John Fielder's background in retail has helped him build a successful niche in high-quality local-interest calendars and books that show off his beloved Rocky Mountains.
It's one thing to take a photograph," says nature expert John Fielder, "but it is another thing, entirely, to sell it."
Colorado specialist Fielder excels at both of these difficult challenges. He's a seasoned and hardworking large-format nature and landscape photographer who runs a multifaceted business selling his work. He's strategically built this enterprise, which includes photographic books and calendars, corporate and consumer print sales (via his own galleries) and stock, over the past 27 years.
If scaling the two figurative mountains of making and selling nature photos weren't enough (along with all the actual mountain climbing he does), Fielder has attained this significant photographic success while barely ever leaving his home state.
It helps that his home state happens to be the majestic and varied natural wonder called Colorado (see his work at johnfirelder.com).
He's published 39 photography books since 1982 featuring photographs that he's taken within the 103,717 square miles of the Centennial State. He also has built a well respected photographic workshop business that offers classroom sessions and field shoots around his favorite locations in Colorado, as well as a six-day July excursion to Glacier Bay, Alaska. When he has time to visit one of his two galleries in the state, he usually gives free slide-show lectures for both kids and adults.
Colorado's abundance of rugged natural beauty was central to his decision to quit his regular job and pick up a view camera full time. When he decided to leave the corporate world and become a photographer, he "didn't want to be a vagabond." A reluctance to travel would normally disqualify one from nature photography, but Fielder thought that he had more than enough nature going on right in his backyard.
"I ended up being a vagabond in my own home state," he concedes.
Roots in retail
Fielder, 58, may be the rare nature photographer who's stayed close to home his entire career, but he fits a profile shared by at least two other successful Western nature photographer/entrepreneurs: Thomas Mangelsen (mangelsen.com) and Rodney Lough, Jr. (theloughroad.com). Fielder, like these other two, has a business background with a focus, appropriately enough, on retailing.
As was wildlife photographer/retail entrepreneur Mangelsen, Fielder was raised in a retailing family. His father ran a chain of East Coast department stores, and Fielder put in some time at the stores while growing up in Connecticut and North Carolina. He then went on to a career with May department stores in Colorado, focusing on merchandising and backed by a degree in accounting from Duke University.
All this time, however, he was also an avid nature photographer. "When I was 31 and on the corporate fast track at May stores, I asked my wife if I could change careers, quit my job and become a photographer.
"She said no," he deadpans, noting that they had one child and another on the way at the time.
However, Mrs. Fielder relented not long after, and the couple agreed that they'd give the new and risky path a single year to bear fruit. So, in 1981, Fielder quit his department store job "to turn my avocation into a career." He started small. Inspired by the beauty of Colorado, he thought there ought to be a Colorado-themed wall calendar with high-quality, "Sierra Club-style" photography and printing.
At the time, no such thing existed.
"There were only poor-quality Colorado calendars with low-end printing and photography, selling for $5 in drugstores," he explains. Fielder put together his own 1982 calendar, working with a local printer, and brazenly priced it 100 percent higher, at $10. It sold "pretty well," he says, and helped establish a niche market for the high-quality local-interest calendars for which he later became known.
Rocky Mountain guy
In 1982 Fielder found a simpatico venture capitalist, and together they secured financing to self-publish Fielder's first coffee-table book, following the business model of Graphic Arts Center Publishing (which was enjoying success with photography books by David Muench). The Fielder book went on to sell 100,000 copies over 10 years and proved that a lively market existed for books about Colorado landscapes.
I do my best work when I'm out for a week or more in the middle of nowhere.
Fielder's is truly a Colorado-centric business; about 90 percent of his books and other publications are sold within the state. His books are an especially popular option among Coloradoans for birthday and holiday gifts.Fielder's sales figures are truly impressive, especially given that Colorado has a population of only around 5 million and that the books are not inexpensive. His latest book, said to be the biggest-selling book in state history, "Colorado 1870-2000," lists for $95.
In "Colorado," Fielder pairs 300 photos taken by William Henry Jackson in the 19th century with his own exactly matched views of the 21st-century state. He says that the book has 170,000 copies in print "and continues to sell well," adding that it is now selling thousands of copies in wholesale club stores such as Costco after its initial bookstore retail run.
Discussing his approach to club-store sales, Fielder says he isn't immune to the pressure, felt by many booksellers, to move great quantities of titles at significantly reduced prices in such stores. He will sell his $95 list-price books for $65 in wholesale stores, but only later in their publication cycle, after the traditional bookstores "have gotten their fill" of sales.
Fielder makes the bulk of his living from book and calendar royalties, and also enjoys significant income from fine-art print sales at his two Colorado galleries. However, about 90 percent of his print sales come not from walk-in retail customers but from corporations.
Large companies, he says, "have the wall space and the resources" to help his business through the ups and downs of the consumer economy. "We're doing a land-office business" with corporate print sales, he adds.
In fact, Fielder made his biggest print sale ever in 2007, when Re/Max International purchased 500 photographs to decorate its new 13-story Denver headquarters. It was a big sale in more ways than one — the prints average four by five feet in size (Fielder works almost exclusively with a Linhof 4 x 5 view camera and slow transparency film). The Re/Max installation is more than a corporate art initiative to the photographer; it strikes Fielder as "a museum of nature photography. I think it would be every artist's dream come true."
Fielder runs one main consumer gallery, a 3,000-square-foot space in Denver's gallery-dense Santa Fe Drive arts district, which he opened only in 2002. His satellite gallery is an outpost in the ski center of Breckenridge, Colo., in a restored 19th-century mining cabin that Fielder shares with photographer Gary Soles.
