A Photo Finish

By now, most of the state knows who John Fielder is.

Anyone who has been inside a local bookstore, read the Rocky Mountain News, watched News4, done business with Norwest Bank, passed the Colorado History Museum or opened their Public Service Company bill has certainly come across his name and his newest book of photography, Colorado 1870-2000 -- over and over again.

Fielder has also been plugged and pushed by KEZW-AM/1430, ColoradoBiz magazine, Colorado Homes & Lifestyles Magazine and the Cherry Creek Shopping Center. To top it off, he estimates that he's spoken to 20,000 people at forty slide shows, sixty book signings and a slew of other appearances in the last six months.

We now know every detail about how Fielder set out in 1998 to re-photograph 300 pictures taken by early Western photographer William Henry Jackson in an attempt to show us how Colorado has changed in more than a hundred years and to make us consider what we'd like it to look like at the end of the next hundred. We've heard how Fielder hiked more than 250 miles and drove more than 25,000 in his quest to stand in the exact spots where Jackson stood, how he lugged fifty pounds of camera equipment up the sides of cliffs and buildings, and about the time-consuming way he chose which pictures to take and precisely how he lined them up.

But Fielder and his company, Westcliffe Publishers, spent no less time and effort lining up partners and sponsors to promote this massive effort; a long list of them hangs outside the museum, where the book's companion exhibit, Then and Now, 1870-2000: The Jackson/Fielder Photos, has been on display since the beginning of the holiday shopping season in November and will remain up until early August.

But if the marketing has at times threatened to overexpose the message, Fielder isn't worried.

"If you have a message to tell, I believe in telling it with as much conviction and with as much of a voice as you can," he says. "Some people would call it opportunism or commercialism, but when I do something, I do it in a big way, and this is a manifestation of that."

Sales of the enormous, $85 coffee-table book back up that claim: Colorado 1870-2000, which was released last year on August 1 -- Colorado Day -- just underwent its fourth printing, and there are now 75,000 copies in print.

It has sold out of bookstores several times -- most noticeably in mid-December, just as the demand was reaching a fever pitch. "As a marketing guy, I know that you never want to be out of a best-selling item at Christmastime," Fielder says. To recover some of the "lost business," he signed 6,000 book plates that could be given as gifts in lieu of the book and used to pick up a copy at a later date. A third run, of 15,000 copies, is mostly sold out. The most recent printing of the book -- now priced at $95 -- is scheduled to be in stores later this month.

Fielder, who lives in Greenwood Village with his family, got the idea for the project in 1995 after the publication of Rocky Mountain National Park: A 100 Year Perspective. That book paired nineteenth-century black-and-white photos taken by naturalist Enos Mills with Fielder's own takes on the same subjects. "People asked me, 'Did you stand in the same place as Enos Mills?' and I said, 'No, why would I? I like to compose my own shots,'" he says.

But the book made him wonder what it would be like to re-photograph famous places all over the state as a way to promote his longstanding and well-known feelings about the protection and conservation of natural spaces, sprawl, historic preservation and the impact of development in Colorado.

"I know a hook when I see one, and the hook was the millennium," he says. "I realized it had the potential to be pervasive in Colorado. It was a chance to sell the message. So I called in my chits from living and working here for the last twenty years. I said, 'I'll help you promote what you want to promote, and you help me promote what I want to promote,' and everybody liked the idea."

The first thing he did, in the fall of 1997, was contact the Colorado Historical Society, because it owns all of the Jackson images that Fielder would need to borrow.

"He said he had a terrific idea, and I said I thought it was a terrific idea, too, and we all sat down and talked about it and decided we thought it was an opportunity we didn't want to miss," says Carol Whitley, the historical society's development director. "Since we normally do exhibits around major projects, we then talked about an exhibit, too."

"We partnered to jointly go out and promote the entire project," adds historical society marketing director Nina Johnson, "which is the exhibit, the book, any ancillary merchandise, a lecture series and -- soon, we hope -- a traveling show. Then, when we realized it would get bigger, we built a larger agreement."

