The story of Dean Fidelman’s evocative imagery
By Chris Van Leuven
“I look at my work as music. You like it or you don’t. It’s just my music that I make with my friends,” Dean “Bullwinkle” Fidelman tells Adventure Sports Journal from his modest home just west of Yosemite’s park gates.
Today, 61-year-old Fidelman makes his art simply, passionately and without compromise — just like he did as a teenager in Southern California.
In addition to making images of climbers sans clothing on rocks throughout the world, he also edits and collects historic climbing photos for coffee table books with his longtime friend John Long. These include: The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies (2009); Stone Nudes: Art in Motion (2010), The Valley Climbers: Yosemite’s Vertical Revolution (2012); and Yosemite in the 50s: The Iron Age (2015). To date he’s published 18 Stone Nude calendars.
In 2010 The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies won Best Mountain History Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain and Book Festival. In 2016, also at Banff, Yosemite in the 50s: The Iron Age won Best Mountain Images. Yosemite in the 50s also won the National Outdoor Book Award.
In 1971, at age 15, after getting a tip from his photography teacher at James Monroe High School, Fidelman hopped on his bike in Northridge (northwest of Los Angeles) and rode the five miles one way to Stoney Point in Chatsworth to capture a shot of a climber bouldering. Stoney Point attracted many of Southern California’s elite climbers – many who would later call themselves Stonemasters — in the San Fernando Valley and beyond. Having never witnessed climbing before, Fidelman was mesmerized by the fluidity and simplicity of climbers moving over stone. Not only did he come back with images from that day to show his teacher, he began frequenting the bouldering area so often that he eventually became a climber himself. Climbing and photography took over his life.
By 16 he was catching rides to Joshua Tree and Yosemite. This is where the Stonemasters, including John Bachar, Ron Kauk, Lynn Hill, Rick Accomazzo, John Long, John Yablonski and many more, spent the climbing seasons honing their skills, and Fidelman was right there alongside them. Whether he was with his crew sleeping side-by-side in J-Tree’s arid and desolate landscape, or in the boulders behind Yosemite’s historic Camp 4 with Yosemite Falls pounding in the background, he always had his camera with him and captured everything.
Fidelman captured the climber’s lifestyle and his friends became his subjects. These were athletes in their youth — some were troubled, full of angst, quick to react, passionate, childlike. Others had deep wisdom, some a bit of both. This band of outcasts would later influence the future of rock climbing and some would go on to become authors, lawyers, professional athletes. Fidelman kept hold of all his images and safely put them in storage.
As the 70s came to a close and many members of his crew moved on to adulthood, Fidelman, too, also changed.
He enrolled in the film school Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara in the early 80s, moved to New York City and finally Milan, Italy in 1988 to shoot fashion. For a decade his work took him away from climbing and the simple lifestyle he embraced.
“My fashion stuff was good but not great,” he says. “My portraits and my old climbing shots were my favorite. It seemed like everyone I worked with in Milan and New York was chasing everyone else. I thought maybe there is more to this game than just these kinds of photos.”
The work lacked the intimacy he shared with the subjects during his youth. He missed focusing on the simplicity of making portraits of his friends. He also missed working with black and white film.
Through it all, the fashion shoots, the travel and producing images for money, it was not uncommon for Fidelman to be without a camera. In a way, he still had that same communal approach to life that he found among climbers, and his work didn’t rely on a mentality of “have or have not.” “I would meet people that had really nice cameras who weren’t using them. They would let me borrow one for however long as I needed.”
In 1997 Fidelman returned to Yosemite and settled in just like he had done many years earlier. Again he met up with the rock stars of the day: Dean Potter, Chris Sharma and Lisa Rands.
Carrying on his tradition of borrowing cameras, he ended up in Yosemite with Charles Cole’s 5 X 7 Pentax medium-format camera. (Cole is founder of the climbing, approach and mountain bike shoe company Five Ten). Cole’s deal with Fidelman was that he could use the camera in exchange for giving him images now and again.
“I was doing work in the industry for Five Ten, Boreal, and it was going against what I originally thought. I wanted to shoot art. I wanted to see what I could do. What my evolution to climbing photography could bring.”
Photographing nudes was nothing new to Fidelman and he wanted to see if he could combine nude photography with landscapes and climbing. His “aha” moment came after he processed the first batch of nude images, captured on the borrowed Pentax, and realized his idea could work.
