The Wright Stuff: Behind the Scenes of Stone Nudes (NSFW)

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pg 0092

Good work if you can get it

I was watching a man’s dream crumble before my eyes.

“It’s over,” Dean “Bullwinkle” Fidelman, creator of the black and white nude bouldering calendar Stone Nudes, said with tears welling up in his eyes. “I’ve lost my funding.” With Dean’s yearly income in the very low five figures—mostly thanks to Stone Nudes—it was looking like a four-figure year.

It wouldn’t be Dean’s first time surviving on next to nothing, though. He is, by my estimation, the longest standing dirtbag in the history of Yosemite, with an illustrious career spanning from the 1970s to current day. In fact, he was recently found scrubbing toilets in Yosemite with one of the most stalwart new-school dirtbags, James Lucas. Fidelman has photographed everyone from John Bachar and Lynn Hill to Dean Potter and the Huber brothers, all while sleeping in his car or in a cave. And for the last 15 years Dean has been coaxing women (and for a short time, men) out of their skivvies to pose for nude black and white images, which he still shoots on medium format film. In the past 15 years of producing his calendar and a coffee table book, he’s reached more than a million people through sales, website hits, and video content. He’s received recognition in the New York art scene from fashion photographer Bruce Weber, and is, in my opinion, one of the few true artists of our community. But in spite of all its merit, Stone Nudes had met its tragic end.

Back in the late ’90s when I first met Bullwinkle, somewhere along the Yosemite to Joshua Tree climbing-bum circuit, Stone Nudes had not yet been conceived. A couple years later when Dean first discussed creating a calendar of artistic black and white photographs that celebrated the contrast of the soft and flowing female form against hard and angular stone (aka naked women bouldering), I remember thinking it was a solid—if not genius—idea.

But where would Dean ever find 12 climbing girls who would pose for nothing, wearing nothing, high up on some rock? I couldn’t deny that fit climbing women were the perfect models for fine art nudes, and in fact, it seemed to me this would be a unique and original exploration, perhaps even an elevation of nude photography. But it seemed like an insurmountable goal for the dirtiest of dirtbags. Plus, Dean had recently dropped his camera off a cliff. But he had a dream, and like a man possessed, he pushed forward.

Dean had grown up in the Stonemaster era of climbing, and many of his partners from those bygone years had since become successful businessmen. So he called up his old buddy Charles Cole, founder of Five Ten, and borrowed his large format camera. Right around that time, I pulled off the ultimate coup for a destitute Yosemite climber and somehow landed a shapely, young National Park Service employee as a girlfriend. She was an accomplished climber, and after quite a bit of coaxing and a flip through Bullwinkle’s truly impressive portfolio of climbing photography, she agreed to be one of his first Stone Nudes.

Having cracked the code, I would become Bullwinkle’s top talent scout over the years. This was never a paying job, though the position bore certain rewards, you could say. And as Dean, uh, fleshed out his body of work, it became easier for me to convince potential talent that this project was a fine art endeavor and not some creepy dude-climber wank-along fantasy. In fact, Dean was capturing unique harmonies of light, bodies, and rock, and the results were at times remarkable, far surpassing all the other nudes I had seen. Not that I have ever studied nudes, you understand, or ever ferreted around the Internet for naked women. I’m just saying...

Soon Dean was photographing some of the world’s most beautiful and talented climbers—all nude. Professional climber Kate Rutherford wrote in Dean’s coffee table book: “I could see that he really loved to, and was especially skilled at, capturing beauty. To travel in the vertical landscape requires me to use strength along with instinct to unlock nature’s puzzle. Dean’s Stone Nudes depicts that puzzle of mind, muscle, and stone in simple and true images.” And, of her own Stone Nudes experience, she said, “I had a dark bruise on my shoulder and another on my hip from climbing, but Dean’s eye made my scrappy, tired body look downright elegant.”

001 Photo, Kenyon Salo

Anyhow, a principal benefit to being Bullwinkle’s close friend was standing in as his assistant during the actual shoots. This work was often slow and surprisingly strenuous. For instance, it was more aesthetic to feature the models in bare feet. So, it fell on me to muscle a gorgeous, curved, toned, ripped, taut, naked women up into a precarious position, somewhere directly overhead on the rock. In the name of art, and you can read it and weep, I saw and had the pleasure of hoisting onto the rock some of the most stunning and athletic women in the world—buck naked.

Stone Nudes wasn’t all glory, though. One day I wrenched the crap out of my back while boosting a model up to an out-of-reach perch. I spent the following week in bed with a compressed spine. Another time, a model from Spain pitched off near the top of a boulder. I plucked her from the air bare-handed and got dump-trucked onto the stony ground so mercilessly that I bruised my sacroiliac joint. I couldn’t sit down for a month, and my girlfriend had a bad knee so she couldn’t stand up. (It was odd going for a while in our little SAR tent-cabin at the back of Camp 4.) There was also the day I spotted the late, great Jose Pereyra, for the short-lived Stone Nudes companion piece, Stone Dudes, which it turns out lacked a substantial audience in the largely male-dominated climbing scene. The climb in question was so high that, for Jose’s safety, I had to spot from directly below him, staring straight up at a dark and troubling eye that was staring straight back at me. Not good.

My time as Dean’s spotter and talent recruiter is special to my heart. I took true satisfaction in helping a master make his art, just as Picasso’s wine-gopher must’ve felt. And the thought that some young climber dude might not get to take my place as safety on Dean’s shoots seemed unfair. “I’m going to start a Kickstarter to help self-publish the calendar this year,” Dean told me. If there’s one thing Dean is, it’s tenacious; this was the guy who, against all odds, had already published 14 calendars and a beautiful coffee table book through the sheer power of determination.

I loyally stepped back to the plate as one of Dean’s biggest recruiters, this time recruiting people to pre-order the calendar—or even better, both calendars and prints—so that Dean could make his fundraising goal before it was too late. I worked my social media and climbing connections, trying to get anyone and everyone on board. I personally ordered enough nude prints to wallpaper my man cave.

The fact that for so long, the climbing community has supported a quirky art project like Stone Nudes is something I find heartening. We aren’t the most mainstream group of people, and we have a nice history of helping eccentric characters climb to greatness. So, it was immensely reassuring to see Bullwinkle scrape past his funding goal with just a couple days to go. Things felt right in the world. Stone Nudes was back.

I believe that Americans lack the Europeans’ acceptance of nudity, which is a shame, because the simple unadulterated human form is a wondrous thing, and the bodies of climbers are some of the most beautiful of all. But the fact is that Americans are kind of prudes, so finding funding for the calendar is an uphill battle each time. It is, year after beautiful year, a labor of love. Dean has gone into debt, survived on a pittance, driven around the country, and flown around the world, all so a small but faithful audience can continue to enjoy his work. As time goes on, Stone Nudes has deservedly become an iconic part of the wildly diverse world of climbing. All along, the project has transcended both the individuals involved and the community from which it sprang. And so, Stone Nudes lives on... and I will be calling Bullwinkle to get my old job back.

Cedar Wright is a professional climber and contributing editor for Climbing. He will spot you any time.