In return for its support and the use of the Jackson photos, the historical society, which runs the Colorado History Museum, gets $1.70 for every book that sold for $85 and $1.90 for every one that sells for $95, as well as a cut of the proceeds from the sale of calendars, posters, notecards, screensavers and a puzzle that have been tied to the book. "We got the first royalty check a couple weeks ago," Whitley exclaims. "They're a terrific bonanza. More than $40,000 has come in so far in book sales alone."

In addition, Fielder agreed to be the co-chairman of a membership drive that has become one of the most successful ever, signing up 1,600 new members between November and March. "That's probably double what we normally get," Whitley says. "John saying 'Sign up and become a member' carried a lot of weight. We couldn't have done it without him."

After that agreement was in place, Fielder called on an editor at the Rocky Mountain News with whom he had worked before, and then on News publisher Larry Strutton (who had given another Fielder book to his vice presidents as a holiday gift several years earlier). "They already had their millennium project in the works, and they saw the photos as a perfect complement to that," Fielder says. "It fit right in editorially."

The News decided to include Fielder in its Colorado Millennium 2000 project, which focused on the last century in Colorado and incorporated several editorial pieces: special sections, "millennium moments," and so on. It ran a Fielder photo next to a Jackson photo along with a brief article in its Spotlight section every Sunday during 1999 and heavily promoted the page. "We got the first rights to exclusive, high-quality content to give to our readers, while he had an opportunity to promote the availability of his book and to have it previewed in the paper for six months before it went on sale," says Linda Sease, vice president of marketing and public relations for the News.

Since KCNC-TV/Channel 4 is the paper's partner and was running its own Colorado Millennium 2000 pieces, Fielder and Whitley were in News4 general manager Marv Rockford's office a week later signing another deal. The station decided to do a weekly story on Fielder that followed his travels, to be aired every Thursday at 10 p.m.

"They gave us a huge amount of free advertising," Whitley says.

The two media outlets needed a sponsor to pay for all that advertising, though, so they signed up Public Service Company, which, in return, got to have its name printed on everything related to Fielder and Colorado Millennium 2000. "Part of our goal was to create cross-opportunities for our advertisers, and this bought more exposure for Public Service Company," says the News's Sease, who didn't want to say how much money the power company invested in the yearlong project. "We designed an advertising package based on their support, and their logo went along with it." PSC also offered the book at 25 percent off to its 1.3 million customers -- and sold a few thousand.

"That was the birth of this whole marketing gizmo," Fielder says. "We got a lot of bang for the buck the way it turned out. The more marketing partners I had, the better to sell the message."

Next, Fielder signed up Norwest Bank, which gave the book away free in November and December to people who applied and qualified for home-equity loans. The bank also offered it at a 25 percent discount to the rest of its half-million Colorado customers. "We thought it was a really cool book, and something that our customers would perceive as valuable," says Thomas O'Rourke, the vice president of marketing for Norwest in Colorado.

Norwest, which also gave a cash donation to the museum, had used another of Fielder's books in a similar promotion last year and ended up selling 1,200 copies of that book. "They already had a good taste in their mouth for what a Fielder book could do for them," Fielder notes.

The snowball rolled on to include KEZW and Wiesner Publishing, which puts out ColoradoBiz and Colorado Homes & Lifestyles Magazine, as the official radio and magazine sponsors.

"These were symbiotic deals where they would benefit by having their names associated with the project and I would benefit by having a wider audience," Fielder says of the agreements.

"The other marketing piece was the sneak preview we did at Cherry Creek Shopping Center in August," says the historical society's Johnson. Comparison photos similar to those in the exhibit but much larger (with some mounted on three-dimensional boards so the Jackson photo could be seen from one side, the Fielder photo from the other) hung for six weeks in the mall, where 1.5 million people saw them. The show, which the News helped arrange, was paid for by Berger Funds, a Denver-based mutual fund company, in a separate deal arranged by the mall's management. "This was a multi-armed beast," Johnson says. "A good beast, but a big one, and it's only gotten bigger and more complex."

