The Art District on Santa Fe is home to a number of Denver’s most celebrated artists, designers and photographers. A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to sit down with renown Colorado Landscape Photographer John Fielder to discuss his new exhibit opening this weekend. The new exhibit called “John Fielder’s Africa Panoramic” opens to the public this Saturday, October 15th and runs through December 31st. Read the full interview below or scroll to the bottom of the page to hear the audio portion.
It’s a pleasure speaking with you today, John. Thanks for your time. You have a special new exhibit opening October 15th. What can you tell me about it?
The name of the exhibit is “John Fielder’s Africa Panoramic” and I went to Africa finally, for the first time in my life, in May of 2011. Specifically to the countries of Namibia and Zambia and had an extraordinary experience, both personally enjoying Africa but also photographing. I spent three weeks in those two countries.
Why Africa? What drew you there? What new views about travel or photography did you take away from that experience?
Like most Baby Boomers, we all read National Geographic back in the 50s and 60s and saw extraordinary photojournalistic scenes of that place. For me, it was the combination of both the landscape (which is the way I make my living as a Landscape Photographer) but also to see those exotic creatures that I saw Tarzan, Jane and boy (their child) hang out with for so many years. I think for most people, Africa is high on the list [to visit] and it was on mine. And what a treat at age 60 to finally get to go and enjoy it! After 40 years of being a photographer and training my eye, I was ready to finally apply what I’d learned creatively to that extraordinary continent.
Very cool. I’ve heard that when people visit Africa they just feel “at home” as in back to their “mother” country. People sort of feel at ease because Africa is where we all came from if you believe in Evolution.
Interesting thought—yeah, genetically I think we got our start there and I did feel comfortable mostly because the people were extraordinary in Zambia and Namibia, which are two relatively stable countries politically and economically. The remote safari camps we stayed at had good food and drink and great service, just in a wilderness setting. Like nothing we really have in North America really. We had these small 20 person tent camps with great service and then these extraordinary scenes outside the front of our tent. I felt a connection, for sure, with our origins in Africa and felt very comfortable there because the people were so nice.
So, back to America. How long have you been a part of the Art District and what made you decide Santa Fe Drive was the right place to open your studio?
I first rented space at what was called the “Reed Photo Art Gallery” here at 833 Santa Fe Drive in 2006. I moved from four years in the Cherry Creek Shopping Center to what I thought was a more appropriate place for my work with a better feel for art and a sense of community rather than the mall. I rented space for three years from the Reeds and then purchased the building in 2010, so I’ve had it for over a year now. I kept “John Fielder’s Colorado Gallery” on the south of the 6,000 SF building and changed the “Reed Photo Art Gallery” to the “Denver Photo Art Gallery” to give us the opportunity to display another dozen or so photographers on a regular basis. It also allows us to have new exhibits with new work by other photographers every couple of months and keep the gallery dynamic. I love being here [on Santa Fe Drive]—what a great place.
Over the course of your artistic career, technology has changed quickly- cameras, lenses, and prints have all advanced so much. Where do your interests lie and have you tried to embrace the new stuff or be traditional?
For most of my career I’ve been a film large format (that is 4x5” format) Landscape Photographer. 4x5” lent itself well to landscape photography and it was the ultimate tool, but after having both a knee and a hip totally replaced with titanium in the last three years, I decided carrying 65 pounds of large format camera equipment was not good for my long-term health. Coincidentally, I began to understand digital photography better and three years later I’ve grown to like it better than film. There are so many features of digital photography that make it easier and better quality than film photography. About 80 - 90% of what I do today is digital photography. I still use the 4x5” because the inherent detail in that allows me to make prints 8 feet long, which we have here in the gallery and larger in some of my client’s locations, but only the 4x5” allows me to get that kind of detail. But digital is catching up and this Africa exhibit will have some panoramic photos up to 8 feet long that I took with a Canon 5D Mark II 21 Megapixel camera. A few sharpening tools and software that softens the edges of the pixels, has allowed me to make remarkable reproductions up to 8 feet long.
Which photographic techniques intrigue you most? I know light and composition are two elements that you always keep in mind, but are there any others?
I am a big believer in getting to know the sensuousness of the place that you visit and photograph. Not just seeing it, but smelling, tasting, touching and hearing it. If a person really appreciates the sensuousness of the people and the place they are visiting, only then can they get a really good photo. That’s what I’ve always done in Colorado. I love sipping on cool mountain waters and listening to aspen trees wrestling in the wind. I’m always touching things—likens on rocks when I’m hiking on a trail - and that makes me appreciate the place and the moment more; it makes me a better photographer. So that’s exactly what I did in Africa. I really tired to get to know the place and 40 years of experience really gave me a good foundation to being a productive photographer on my first trip to Africa.
Your website says you’re an avid skier. Ever considered snow boarding?
