He didn’t have an iPhone. He didn’t have a computer with access to Photoshop. He didn’t have a Facebook account. Nevertheless, John Topolnicki was able to record the golden days of autumn in the photos he took and shared with others by postcards distributed nationwide in the 1960s and 1970s. In later years, his son, John Topolnicki Jr., turned over his father’s collections to the Summit Historical Society and Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. As the anniversary of Topolnicki’s 1972 death approaches, both groups are happy to share some of his photo artistry.
Born in 1909 in Elizabeth, N.J., Toplonicki spent his early years there and received his introduction to photography in 1932 when he joined the Army. As a going-away present, his mother gave him a Kodak folding camera. He used it to take pictures of natives in their villages while stationed in Panama. Five years later, while stationed in Fort DuPont, Del., officers noticed his talents and sent him to military photography school. During the World War II years, he was an instructor for both ground and aerial photography at military bases in Hawaii and Colorado.
After the war, with one other military interruption, Topolonicki chose Colorado as home. He opened a commercial shop in Denver, where he focused on advertising. For three years, 1954-1957, he put the camera aside, but then, when he was 48 years old, he made a mid-life career change and chose “the untraveled path.” He moved to Grand County to become a mountain photographer. There, he crossed into the High Country on horseback, camped out for a week at a time and centered his attention on mountain splendors.
In 1962, he moved to Summit County and set up shop in Breckenridge. But, most of the time, he hiked into remote areas with his dog Chester and a 55-pound pack, carrying two cameras, lenses, meter, film, food and clothing. Patiently, he waited for the right light, the right time and the right frame to capture on film the beauty that surrounded him. He then developed his photos and had them printed into postcards so those living and visiting in the area could buy and share them with friends and family. A man for all seasons, he took photos of skiers and ski runs in the beginning days of Arapahoe, Breckenridge and Keystone ski areas; he snapped shots of the new Dillon Reservoir at daylight and sailboats out at noon. He recorded old mining sites and ghost towns. And, in autumn, he spotted the splendid aspen groves familiar to residents today.
It was on such an autumn day, Sept. 14, 1972, that John Topolnicki died after he rolled his jeep on Hoosier Pass. He is buried in the Masonic Cemetery at Valley Brook. His marker notes his military service, his membership in the Masons and, most importantly, his chosen field, “Mountain Photographer.”