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

The O'Hare incident prompted visits to multiple specialists, who discovered that Gigi had early-onset Alzheimer's disease. The pragmatic businessman in Fielder took over. He already had the publishing company; he'd make Gigi's caretaking his other enterprise. To the kids, he cast the challenge of caring for Gigi as a blunt but reassuring to-do list. "He has this way of disconnecting from emotional situations so he can do what needs to be done," Ashley says. "It would've been horrible for him to get emotional. We were already losing one parent, so it was good to still see him as a solid force that was taking care of everything."

Gigi's illness hit the family just when Fielder had never been busier. The then-ongoing Colorado 1870-2000 project required several years of full-time attention. He took over Gigi's care-taking whenever possible and added Alzheimer's to his list of crusades, taking on speaking engagements and headlining fund-raisers. He felt he had been forced into Sophie's choice: He could either work less and not afford to give Gigi the best care, or he could work more and leave it to others, including his increasingly stressed daughters. J.T. was at school—first Colorado State, later CU-Boulder—and returned home when he could, which made witnessing Gigi's deteriorating condition that much more difficult. While the rest of the family was on site, seeing Gigi's condition change gradually, to J.T.'s eye she was markedly worse almost every time he saw her.

Gigi's seven-year spiral followed the prescribed downward track for Alzheimer's patients in all but one way. The saddest phase of the disease is when the patient knows she's sick but can't do anything about it, nor can she quite grasp why. She might ask anguished questions about what will happen to her or her kids, and she might lash out, even violently. The Fielder family prepared mentally for this but rarely saw it. Gigi remained tender even as she wasted away, dying at home in her own bed on September 11, 2005.

A few months after Gigi's death, the mother of one of J.T.'s friends read her obituary and called her son about it. Until recently, J.T. had been living in Washington Park with some of his Powder Factory friends, now out of college and navigating their 20s. Neither Klingelheber, who shared the basement apartment with J.T., nor most of their longtime friends, had any idea that Gigi had died. "It was like pulling teeth to get him to talk about it," Jones says. "He always carried himself like the alpha male, with no emotions on the outside. His dad was the same way, but it didn't seem to bother J.T. when he was younger, because he had the balance with his mom."

J.T. drifted between jobs and girlfriends like recent grads do. He occasionally talked about it with his friends, but no one thought much of his struggles because they all were going through the same thing. J.T. often shot videos of the Powder Factory's extreme sporting exploits and considered building a career out of his hobby. He knew better than to ask Dad for a job lead. For years Fielder bored into J.T. the need for a backup plan, urging his son to get the business experience that had helped him chart, finance, and execute his own successful career. "Dad [wanted J.T. to] go into the corporate world and learn about marketing and how to work with people before he pursued other things," Ashley says. "But J.T. was just so not like that. He didn't take well to the corporate environment."

In Fielder's eyes, his son hadn't quite accomplished enough to earn a nepotistic boost. "We had not gotten to the point where I would help him find a way in some particular industry related to the outdoors," he says. "I didn't really want it to be photography. The combination of skills is so unique, I couldn't imagine anyone else having that—even my own son—so I wasn't aggressively steering him toward taking over my own job. Maybe someday I'd hand over the reins to him, but my attitude has always been that I'd do this until the day I die."

The fatherly tough love and J.T.'s own twentysomething angst bubbled up when he drank. J.T. might go into an angry rant about his dad, or get into a bar fight, or try to break a bottle over someone's head. Once, the Wash Park housemates awakened to find one of their bathrooms destroyed. "J.T. didn't really talk about his dad, but sometimes when he'd have a few too many drinks, he could get pretty upset about him," Klingelheber says.