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

In the winter of 2005, Fielder and three companions, including a childhood friend, his budding activist protégé Aron Ralston, and his son J.T., skied to the Goodwin-Greene Hut near Aspen Mountain, one of the more remote in Colorado, for a photo shoot. Fielder meticulously designs his trips, studying topographic maps to gauge how and when light might hit and triangulating where he must be. He avoids most overshot spots, preferring to schlep his 65-pound camera and packs of gear into areas less traveled, if ever traveled. With his young "Sherpas"—his homage to the hearty Nepalese people who assist Himalayan ascents—and a few llamas, he navigates trails, creeks, ponds, and peaks. He prefers his assistants young because, as he puts it, "they can carry a lot of weight, don't complain much, and are fun to be with." Though he's nearing 60, these youthful Sherpas likely have a tough time keeping up with him, not the other way around. Three months after having that partially bartered knee-replacement surgery, Fielder was back on the slopes, defying his doctor's orders.

He can describe most of his shots—some almost 30 years old—in striking detail. After hundreds of speeches and media appearances, pressing flesh and selling his work, Fielder says, he rarely remembers people but never forgets a place. "Once you're there, it's very sensuous, not just views but smells, tastes, touch, sounds," he says. "All that makes an impression, so when I pull out a photo from 30 years ago, I can remember how it affected all my senses in that moment."

His teams hike for miles, usually over unbroken trails, as his name gets him access to swaths of land not open to the public. While his assistants set up camp, he looks for distinctive bouquets of flowers or lichen on rocks, mentally planning for the following morning, when he'll be groping around in the darkness, waiting for the first light. Rising with one or two assistants to get into position, he sets up and waits patiently for the moment to be just right. If that moment never comes, he packs up and moves to another site. He shoots until midmorning, hikes with the group to the next camp, and shoots again around dusk.

Colorado 1870-2000 required Fielder's most grueling physical investment, and it brought him the greatest renown. He conceived it around 1997, when his promotional instincts suggested that "a 'millennium book' might attract a good deal of attention." He'd discovered William Henry Jackson, who'd photographed Colorado's landscape in the late 19th century. Fielder searched historical archives, weeding through Jackson's more than 20,000 shots to find 300 scenes for the book. Fielder had dived into environmental activism after the 1993 Colorado wilderness book—overcoming his reticence about public speaking and embracing the limelight—and he sought to replicate Jackson's shots exactly, a century later, to "reveal the gross transformation of the landscape for which we humans are responsible."

The book was the apotheosis of his growth as a naturalist, an evolution Fielder describes with poetic flourish in one of his frequent soliloquies about the Colorado wilderness. "As I touched more spots around the state, visited more remote, beautiful places, witnessed more unbelievable moments of light, smelled the sensuousness of decaying aspen leaves in the fall, drank pure water from snowmelt at 12,000 feet, like everybody else that gets invited into nature, I began to appreciate the miracle of creation and evolution," he says. "I realized that this place is special, unique, and may be the only one like it in the universe."

On that winter morning in 2005, however, as he and his group holed up at the Goodwin-Greene Hut, nature wasn't so inviting. The area is notorious avalanche territory, and Fielder had awakened before dawn planning to climb on skis two miles up a 35-degree grade to a 12,000-foot ridge to take sunrise pictures. But now he and his team confronted a thick blanket of fresh snow and whiteout conditions. Visibility was reduced to about a foot. Fielder concluded the shot wasn't worth it and led the group out, a treacherous task. He'd take 10 steps on his skis, stop, reorient himself with his compass, and take 10 more steps. He heard the distant cracking snow shelves, cannon-blast hints of an incipient avalanche. "I had to call upon a lifetime's worth of skiing and backcountry skills," Fielder says. "It was a deliberate process, but justifiably so. I had three people with me, including my only son."