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Mountain Magic

Stewart Oksenhorn
Sunrise at Upper Lamphier Lake in the Fossil Ridge Wilderness. John Fielder photograph.
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As soon as John Fielder saw the Colorado Rocky Mountains, he knew. It was 1964, he was a high school junior from North Carolina riding with a teacher and five other students, and the Rockies were part of his life forever. “I have never forgotten the first day I saw the Rocky Mountains rising up in front of me,” said Fielder. “I knew it was where I belonged.”Nine years later, Fielder – who had indeed moved to Colorado – rented a single-lens reflex camera, traveled to the Sangre de Cristo range in southern Colorado. And when he got back his first photographs of the Rockies, again, he knew. He knew that, if he wanted to be a professional wilderness photographer, or even a competent one, he had a lot of work ahead of him.

“I made the worst photos you’ve ever seen,” said Fielder. “I realized I didn’t understand the language of film and camera to the eye.”It’s been a long time – and countless excursions into the backcountry, and endless rolls of film – since those early photographs. Over the ensuing three decades, Fielder has established himself as the pre-eminent photographer of the Colorado wilderness. Among his 35 books are a handful of coffee-table volumes packed with large-format images. “Colorado: 1870-2000,” a fantastically ambitious project that paired historic 19th-century photographs by William Henry Jackson with Fielder’s contemporary images from the same locations, has earned the title of Colorado’s best-selling book ever, with 135,000 copies in print. (The figure is all the more remarkable given the book’s price: $95.)Fielder’s latest collection, the product of 15 summers spent walking into the most remote corners of Colorado’s forests, mountains and fields, is “Mountain Ranges of Colorado.” The 232-page book, with 214 color photos plus text about the geologic history of each of the state’s 28 ranges, was published by Fielder’s own Westcliffe Publishers, the imprint he started in 1981.Fielder will present a slide show and sign copies of “Mountain Ranges of Colorado” at the Mountain Chalet tonight at 7 p.m. The event is a benefit for The Windstar Foundation.

While an accounting student at Duke University, Fielder spent his summers in Colorado, working as a junior geologist for CF&I Steel in Pueblo – a “rails and nails” company, as he puts it, for which his uncle had started a geology department. The pull of the mountains was strong – Fielder was a Colorado resident for good three days after graduating from Duke.If the mountains themselves inspired Fielder to move from North Carolina, it was the work of Eliot Porter – whom Fielder calls “the color Ansel Adams” – who sealed Fielder’s fate as a documenter of those mountains.”He not only made beautiful photographs. But he saw things in nature that nobody else saw,” said the 54-year-old Fielder. “I wanted to be like him.”

Several things stood between Fielder and his photographic dreams: There was his job as a senior manager for the Denver-based May D&F department store chain. Fielder had a family to support. Still, in 1981, he turned his hobby of eight years into a job.The biggest hurdle to overcome was Fielder’s total lack of training in his new profession. The neophyte thought landscape photography was as simple as seeing the beauty he found everywhere in nature and pointing his lens in that direction. But his early photos taught him there was a world of difference between the way the eye and the camera work.”The eye and the camera are remarkably similar mechanically,” he said. “Both have lenses, a film plain, a diaphragm. But contrast is one of the two major problems in photography. The eye can see a lot lighter and a lot darker. So how do you work with that deficiency?”And depth of view – with two eyes, we see depth. Poor one-eyed cameras see only length and width. We have to use tricks to create depth and engage the viewer.”

In his early years as a photographer, Fielder traveled all far and wide across the West. But the demands of family led him to narrow his focus to Colorado, a move which has contributed to his stature today.”I didn’t want to be the typical nature photographer, traveling hundreds of thousands of miles a year to stand next to every other nature photographer in the world, making the same photos of the same places as everyone else,” he said. “I wanted to be on foot. I wanted to have a family.”So he traded the big expanse of the western U.S. for the relatively smaller corner of Colorado. It has turned out to be plenty of space for Fielder.”I’ve been to every wilderness area on skis, or foot,” he said. “But it is infinite. I can’t see all of it.”As his eye gets sharper, the same old landscape seems to get bigger and richer to Fielder, with more to see on every trip into the backcountry. “I can see so much more of it now, on any 100 yards of river I hike,” he said. “We know the universe is expanding, and I see it that way, too. If I go to a place for the first time in 20 years, I can make so many more photographs because I see colors and textures and how light works on film better than ever.”

Fielder has obviously come a long way as a technical photographer. Looking at, say, his magnificent two-page image of the Pierre Lakes cirque in “Mountain Ranges of Colorado,” a composition of water, snow, rocks and peaks, one is tempted to take issue with the idea that there is no field of depth in photography.But Fielder, the person, has been transformed just as dramatically as the photographer. “I was this conservative city slicker Republican kid from North Carolina who was enlightened by the conspicuousness of the Rockies, compared to the Appalachians,” said Fielder of the young man who went west 30 years ago. “As I began to understand the sublimeness, the light, I find here in 4 billion years of evolution and life – it’s so beautiful. And that part is so much more intense now.”

The conservative has become a conservationist. Fielder, a resident of the Denver suburb of Greenwood Village who spends much of his time trekking or skiing alone throughout Colorado, has become a vocal champion of the wilderness he shoots. Among his honors are the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award, the University of Denver’s Ritchie Award for Corporate Responsibility, and the University of Colorado’s Distinguished Service Award. In 1992, Fielder helped found the Board of Great Outdoors Colorado, which protects open space and wildlife habitat.”I realized how lucky we are to have a biologically diverse planet,” said Fielder, who holds out the Aspen area as an example of a community committed to preservation of the environment. “And this has been codified by the rate at which we are destroying biodiversity, on earth and here in Colorado, by growing too fast.”I think, morally, everyone should protect what we have been given. And economically we have to think that way in the long run. Our long-range economy is related to how well we preserve the clean air, the wilderness.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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