His focus on print sales is relatively recent because, like many large-format color workers, he was never satisfied with the prints from his big slides. However, with the advent of LightJet and similar laser-to-photographic-paper printing technologies, he finally obtained prints that meet his standards.
Back to nature
Quite surprisingly, despite the amount of success that he's achieved behind the camera, Fielder says photography comes second. "Photography has been a great way to make a good living," he says, "but I'm more of a naturalist than a photographer."
He's inspired not so much by his big chromes and prints as by his subjects. "The views, smells, sound, taste and touch of nature, of four billion years of evolution" is what drives him to haul around 65 pounds of camera gear, including 30 loaded 4 x 5 film holders and seven view-camera lenses, in his LowePro Super Trekker backpack.
In 1983, to fulfill his goal of helping to protect the natural world, he began partnering with groups working to save wild places, lending them images for their campaigns "to show people what is at stake." His photos have helped get pro-wilderness bills passed many times; most recently, legislation that will protect nearly 750,000 acres via conservation easements.
His growth as a photographer has been directly related to his growth as a naturalist, he says. "My work improved as I got to know nature better, the textures, light and weather."
Total immersion is his basic approach. "I do my best work when I'm out for a week or more in the middle of nowhere," he says.
Unlike the classic image of the lone-wolf nature photographer, working solo in the wilderness, Fielder treks into the hinterlands with a significant backup crew. It's the only way he can produce work of the quality and quantity he demands.
And we're talking real quantity here: He claims to go through 500 sheets of 4 x 5 transparency film each week in the field.
For each trip, he enlists three to five volunteers — usually young people "who love being outdoors carrying heavy gear, their only payment in ramen noodles; just outdoor lovers who are strong and skilled." This support team carries food and tents and survival gear. He also has used llamas as pack animals for the past 25 years.
While this small-army approach may seem to run counter to some quiet, reflective nature photography ideal, to Fielder it is absolutely the only way to go.
"When you're tired, hungry, cold and wet, it is hard to be motivated to do good work," he explains. "But with people to carry enough food and the right raingear, for example, the challenge of surviving is mitigated, and I'm kept reasonably comfortable," leaving him better able to focus on making compelling photographs.
The llamas especially handle the bulk of the weight and help Fielder to stay "stronger and fitter for a longer period of time, so I can use the 500 sheets of film well. I've seen loner nature photographers make good pictures, but they can't do it in the quantity that I do, thanks to my support setup," he explains.
Planning for the unexpected
The heavy lifting actually starts long before the 65-pound LowePro pack ever gets hefted. There's a great deal of preparation before the nearly 60-year-old Fielder will make "the investment in time, energy and knee cartilage" involved in his field trips, which generally last about a week.He'll make an extensive study of weather patterns and topographical maps, for example, and, of course, the requisite sunrise and sunset tables.
Photography has been a great way to make a good living, but I'm more of a naturalist than a photographer.
Fielder likes to arrive in a new spot around 4 p.m. so that he can set up camp and have a chance to "preconceive" a dozen photos both for the "magic hour" later on that day and for sunrise the next morning. He looks for the spots where the sun will hit directly, and in reflection, on the lichen, flowers and rocks. Before retiring he'll set up his Linhof view camera so that when the morning's preconceived images reveal themselves, he'll be right there, in position and ready.
For "Needle Mountain Sunrise," he was fully prepped and waiting for the right moment when the peaks would be bathed in orange morning light. However, he did not anticipate that the pink light in the background would linger long enough for him to catch both shades of sunlight in one shot."That was a 60-second opportunity, and if I had not preconceived it, including deciding the night before where to place the tripod legs, I never would've put that moment on film," he says.
"It's about being at the right place at the right time, but you'd also better be fast," Fielder concludes, sounding like a man who knows his big backyard rather well.
IN THE LOUPE: John Fielder
Gallery locations: Denver and Breckenridge, Colo.
Favorite gear: The Linhof Master Technika 4 x 5 view camera and Fujichrome Velvia 100 film. "I used other field cameras while working my way up financially, and the Linhof Master Technika is the most durable for wilderness work, and the most flexible with movements," Fielder says. "I've destroyed several cameras, including Linhofs. The Master Technika is made of metal alloys, and it is the least destroyable field camera I've used."
For lenses, he prefers a 75mm Nikkor f/4.5 and Rodenstock's 115mm f/6.8, 150mm f/5.6, 210mm f/6.8 and 300mm f/6.8, plus a 360mm Nikkor f/8 with a rear-element accessory to make it a 500mm f/11.
Fielder's tripod is a Bogen 3020 series with a Manfrotto three-way head. "I do so much carrying that I have two priorities: sturdiness and also weight," he says. "This combination is just fine even when I rack out the 500mm to 12 inches."
Recent accolades: Lifetime Achievement Award, Colorado Film Commission (2007); Rebel with a Cause Award, Colorado Environmental Coalition (2007); Distinguished Service Award, University of Colorado (2000); Humanitarian Award, National Recreation and Park Association (1998).
Recent books: "Colorado 1870-2000 II" (2005), "Mountain Ranges of Colorado" (2004), and "John Fielder's Best of Colorado" (2002). He has also begun a children's series, which includes "Maria's Mysterious Mission" (2007), which merges his photos with illustrations by Anna-Maria Crum, and "Do You See What I See?" (2006), which includes poetry from children's author Claudia Cangilla McAdam.
Activities: Hikes and skis about 500 miles per year, often with his two adult daughters, Ashley and Katy. Also enjoys whitewater rafting in spring through canyon country.
Advice for aspiring landscape photographers: "It is essential to have a passion for both nature and photography," he says. "This is a very difficult business to make a living at, and it is especially difficult to make a good living. There is no instant success. So you just have to have an incredible amount of patience and perseverance. I say this based on my own personal experience and my observation of others."