Back in the late 1990s, Dean Fidelman, the more-or-less official photographer of the Stonemasters, had his climbing shots plastered all over. They were used in Five Ten ads, featured in catalogues, and used to sell all sorts of things. He made good money, but was ultimately unsatisfied. “I felt like I wanted to make photographs that didn’t have any commercial value,” he said in a phone call.
He began pondering ways to satisfy the itch for something more. One day he was strolling through Joshua Tree eating a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, when he hit upon an idea. “I had always been making nudes, and I had always been making climbing photos,” he said. “So I was like, ‘Ah, I wonder if I could put those two things together. That was basically it.” And like that, Stone Nudes was born.
Nearly twenty years after that initial inspiration, Fidelman has produced 19 annual calendars of rock climbing nude studies under the Stone Nudes umbrella, and he’s ready for one final victory lap with the project. “Pretty certain this is going to be the last one,” he said, remarking that it has never been a money-making venture, there are other projects he’d like to pursue, and twenty seems like a good number to end with.
Stone Nudes has been a uniquely satisfying experiment for Fidelman. At the start, he wasn’t sure if it would work or not, “if the body would stand out too much from the environment,” if it would look silly, or what. But his first prints proved eye-catching; the interplay of limbs and lines on the rock and shapes in the landscapes were a welcome change from the tired and predictable climbing photos people had come to expect.
Fidelman said, “I feel like what it brought to the climbing world was art. Climbing culture didn’t have a developed visual art in the same way as surfing. I always felt that climbing lacked something like that. Doing something like this that was completely different was kind of the same anarchy I’ve always been preaching as a Stonemaster.”
Fidelman has primarily used female models, but also produced a calendar of male nudes for a time as well. And the setting was always just as important as the model. “I seek out certain problems because I’ll see a photo of someone on it and it’s beautiful rock,” Fidelman said.
He’s had some funny moments with the models over the years. There was the time Fidelman asked the late Sean Leary to solo Martin Quits, a thin, steep 5.10c crack in Joshua Tree. Leary insisted on climbing it with his clothes, rock shoes and chalk bag on first. Next he did a lap with just his shoes and chalk bag, no clothes. On the all-important lap—nothing but Leary’s skin and the rock—Fidelman asked him to downclimb a couple of moves so he could get the perfect shot, but Leary was pumping out. “Fuck you!” he yelled to Fidelman before motoring to the top. They never got the shot.
Or there was the time Fidelman dreamed up a shot of a shimmering gold model on the rock. He and the female model were applying gold body paint and spray paint to her body among the boulders in J-Tree, when a 17-year-old Chris Sharma came around the corner, surprised, baffled and mesmerized by the scene before him.
Or there was the time that one of Fidelman’s models wanted to solo the Stovelegs for the shot. “I’ll rig it for you and then solo it,” the model told him. But Fielman decided to pump the brakes on that one. “Would have been classic,” he said, but too serious of a proposition for his liking.
“The photos are almost always super fun,” Fidelman said. “If you’re not having fun, there’s no reason to do this because you’re not making any money. So everybody needs to have fun and feel super comfortable. That’s a thing too— when I make a photo, I shoot film, scan the images and I show the model. If we don’t agree on what image should be used, nothing gets published. It’s really that simple. An image that you didn’t know about isn’t going to show up ever, that’s not going to happen. Climbing is a partnership and so is this.”
While the Stone Nudes calendar series may have run its course, Fidelman expects he’ll continue exploring the combination of nudes on the rock at some point. “It’s kind of how I approach everything. Me and Dean Potter made photos as a by-product of the fact that we were hanging out. Same with the ones of Bachar. No one wanted those when I made them. We just did it because it seemed cool.”
But regardless of where he points his lens next, Fidelman is keen to ferret out new challenges and keep expanding the definition of art in our community: “I want to continue building this creative force in climbing.”