I do backcountry skiing. I use alpine touring or run to Niger in the winter to do my backcountry ski photography. I also use alpine equipment to ski resorts just for fun and exercise. I would love to be a snowboarder - I think I understand the motion and dynamic of snowboarding, but I’ve got too much to do and don’t want to go through that learning curve. Besides, I don’t want to be called a “shredder” anyway.
Sunsets or sunrises, which do you prefer?
They are symmetrical for the most part. They both consist of pre or post light, which we call “twilight” before sunrise and after sunset, when the glow of the sky reflects on the landscape. We do long exposures and the light is usually warm and it is a great time to photography that most people don’t take advantage of. At sunrise and sunset, you get broad shadows and warm yellow, orange and red light. I have no bias one towards the other—only perhaps at the ends of the day, around sunset, when people and winds have unsettled the earth. There’s more dust in the atmosphere, and maybe moisture too in the summer, so sometimes sunsets can be a little more dramatic than sunrises. When the moisture has cleared-out over night, you don’t have quite the moisture in cloud in the sky. Basically, I have never slept in for a sunrise or missed a sunset when I’m out photographing. Now, when I’ve got a margarita in my hand, then sometimes I take a break, just enjoy the memories, and don’t feel the need to take photos.
Was there any photo that got away from you? Maybe a scene with an animal or a scene where the weather changed and your vision of it was completely different and you were sorely disappointed?
A thousand photos have gotten away from me, but sometimes you enjoy the memory and not the recorded moment on film. Most people think photography is patience, waiting for the “right light” or “right moment” for hours or days at a time but that’s not how I have done things. If I don’t like the light or lay of the land where I am, I move on down the trail or road to a better time or place. That’s how I’ve made forty-one books in 31 years! I don’t just sit and wait for it to happen, I go find it. And speed matters too, how fast you operate with the camera to capture what can be short-lived moments; sometimes a moment is two seconds, sometimes it’s two minutes or two hours.
What famous photographers / artists do you admire? Who inspires you and whose books or prints do you own?
I don’t pay attention now to what’s going on around me and who else photographs as much, except for a those people that we enjoy inviting to our gallery to exhibit. In the early days, I didn’t have the resources or time to go to classes, take workshops or read a lot of books. How I learned photography was by looking at the photography of other people I admired and trying to copy or duplicate them. That taught me both how to use the camera mechanically and how to design and compose. Elliot Porter was my favorite artist. Porter had a way of seeing in a design in particular that he coined “the intimate landscape” - that is the landscape with depth from foreground to background but without the crutch of a horizon in the photos; the interior of nature so to speak. I’ve always appreciated his wonderful eye. I also appreciate Ansel Adams for setting the example of Environmentalist Photographer (although in black and white whereas I’m a color photographer), demonstrating that you can make pictures, make a living, be an artist and, at the same time, influence people to become advocates for protecting and preserving the miracle of life on earth.
That segues well into my next question: as a Landscape Photographer, I know you have passion for land preservation. What groups or organizations are you involved in that Denverites should know about?
Well, if they are involved in conservation or protecting the natural environment, I am involved with them. I try to spread the wealth and do what I can for any and all kinds of environmental, conservation and non-profit organizations. Whether sharing my photos to show people what’s at stake, raise money by donating fine prints for charity auctions, giving books for silent auctions, going on the road and publically speaking on behalf of the issues. So I work with political organizations like the Sierra Club that lobby in Congress to have laws made to protect nature or less political organizations like The Nature Conservancy who work to buy, protect, and preserve habitat by influencing people and governments all around the world. And the myriad organizations in between from land trusts (non-profits that work to get land owners protection). If one cares about such things, it’s easy to find organizations to volunteer your time or resources to give money to.
Alright, those are all the questions I had for you. Is there is anything else you’d like to share or want people to know about you or your exhibit
I hope people will come and see what I did in Africa, I’m proud of it. It is a glorious place that needs to be shared and there are lots of issues in Africa- too many people that are not healthy and who are challenged in so many ways. If there is one thing I’ve learned in 40 years as a Conservation Environmentalist it is: if you don’t have healthy, wealthy and happy people, nature doesn’t get protected. We have to work so hard to help that continent and the countries that I went to [Namibia and Zambia] find a way to protect their natural resources, environment and wildlife. In the end, tourism is their savior because people have a hard time making a living there otherwise. If Africans poach the wildlife and don’t protect the landscape, there’s no hope for them being happy, healthy, wealthy and thoughtful people. That’s why proceeds from the private opening of the exhibit will be donated to the World Wildlife Fund to help that cause. I hope people come and support what we’re doing at here John Fielder’s Colorado starting October 15th through December 31st, 2011.
For exhibit details, visit http://www.johnfielder.com/africa-panoramic.php or http://www.artdistrictonsantafe.com/events/john-fielders-africa-panoramic2. You can also see more of John’s work at John Fielder’s Colorado located at 833 Santa Fe Drive, Denver, CO 80204 or by visiting his website at http://www.johnfielder.com/.