The first Stone Nude calendar was shot in Joshua Tree in 1999. Models arrived through word of mouth, mainly from climbing gyms in the Los Angeles area, or Fidelman photographed his friends. He uses the same camera for this project to this day.
A Personal Connection
Stone Nudes is more than capturing moments. Relationships are built. Memories are frozen in time and displayed in the pages of each calendar. His website stonenudes.com calls the concept “A photographic project that captures the essence of the climbing spirit.”
Once Fidelman has chosen the location and matched it with the model, then the day is scheduled and the climbing – fully clothed – begins. A subject may climb a boulder problem several times so he or she can get comfortable with it. It’s during this time that trust is set. And Fidelman may shoot off a few frames to make sure he’ll get what he’s after.
Once everyone is ready then the clothes, and maybe even climbing shoes, come off. Fidelman shoots a few images, waits and shoots a few more. A single roll of medium-format film only has ten frames, so each one counts. This isn’t a rapid fire, collect-as-many-images-as-you-can endeavor. He may reload the camera perhaps two to four times total, and may call the shoot done after merely 30 to 40 images are collected. The whole process takes perhaps 15 to 20 minutes.
It’s an organic process that includes only the basics: light, location, the model and spontaneity. Making a Stone Nude is as much about being in the present moment for the model as it is for Fidelman.
“You have to show the texture of the rock and make sure it looks good with the [model]. You can’t be anxious. You can’t be anything but patient because you can’t lose the trust.” He adds, “You can attain perfection in a very simple manner. When I look at the background, look at the light and look at the [model], I’m like ‘this is perfect.’ I like the lines where the shape of the boulder is reflected in the shape of the model, and the sun is repeating the shadow of the model on the boulder. That’s what I’m looking for.”
A Stone Nude is more than just a picture in a calendar, more than just an image. “You’re trying to make a connection for a moment. You’re trying to make something that’s timeless. And that’s what works the best. I know what I’m looking for when I see it. I go on much more of a feeling level, emotional level. The camera is never on a tripod. I want to be in the moment with all my work. That’s what I look for in [my] collections.”
In 2010 Fidelman published the book Stone Nudes: Art in Motion, which contains his favorite work from over the years including the time he shot nude male models. (The author of this article is featured in the book and is also in one of the calendars.)
The woman who graced the second cover of the calendar is also featured in the 2017 Stone Nudes calendar. She remembers that sometimes when she met up with Fidelman to do a Stone Nude it was bitterly cold. Other times incessant mosquitoes attacked her. Sometimes she was afraid that a family would show up at anytime for a picnic and see her exposed. Other times it was, “as casual as going on a hike with someone you get along with, but seeing everything for the first time again. It was an opportunity to collaborate and to make something beautiful.”
She recollects one photo shoot in which Fidelman directed her to “Jut your right hip a bit. More arch in your back. Turn your chin towards me so you look more natural.” “But this is so uncomfortable,” she recalls. “How can it look natural? It takes a lot of effort to look relaxed.” She adds, “Dean is so familiar, so intimate with those landscapes, we are, with each other and with [these places].”
For many years this model was “instrumental in setting up Stone Nudes as a barely sustainable commercial enterprise,” Fidelman says.
Having been in front of Fidelman’s camera myself in 2001 to make a Stone Nude at the Buttermilks in Bishop, I can attest to the making of the photo as a quiet, personal experience.
Years go by
It’s been close to 20 years now that Fidelman has been making Stone Nudes. In that time some of the models have moved on from climbing and the lifestyle they knew, and their lives have become more complicated. Some models have had children and their bodies have changed.
“’I wanted to have a photograph about how I feel right now, how I feel about climbing,’” one model told Fidelman regarding her motivation to make a Stone Nude.
“It means a lot to me to capture them in the way they want to feel as well,” Fidelman says. “I keep making the project because the photos continually get better. They seem to be evolving and I want to see where they’re going to lead me. I’ll keep making calendars as long as I keep evolving as a photographer. It’s also the path of least resistance in my life in many ways.”
In an act that is both gratifying to Fidelman and also one that improves the eventual outcome of the images, he processes the film in the basement at the Ansel Adams Gallery located in the center of Yosemite Valley. It’s the same darkroom once used by the legendary landscape and portrait photographer. Later, Fidelman scans the negatives.
Fidelman says: “Using this darkroom is like being accepted into Yosemite’s community, and having a connection to the beginning of photography’s acceptance as an art form. Ansel Adams is definitely the genesis of that acceptance.
“It’s about making original work.”