Colorado: 1870-2000, by John Fielder

Review by Ed Quillen

Photography – April 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

Colorado: 1870-2000 Historical photographs by William Henry Jackson – Contemporary photographs by John Fielder
Text by Ed Marston, Eric Paddock, and Roderick Nash
Published in 1999 by Westcliffe Publishers in cooperation with the Colorado Historical Society
ISBN 1-56579-347-1

TRUTH BE TOLD, this is a book I didn’t want to like. It’s a coffee-table volume of art-portfolio dimensions, difficult to hold and awkward to read. I prefer words to pictures, especially in books (books are for reading, movies are for watching), and the pictures are the leading attraction here. And two of the contributors have attitudes that have troubled me in recent years.

Roderick Frazier Nash, author of Wilderness and the American Mind, wrote the afterword. He spoke in Gunnison a few years ago. First he mentioned his house in Santa Barbara and his boat, then his house in Crested Butte, then his many travels. Then he started telling us how important it was to tread lightly on the planet.

Give me a break. Nash consumes resources like a sultan, then tells the rest of us to respect the rocks and trees which should, in his utopian predictions, gain legal rights someday. When all people have their rights, maybe it’s time to expand — but first things first, and Nash seems too wrapped up in promoting natural awareness from a Learjet to be aware of that.

As for Fielder, he’s a very pleasant fellow and a photographer of both talent and persistence. If you’ve ever lugged a camera outdoors, even the lightweight 35-mm gear, and struggled with exposures, light angles, shadows, and framing — you know some of Fielder’s challenge, and he used a 70-pound 4″x5″ view camera.

But consider the commendable goal of most of Fielder’s work — capture scenes of nature and publish them so that people will better appreciate the beauty of our mountains. Then consider the results — calendars, guidebooks, coffee-table tomes that bring more people into the mountains, which generally leads to environmental degradation.

It’s a paradox that I haven’t seen Fielder address, and it’s one that William Henry Jackson didn’t have during the 30 years he photographed in Colorado, from 1870 to 1900.

Jackson had art training and was a more than competent painter, but as a photographer, he was strictly business. He was hired to document government surveys and later, to travel the railroads and find scenery that could be used to attract fare-paying tourists.

Jackson did his job well, and left thousands of plate-glass negatives. Fielder went through the collection in 1997 and in the next year replicated 156 that appear in this book. Jackson’s work was all black-and-white; Fielder sometimes deploys full color in his replications.

Fielder explains the process well in his introduction, and notes that it wasn’t always possible to stand exactly where Jackson stood, although he was always close.

(Fielder writes that he couldn’t find any evidence that Jackson marked the spots where he took photos. When we lived in Middle Park 25 years ago, a local photographer named Paul Gilbert put together a “Then and Now” slide show based on Jackson’s pictures and Gilbert’s current ones. Gilbert said he sometimes found small stone cairns where Jackson had set his tripod. Perhaps those small cairns have dilapidated in the past quarter-century.)

Fielder shoots in the same season at about the same time of day as Jackson did, and generally, where Jackson had a person or train in the photo, Fielder will show a person or vehicle.

THE PICTURES, of course, are fascinating. Most of Colorado is more populated and developed, but not all. Thick forests grow now in places that had been logged then, and some mining camps that bustled in Jackson’s day have utterly vanished.

The book is organized geographically from Front Range to Western Deserts; our part of the world is the Central and Southern Mountains.

Railroad buffs like me see much of interest and sadness along Kenosha and Hagerman passes. We can see what lower Clear Creek looked like before the reservoir was built, Buena Vista when the courthouse was on the edge of town, and a natural bridge along Lake Creek that is no more. And that’s just a start.

Ed Marston, publisher of High Country News, wrote the bulk of the text, discussing a West in transition from the extractive industries of Jackson’s day (mining, grazing, logging) to the amenity industries of today (tourism and recreation). It’s good reading, though I wonder whether anyone besides me will notice it amid all the pictures in a format that works well for images but awkwardly for text.

At any rate, despite my prejudices, I found this an enchanting book, one that goes deeper than most coffee-table tomes. Those seem designed for a quick once-over in a waiting room; this one offers something new every time I pick it up — be it in the photo details or in the text.

— Ed Quillen