preserving—at least on film—the rugged, natural Colorado and thereby a Colorado spirit that it would be a crime to subdivide and sell.

To those who really know Fielder, the RE/MAX display makes absolute sense. For as much as Fielder is a photographer and an environmentalist, he's equal parts showman and capitalist, a modern-day Thoreau meets Warhol, with a camera. He scours business pages for news of firms relocating to the state or building new space. He writes to executives, pitching his photos to hang around the office. No deal is too big or too small—he recently bartered his photos in exchange for $30,000 worth of knee surgery. And, despite his progressive leanings, among his clients is San Diego-based General Atomics, run by Coloradan Neal Blue, maker of the Predator UAS series, pilotless warplanes that, in Fielder's words, "spy on and kill human beings."

While most of Fielder's corporate clients may buy 10 or 15 prints, RE/MAX purchased more than 500 of them, and on this February morning Fielder has agreed to give me a tour. The self-promoter is self-conscious, apologizing for blotchy skin, the byproduct of a preventive skin cancer treatment. The cosmetic setback doesn't get in the way of his flirting with the three receptionists. "RE/MAX always puts the best-looking women up front," he says to them with a swagger. "Don't forget to keep buying my books, ladies." Although Fielder claims to be most comfortable alone, above the treetops, you'd never know it from his deft public persona.

The merger of art and commerce has served Fielder well. He published the best-selling book in state history, Colorado 1870-2000, and he's sold more than two million books overall, plus countless calendars and picture collections. Among his fans are Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu—once the world's richest man—and the late publishing magnate Malcolm Forbes. Political power brokers have used Fielder's work to promote environmental issues. His book Colorado: Our Wilderness Future launched his activist career and helped promote the Colorado Wilderness Act of 1993. When former U.S. Senator and now Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar wants to remind himself what he's protecting, he can turn to the Fielder book he keeps in his office.

The photographer has become as famous as his photographs. In 2007, the Colorado Film Commission inducted Fielder into its hall of fame, one of innumerable awards and recognitions. Governor Bill Ritter presented the accolade, saying, "God made what we see in this beautiful state, but it takes artists like John Fielder to capture the magical images." Fielder's forthcoming book, Ranches of Colorado, due out in October, features photos of the state's working ranches and essays on their importance to our ecosystem. In his methodical way, Fielder spent almost three years on the project and will spend months more promoting it and the environmental concerns that course through the words and images. His books, once filled with platitudes about Colorado's beauty, have evolved into something more urgent: Here's the crisis, and here's how we can fix it.

"The more habitats we protect, the more biodiversity we nurture, the greater the chance we have to preserve them," he says with a nod toward the tidy row of scenes on the RE/MAX wall. Fielder stands 6 feet 3 inches; a bird's nest of fleecy white hair circles his balding crown. His bold, peaked brows hover over olive-colored eyes flecked with gold, eyes that have seen as much tragedy as they have natural wonder—humbling experiences that have not only changed Fielder's photographs but also profoundly altered the man himself.

Viewed individually, each of the RE/MAX photos is spectacular. The scenes of rushing streams, electrically contrasting autumnal colors, and stark, subtle winter hues; reflection shots, employing his savvy use of water—all harness an arresting power that once lured a young Fielder from North Carolina to Colorado. Yet taking in the photos one after another, as they hang on the wall, the pictures start to blur numbly together. Here's a photograph of the autumn sun glinting through a thicket of aspen trees. Next comes a shot of a regally purple columbine blooming from a crevice between lichen-covered rocks. And here's an army of leafy trees set against the backdrop of distant snowy peaks. Ansel Adams, one of Fielder's role models, famously said, "A photograph is usually looked at; seldom looked into." When one looks into Fielder's collection and sees so much remote nature and hollow isolation, it's hard not to wonder how he feels about people. "People?" he says with mock indignation. "I hate people."