To pay for the Colorado History Museum exhibit, the historical society relied on another fourteen businesses and foundations -- including KN Energy, Security Life of Denver, Ciber Incorporated, the Cato Foundation and the McBride Family Foundation -- which anted up more than $75,000 in return for having their names and logos on the exhibit, on the donor panel, in the advertising and on anything else associated with Fielder.

"It's frustrating that we have to raise money like that," Johnson says, "but we don't get a lot of federal funding because we are a state agency, so we have to be very creative and aggressive or we won't be able to offer a lot to the public. You have to come up with a balance between being crass and being elegant in order to be able to offer something. We are trying hard to do that and stay on the side of elegant."

In the spring of 2001, the exhibit, or parts of it, will begin traveling to some of the Colorado Historical Society's eleven other sites. From there it may move on to other Colorado cities and even to other states -- the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles has reportedly expressed an interest in the show.

"I don't think the museum has ever done something this comprehensive before," says development director Whitley. "We had to invest a certain amount to make it all happen, but everything has exceeded our expectations. Last August 1, we had 3,000 people here -- that's unheard of -- and they were lined up around the block. (12,041 people had seen the exhibit as of the end of February.) Every time he's been here to sign books, we've had lines. It's just unreal."

Not for Fielder.

A businessman in his former life -- he has an accounting degree from Duke University and worked as the general manager of the May D&F store in the Southglenn Mall -- Fielder has always applied selling techniques to his artwork. "My background in the department-store business separated me from other photographers," he says. "Along the way, I developed a pretty good marketing sense. I had a knack for it and an interest in selling what I do."

Fielder ditched his suit and tie for a safari vest and a tripod in 1981. With a loan from his father, he started Westcliffe Publishers and put out a calendar. The next year, he sold 50 percent of his company to an investor in return for a line of credit and published his first photography book, and he has produced at least one calendar and one book of his own photos every year since then. But Fielder, who is 49, has also expanded Westcliffe, which now publishes up to 25 books and 35 calendars a year, all focused on photography, wildlife and the natural landscape.

If Fielder was inspired by Jackson's images, he was also inspired by his predecessor's publishing empire. Eric Paddock, curator of photography for the Colorado Historical Society, wrote an essay about Jackson in Colorado 1870-2000, which goes on at length about the earlier photographer's business acumen.

Jackson began taking pictures professionally in 1868, at the age of 25, and although his first studio was in Omaha, Nebraska, he spent most of his time traveling around the West. His work caught the attention of Ferdinand Hayden, a surveyor who was helping document the size and scope of the country, including Colorado, and Jackson spent ten years working for him. His photos captured the imagination of people everywhere, because they exposed not just the natural beauty of the landscape but its potential for uses such as mining, road building and development.

He opened a studio in Denver in 1880 and, like Fielder, used his connections to garner some hefty promotion in the Rocky Mountain News. He also used his insight into what people wanted to look at to develop a clientele willing to pay for his work, which he published in a variety of sizes and formats. "As he plied on his artistic talent and built on each success, the W.H. Jackson Photo Co. imprint became synonymous with quality," Paddock writes in his essay. "Jackson grew into a prosperous businessman and a leading promoter of the West."

Eventually, Jackson sold his company and all of his negatives to the Detroit Photographic Company and became a full partner in the firm. He died in 1942; the Colorado Historical Society acquired the negatives in 1949.

The marketing parallels were "something I was conscious of," Paddock says with a laugh. "But I didn't want to overemphasize it, for a variety of reasons. I didn't want the pictures to be overwhelmed by the personalities -- although they probably are."

Fielder also is very aware that Jackson was out to make a profit as well as a pretty picture. And although he admits that his first goal is to "feed my family," he says his sales and marketing efforts will always take a backseat to his message about protecting and preserving Colorado's environment.

"If I can bring 10 percent to the bottom line, I'm doing well," he says. "But I'm not a profit-monger who's trying to milk this for every dime. I drew the line at placemats, mugs and T-shirts."

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes