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John Fielder: Legacy In Color

John Fielder: Legacy In Color


A look at the life and legacy of Colorado’s premiere nature photographer

Perhaps, one of the greatest, and sometimes overlooked, elements that shaped Colorado’s long, complex web of history is water. Water shaped landscapes, acted as a driving factor in where Indigenous populations settled, forced farmers off their land, and inspired many of John Fielder’s more than 200,000 photographs.

In January of 2023, Fielder donated over 6,000 photographs to the History Colorado museum before his passing in August of the same year. For the next five years, the museum will be showing rotating exhibitions of his work in his namesake gallery. Additionally, they just closed their special exhibition: “Revealed: John Fielder’s Favorite Place.” Admission to the museum is free for those under 18.

But no matter the exhibit you attend, you’ll notice water is often the main subject.

If you check out the permanent collection, you’ll see quotes from Fielder “we pulled from interviews we did with him and from published sources,” said Jason Hanson, chief creative officer for History Colorado. “So he can explain in his own words why it’s so important to protect Colorado’s rivers, which is the most significant and consequential river system in the U.S. West.”

“Every Time I Come Back from a Beautiful Place […] I Say ‘Wow That was Unbelievable. But I Still Think I Like Colorado Better” — John Fielder

Slate Creek Eagles Nest Wilderness. Photo by John Fielder

Fielder started photographing Colorado in 1973 to make a living initially. But that shifted in the 90s.

“In the 90s he slowly, almost reluctantly, was convinced to translate his love of nature into activism,” Hanson said. “And he became a very powerful, eloquent voice over the next three decades.”

Indeed, in the early 90s, Fielder traveled the state and showed his photographs in an effort to get citizens to vote on allocating lottery profits to preserve and maintain outdoor spaces. Citizens showed the bill overwhelming support, with 58% voting yes. To this day, Colorado has the only lottery in the world where the profits go mainly to outdoor spaces.

He was also one of the founders of Great Outdoors Colorado, which helps allocate lottery funds to various outdoor spaces. Since the organization’s inception, its preserved over one million acres and created or maintained over 1,000 parks.

“I was lucky to be on GOCO’s board for eight years and help determine the places that would be protected around the state,” John Fielder told Hanson in an interview in 2023. “GOCO also spawned open space taxes, which doubled the impact. For instance, instead of 50 acres being preserved, it might be 100. It was a very catalytic process and one that I’m very proud of.”

Hanson echoed this sentiment. “Fielder understood we live in a really special place. And he worked to make sure these incredible places were protected for future generations.”

Along with legislation, Fielder had his work featured in over 50 books and also published a number of his own including “Colorado Black on White”, “Wildflowers of Colorado, and others. But perhaps his most influential book was “Colorado 1870-2000.” In it he used photos by William Henry Jackson who surveyed and photographed Colorado in the 1800s. Fielder photographed the same spots as Jackson and presented the photos side-by-side.

When he looked at the pictures, he could see changes in the land,” said Hanson. “And that was part of what helped drive his commitment to environmental advocacy,” Hanson explained Fielder wanted to create a record of how the land was being impacted by humans.

“Seeing is believing,” said Hanson. “He was making sure we would have a record of not just what we were protecting but why we were protecting it.”

“There Really are Very Few Experiences on Earth That are As Sublime As Rafting the Yampa River” John Fielder

Rattlesnake Canyon Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness. Photo by John Fielder.

“Something I like to say is ‘close your eyes and picture Colorado.’ I think what people often picture is a photograph by John Fielder… Fielder went to every corner of the state, he photographed effectively every square mile of Colorado. He showed us places that many won’t ever get to see with their own eyes,” Hanson shared. 

Like Hanson said, many of us won’t travel to all of Colorado’s 104,984 square miles like Fielder did; raft the Yampa; or spend days trekking in the backcountry with llamas to see these places.

But Fielder’s work brings those spaces to you.

Additionally, “we hope the work inspires you to get out there and find your own special place,” Hanson stated. “You can’t really fight to protect a place until you’ve been out in it, smelled it, tasted the water, and really got to know it. Fielder advocated that it was important for people to understand the sensuousness of nature so that they vote to protect it.”

It’s impossible to sum up the lasting legacy of Fielder. But perhaps he sums up the driving force of his work best when he said “It would be a shame and a tragedy if one day the only way we can enjoy our state’s unmatched beauty is through one of my photographs.”


Kristen Richard
When I'm not traveling down a rabbit hole of random esoteric knowledge, you can usually find me camping, hiking, biking, reading, hanging with my dog or rocking out to metal bands.

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