By Robert Tann, The Summit Daily
Rarely can Katy Fielder picture her father and not see a camera in his hands.
Across a more than 40-year career, John Fielder made a name for himself as one of Colorado’s premier nature photographers, producing roughly 200,000 photos in his ongoing attempt to capture the state’s natural beauty.
Fielder, who died Aug. 11 at the age of 73 following a prolonged battle with pancreatic cancer, will be remembered for his love of life and his commitment to nature, friends and family.
“I’d always imagined my dad — with what an outdoorsman he was — hiking and skiing until he was 90 years old and never having any issues with it,” said Katy, Fielder’s youngest daughter. “It’s a huge, huge loss.”
Katy said her father passed away peacefully, while looking out at the Gore Range where he had explored endless trails and crevices, at his Summit County home with family by his side.
“Always pointed at nature”
From her earliest memories, Katy, 37, said she was swept up in her family’s expeditions to various pockets of Colorado. It began as a toddler harnessed to her father’s body while they glided on skis across High Country snow. As she grew older, Katy became accustomed to routine camping trips that could be weeks long.
“I don’t think there was a day that went by without him looking out at the mountains and saying how incredibly beautiful this place is and how grateful we are to live in it,” she said. “As kids, when he would take us out into the wilderness, I think he’d show us that the world and the environment is a really big place.”
And Fielder, “never did not have his camera with him,” Katy said. “It was always pointed at nature.”
But it wasn’t until one evening on the Eastern Plains, standing near the Pawnee Buttes, that Katy, then aged 8 or 9, stopped to think about what her father was doing. As the warm light of sunset fell over the two rocky sentinels that make up the formation, Katy stared at Fielder, who was engulfed in his work.
“I remember I realized just how incredible and how beautiful the state was, and seeing my dad capture it, I really understood what he was doing,” Katy said.
Fielder embraced involving his family in his work, said Katy, who remembers peeking under the cloth of her father’s large frame camera before he captured a shot. At home, Fielder would bring Katy and her siblings downstairs to the basement where they would ponder over photo transparencies on his light table.
Fielder would even ask which ones they wanted to see in his books and calendars. For Fielder’s acclaimed pictorial history book 1870-2000, or as Katy calls it, “the big brown book,” he had the family help pick the cover.
Since beginning as a professional photographer in 1973, Fielder’s work has appeared in more than 50 books. In January 2023, he donated his Colorado photography to History Colorado and wrote in a subsequent column for the Summit Daily News: “I have never felt that I ‘owned’ my photographs, only that I was borrowing these places to visit and record, and that I would give them back someday.”
An inspiration to many
Mountain guide author Jon Kedrowski, who became a close friend later in Fielder’s life, said he remembers growing up with the Colorado photographer’s work in the 1990s.
“I had coffee table books of John’s that my parents had bought me when I was a kid,” Kedrowski said. “He was such an inspiration to many people, including myself.”
The two first met in the late 2000s during one of Fielder’s book events where they struck up a conversation about their love for outdoor exploration. Fielder told Kedrowski to reach back out and, roughly a week later, Kedrowski did.
They formed a friendship for the remainder of Fielder’s life that included mountaineering, rafting and backpacking with llamas, one of Fielder’s favorite ways to get around, Kedrowski said.
“At a time when I was trying to find life in my direction and my career, we could go out and leave the world behind,” Kedrowski said.
Kedrowski said Fielder became a mentor to him, helping him navigate his own aspirations of becoming a photographer and nature writer. For Kedrowski’s first book in 2012, “Sleeping on the Summits,” Fielder wrote the foreword and later provided photos for subsequent mountain guides.
Outside of his professional standing, Fielder helped grow Kedrowski’s outlook on life, too.
Fielder was always “finding the joy out of struggle,” Kedrowski said. Whether it was avoiding capsizing during a 165-mile rafting trip or triggering an avalanche in the backcountry (the latter of which ended in a swift return home and a round of margaritas), Fielder lived life with a smile.
“He always had a desire to seek more wilderness, more adventure and never look back because life is too short,” Kedrowski said.
He remembers a time during one of their backpacking trips when this philosophy was acutely noticeable. Kedrowski said he asked Fielder what time it was to which he replied, “Time doesn’t matter here.”
Kedrowski said the message he heard was, “Don’t wait, if you’ve been putting something off that you’ve been wanting to do, don’t wait.”
“The soul of the place”
Fielder’s life was not without tragedy. In 2005, he lost his wife, Gigi, to Alzheimer’s disease. In 2006, his son J.T. died by suicide.
After both losses, Fielder became heavily involved as a volunteer in raising awareness around Alzheimer’s and suicide prevention, said Colorado author Steve Walsh, who published a children’s biography of Fielder in 2019.
“He did a lot of work on the environment and conservation but also in the personal aspects of his life,” Walsh said. “I think it showed what a really well-rounded person he was. Family and nature were No. 1 for him, in that order.”
Fielder’s environmental and conservation work was in many ways an extension of his photography and deeply held beliefs about the natural world, Walsh said.
When taking a photo, “Probably the most important thing was the essence of the place, the soul of the place,” Walsh said. “It wasn’t just how pretty a mountain was around him, but what it elicits.”
Fielder has helped lead public policy on environmental efforts, such as the Great Outdoors Colorado initiative in 1992, which has since protected 2 million acres of open space, parks, trails, wildlife habitat and ranches worth $2 billion using Colorado lottery profits and other funds.
Fielder’s photos were also used to promote the passage of the 1993 Colorado Wilderness Act, which enacted a slew of environmental protections.
His daughter, Katy, said those efforts show how Fielder’s work offered more than just scenic imagery. His photos were also a call to action.
“Our politicians really are crucial for protecting Colorado and the beauty and land we love to use here. And if they’re not seeing it every day, it’s probably easier to lose sight of that,” Katy said.
“The most important part of his legacy was not how much he loved Colorado,” she added, “but showing everyone else how beautiful Colorado is so that they could love it as much as him.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated Aug. 14, 2023, to include the full feature story from the Summit Daily News via AP Story Share. To read more on this story, go to summitdaily.com.