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

It was 1975, the golden age of polyester, wide collars, and bell bottoms, and a young and awkward twentysomething named John Fielder joined the May-Daniels & Fisher department store chain in Denver. He came to Colorado with an accounting degree from Duke University to fulfill a childhood dream. In 1964, he'd taken a middle school class trip to the West from his North Carolina home; one look at the Rockies convinced him that this was where he wanted to spend his life. For a year, he'd tried his hand at real estate, as a broker for farms and ranches, but opted for a career in the department store business, like his father.

Fielder had the retail pedigree and went to work as a buyer. Back home, Fielder's dad had been an executive who oversaw the growth of one department store into a chain of 30, but old man Fielder played no role in getting his son the job with Denver's May-D&F. "I didn't want to work for him, and I had the business and aesthetic skills to break into it on my own," Fielder says. On his first day at May-D&F, Fielder peeked around a cubicle wall and saw Virginia Yonkers. "Gigi" was blonde and stunning, and he was a gangly guy sporting plastic glasses. She had a boyfriend, but Fielder waited out that fling.

Gigi liked to ski, so Fielder taught himself the basics at Winter Park. A week later he returned to the resort with her, smugly saying this skiing thing was no big deal. She suggested they try a mogul run. About 45 minutes later he reached the bottom, where Gigi was waiting and laughing hysterically. When she dared him to take a second mogul run, he ignored the sharp pain in his shin. After another balky 45-minute descent, Fielder confessed: Maybe this skiing thing wasn't so easy after all. Gigi was charmed by his determination to impress her—even more so when they found that he'd suffered a boot-top fracture during that first run. The courtship was under way.

Fielder also was becoming more serious about his other love. While he was earning $7,500 annually at the department store, he began dedicating time to his budding hobby. He read just two books about the technical aspects of photography, studied the work of Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, and otherwise learned by doing. He discovered that nature photography is more about painstaking preparation than patience. He picked up little tricks and discovered that photography is like fishing—it's most productive early and late.

John and Gigi married in 1978. The couple had three children, Ashley, Katy, and their firstborn, J.T. Even with the pressures of supporting a family, Fielder decided to pursue his hobby as a full-time job. The need for a "backup plan" became a staple of the career advice he later gave his children, and Fielder's idea of this was to simultaneously found Westcliffe Publishers, to make it easier to print his own work and others' if the opportunity arose. "But there's still something to be said for being a little bit crazy and jumping off the deep end," he says.