As Rocky Mountain warbler, he has scaled Colorado summits and record charts, but for John Denver, the quest for new highs never ends. This week the fashionable Hammer Galleries in Manhattan has scheduled John’s debut as a photographer, featuring color landscapes and wildlife scenes, some as placid as his classics, Country Roads and Sunshine on My Shoulders. “Photography, like music,” says Denver, 36, “is a way to communicate a feeling, a way of life.”
A shutterbug ever since his lonely, rootless high school years as an Air Force brat, John feels “photography is absolute therapy for me and a real break from all the stuff I’m thinking about.” He carries his Nikon in a backpack whenever he’s on tour. “I’ve almost missed the bus to concerts several times because I was out taking photographs,” he jokes. Denver’s first exhibit, 60 prints in all, ranges from the Caribbean to Rome, covering subjects from wild rhubarb plants to his adopted, part Cherokee son, Zachary John, 6, posing with a statue of a Grecian maiden. As a rule, Denver doesn’t shoot people. “I don’t want to intrude on others in the way I’ve been intruded upon as a public figure,” he says.
He has endured years of critical abuse for his buoyantly saccharine sentiments in music and on screen, and Denver feels that he is also vulnerable to attack as a fledgling photographer. “I’ve put my heart into the exhibit and will feel badly if people don’t like it,” he says. Judy and John Hill, an Aspen lab team who processed Denver’s prints for the Hammer Galleries, sing his praises. “I find his work amazingly creative—it’s unleashing to me,” extols Judy.
With his limited-edition prints starting at $900 each, Denver hopes the five-week show, which also features the watercolors of painter David Armstrong, will raise $500,000 for John’s Windstar Foundation, a think tank concentrating on ecology and energy based near his Aspen home. (Armstrong met Denver three years ago through the organization.) Windstar, as explained with Denverian exuberance, is dedicated to “the concept of harmony—so that all humankind can resonate more deeply with the natural forces of the universe.”
It’s a concept, ironically, that has eluded Denver of late in his own domestic life. He recently came off an eight-month, 125-concert tour, during which he also filmed a TV special with Beverly Sills, served on the Presidential Commission on World Hunger, recorded his next album in L.A. and mounted the exhibit. The relentless pace has jeopardized the 13-year marriage he celebrated in Annie’s Song. “I’m tired,” Denver says. “I can’t wait to be with Annie now. But I can’t work stuff out with Annie and do this too.” Denver, in fact, was so exhausted on tour in October he canceled two shows for the first time ever in his career. The prolonged time away from Annie, Zach and their adopted daughter, Anna Kate, 3, has taken its toll. “Annie and I have an incredible commitment to each other, but we’re growing by leaps and bounds,” Denver finds. “At the moment, Annie seems a little clearer on things than I. Maybe I’ll see things differently when I get home for a while. Everything that seems to be missing will be there again,” he adds wistfully. “If not, we’ll go from there.”
Finding direction may be a problem for Denver, who, despite his deep involvement in the consciousness movement (he’s tried yoga, est, rolfing, aikido and pyramid power), now laments, “I feel fragmented, dispersed. I’m not sure where my future is.” He does have an interim plan. “I’d most like to go someplace where it’s warm, where the sun is, where there are whales to swim with. Then I’d like to relax and fast.”
Denver hopes his upcoming 1981 album, featuring the song Perhaps Love, will be his return ticket to the top. “I haven’t had a hit in a while,” he concedes. “Barry Manilow and Kenny Rogers have taken over where I left off as the number one artist.” But he is less dependent now on the judgment of the jukebox.
“In the early years of my life I felt insecure. I spent a great deal of time alone,” Denver recalls. “In the solitude of those moments I articulated through music what existed so personally for me in my dreams. Now,” he says, “I am looking for other ways to express myself—like photography.”