Dean “Bullwinkle” Fidelman: Action, Nudes and Art in Motion

57-year-old photographer and climber Dean “Bullwinkle” Fidelman has been a fixture in the Yosemite and Joshua Tree, California climbing scenes off and on since the early 70s. Fidelman, aka Bullwinkle, earned his handle back in the ‘70s because of the way his afro hair resembled two antlers on either side of his head like the goofy cartoon Canadian Moose from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.

Dean, customarily dressed in blue jeans, a cotton-T and sticky approach shoes, keeps a closely trimmed goatie, and has brown hair in a ponytail extends down and over the back of his neck. He has a slight build.

He makes a living developing and selling his art on his terms and has been producing black and white Stone Nudes calendars for the past 15 years, primarily of women, amongst the boulders and landscapes. As a teenager he discovered his passion for photography and climbing and he’s been doing it ever since.

stone mastersHe’s published the books Stone Nudes – Art in Motion, The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies, and The Valley Climbers: Yosemite’s Vertical Revolution. He’s currently working on Iron Age, containing photos and stories from climbers in Yosemite in the 50s.

Over the years I’ve recruited nude models for Dean’s projects. He’s only produced one nude mens’ calendar, which he admits didn’t sell well. But the women calendars sell well enough to keep the business running. Fidelman explains it as: “It barely pays for itself and I kind of like that. If I make a calendar, I barely have enough money for next year. We only make a few thousand a year. Eventually I hope they will be in museums. “

I moved to Yosemite in 1995. When my peers were all signing up for college I knew my calling was in the Valley. I’d read about the Stonemasters, the great big wall climbers and cutting edge boulderers who all spanned time there. I also knew then that I wanted to write for a living – someday – in the meantime, I wanted to live amongst the subjects I would some day write about rather than getting my education in a traditional classroom. I’ve known Fidelman since he returned to Yosemite in 1999.  I was one of the models. As someone who’s respected his art for some time, I felt pleased to be included in his project.

The other models and I have always found it to be in a compliment to be included in Dean’s work and in front of his medium-format camera and other classic cameras.

The year was 1970 when Feldman, who, at the time was enrolled in a high school photography class, and ended up with a teacher who also climbed. The teacher asked him to photograph at nearby Stoney Point. Following instructions, Dean rode his bike ten miles with his bulky camera dangling around his neck to the unknown-to-him but well-known-to-climbers Southern California bouldering area to take landscape photographs. Once there, sweaty and panting, he saw a woman climbing, a rarity at the time, and was mesmerized.

He’d never climbed before, and, inspired by what he saw — how her body flowed over the rock – he had an immediate interested in bouldering himself. And photographing woman bouldering. Ideally in the nude.

valley climbersLater that day, after taking photos, Fidelman tried his hand at bouldering. Immediately he felt a connection to the activity and felt a knack for it.

He’s primarily lived the “climber lifestyle,” and has resided in the boulders, a cave or his van, since he was 16. In contrast to finding his bed under a damp hard rock, he’s also lived in New York and Milan while working as gritty fashion photographer. He’ll be 58 in December.

His chosen lifestyle may not make him much money – he told me how much but I’d rather not say — but living the way he does allows him to follow his art. His home is amongst the climbers and he moves with the changing of the seasons.

Over the phone he explained he’s chosen a challenging lifestyle, and being tight on money certainly wears on him, but he sees great rewards in the path he’s made for himself.

A few days ago, I lined up an interview with Fidelman to learn more about him, his art, the status of his next project, and what’s next.

I called him from my quiet apartment in Golden, Colorado at 5pm on a Monday in late October. As I sat at the keyboard writing down what he said, he talked to me from my old home, Yosemite Valley. I imagined he was near the Lodge Cafeteria, the heart of the Valley floor, under tall pine trees, with the highest waterfall in North America, Yosemite Falls, now dried up for the season behind him.

We started the interview by him telling me how PayPal couldn’t verify where he lived. It’s a point that shows how off the grid he is, which poses problems when it comes to things like getting paid.

The interview begins below.

There’s no record of where you live when we Google you, they said. There are no utility bills, etc. it just says that you’re a photographer.

I don’t pay rent. I use my mom’s place and I live out of my van. I have no problem with that. I’m basically homeless; I go from climbing area to climbing area. My canvas is climbing and everyone in it. My canvas doesn’t stay in one place anyway.

When my friends stay in one place their art reflects that. I have to be in Colorado, Europe, etc., to be in other places in order to make pictures. I don’t make enough to rent an apartment with my art. I may make enough for three to four months of rent and that’s it.

What I want to do is what I’m doing — I made my art part of my life. You don’t separate those two. It seems to work out really well.

When I was 16 I graduated high school. I met these guys out of J Tree that were climbers and they were going to Yosemite. The day I graduated high school I split to Yosemite and spent my first summer up there on 20 bucks, that kind of thing.

I met some of the early would-be Stonemasters. I met John Bachar and got him out to J Tree and introduced him to John Long and those folks. We were kings in our little slum in Camp 4 [in Yosemite]. [These would become a rag tag group containing some of the finest climbers of the era.]

I continued making photographs of Bachar and of soloing. The 70s really set that stage for when I came back in the 90s, when I brought art into everything that I did. When I started making Stone Nudes, I was simply showing and sharing that experience. I always liked mixing my love of bouldering, landscape and nudes. This is why I stayed with it for 15 years, and haven’t stopped.

In my mid to late 20s I pursued fashion photography.

As an artist it’s very hard to make original work. Stone Nudes is just that. Nudes have been around forever, action and nudes and art in motion, as I call it, really works because it’s different and original it hasn’t gotten as popular as I wanted it to be.

I can tackle these crazy projects [finding the right women for his calendars, spending time with climbers of today, and tracking down climbers from various eras] because I don’t have anything to lose and everything to gain. That’s how I’ve lived my life for a long time.

I look at my stuff as contributing to the community. I provide art. Climbing is many different people from all over the world, different lifestyles; practicing their art and their spiritual awareness. The climbing has to have some depth to it. It has to have those great stories, to see where you came from and to know that history. I don’t know if all climbers see that, but it’s there and it helps shape us [and our community].

I knew immediately that I wanted to make climbing photography. I supported myself working in photo labs. That was a good outlet for me because I could print my own work. I would do that in late spring and early fall. Then I would leave that, and come back to Yosemite.  I did that until photo labs died out. By that time I was making photographs and making it as a photographer.

I moved to New York and Milan as a fashion and portrait photographer. I noticed almost immediately that it felt like I was almost with climbers for a while, as everyone was young and doing their thing. I liked the people enough but the stuff in front of my camera wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to be shooting climbers and to be climbing.

If I came back into climbing photography I knew had to have a goal. I needed to show straight forward photographs, with a little bit of what I had that would push it on a different view than that was out there. I continued to do black and white. When I came back a lot of the young climbers had heard of me. I ‘d hung out with the top end climbers since the 70s and I knew then that the top climbers made the best art.

I then traveled with [climbing’s top talent including] Chris Sharma and Tommy Caldwell for a while. And traveling with an original Stonemaster from the 70s, Lynn Hill.

It got to the point I was doing ads for various companies. I realized at that point that if I kept in that direction, I would blend out my art a little bit. The photographs had to fit that mold. That’s when I started doing Stone Nudes in 1999.

006The first book I wanted to do was Stone Nudes. I’d also been talking with John Long about making a book about us in the 70s. He wasn’t psyched on the project for many years. One late I got a late night call from a drunk Bachar who said I needed to make this book. I called Long and he didn’t give me the time of day. The next day Bachar forgot he called me.

Later, Long called me and said we needed to make the book and that we needed a publisher.

I said we had to self publish it in order to keep it authentic. It took us two years to bring it together. I went through dusty boxes of slides, some still in the carousels all dusty and crackly. Many were in garages and I would go to people’s houses to sort through them and sleep in my van. I would scan images, give them a disk of what I made and went on to the next person.

Once I went to the late Sean Curtis’ house to look through slides. He and I started climbing together. He died three years before I started the book, in 2005. I met his sister. She never got to know him and she ended up with a large milk crate was boxes of Sean’s pics. There were also CD’s of his music. He was a talented musician and climber. He died of alcoholism and all that was left of his life was in that box. I scanned the images and put everything back. I started showing her pics on the computer and told her about her brother. And in the end she was crying. She never knew her brother. She never knew anything in his life other than he died alone. She now says he had all this talent. When that happened I realized this project is much bigger than me.

At this point I had $1000 left and was looking for a designer for the book. Tom Adler, he made Glen Denny’s book, Yosemite in the 60s. He looked at my stuff and thought it was brilliant.

He wanted to get started right away. I gave him my last money and he got me a draft a week later. It went through five to six drafts. Then he said he needed more money. He picked up that I didn’t have much money, or any money.

He went to Patagonia and they bought 1500 books in advance and that attracted Mike Graham and that started Stonemaster Press. It ensured that the work would be really strong.

The best artists I know are the most honest of the work to themselves. They also know what it’s not. That when they look at other people’s work they can see it honestly and see the beauty in it.

When John and I started our book we were going to use my photos. In the end I only ended up with twelve to fifteen of my photos. The book held 118 photos. I paired it down from over 500. That was so many different photographers. We have fifteen to twenty different photographers’ work in there.

After stone masters we made Stone Nudes. Bruce Weber noticed my work. He really liked the Stone Nudes calendars. He bought a bunch of prints for himself and his friends and he was supportive of my book. He was one of those photographers I always admired. When he noticed my work and said the same thing about me meant a lot to me.

Then we did another book called The Valley Climbers that was from the 80s to the present. It was a little too modern for my tastes.

Right now I’m working on the Iron Age. That’s basically climbing in Yosemite in the 50s. The book contains stories of the first ascents of the first big, most significant climbs in Yosemite. We also bring together a lot of the characters that were there in that period. Everything leads up to the first ascent of the Nose [on 3,000 foot El Capitan] in 1958.

I met up with Allen Steck in Berkeley. Then Jerry Gallwas who was involved in the first ascent of Half Dome.

I enjoyed their company so much; you’re talking about the lifestyle and what these men and women did. It’s very counter to what was considered right in the 50s. They were these beatniks on the rocks. They had a strong dichotomy inside themselves, as they were expected to be family men. That will color what the photographs will look like in those days.

Climbing is all about your word. If not being honest, at least being pretty transparent to some extent. That’s why I like working on these projects.

The Iron Age is being pitched to Patagonia. The problem with Stonemaster Press is we didn’t have any money for marketing. Patagonia is a better solution. I’m also working on Stone Monkeys with James Lucas and Cedar Wright.

You can buy books here:

Stone Nudes – Art in Motion 

The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies

The Valley Climbers: Yosemite’s Vertical Revolution

I will keep doing this project until the pictures aren’t getting any better. I might give it up for a year and get back to it. The idea is to see how good you can get at it. That practice does not make perfect. Perfect is a by-product of learning from your mistakes. That’s basically the truth. If you learn and are honest than that’s what gives you mastery of something.

Published by

Chris Van Leuven

Raised sailing and backpacking, Chris began climbing rocks as a teenager. 20 years later, Chris still climbs several days a week. He writes about travel, adventure and climbing. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/WriterChrisVanLeuven.

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