Capturing the Stonemasters - an Interview with Dean Fidelman
The Stonemasters were a band of free-spirited outsiders who pioneered a stripped-back, stylish form of rock-climbing back in the early 1970s. Combining Californian counter-culture with honed, athletic precision, their influence can be felt far beyond the cliffs of Yosemite, and their love of well-worn work-wear was the inspiration behind this season’s collection from Nigel Cabourn.
As one of the original Stonemasters and their de facto photographer, Dean Fidelman had the foresight to document this now legendary crew. Armed with a Minolta SLR, he captured climbers like John Bachar and Lynn Hill in a candid documentary style—showing not just the historic climbs, but the everyday moments around them.
Keen to find out more, we called him up in California to talk about his photography, the Stonemasters and their late-90s counterparts, the Stone Monkeys.
Starting things off at the beginning, what came first for you—the climbing or the photography?
They actually came at the same time. When I was 15 years old I took a photography class. The teacher had been a long time Sierra Clubber—he’d done river rafting and some climbing, and one of my assignments was to take photographs of the climbers at a place called Stoney Point, which is in the San Fernando Valley. So I rode my bike out there, I looked around and saw the people climbing, and I was hooked. It was all intertwined. I met people and started going out on the weekend to Joshua Tree and Tahquitz Rock, and I always had my camera with me. Almost immediately, I knew it was going to be my passion.
So the photography was always part of it? You always had a camera in your bag?
Yeah, very much so. And also, I pretty quickly fell in with the group that was the Stonemasters and I wasn’t really a great climber—I was a good climber, but these guys were great climbers and I knew it. It seemed like one of the things that I could bring to that group was my photographs. It made me feel like more of a part of it, a contributor.
How did the Stonemasters come about? How did you all meet?
It all started in a place in southern California at a place called Suicide Rock, about 120 miles from L.A. It was the early 70s, and John Long, Mike Graham, Ricky Accomazzo, Richard Harrison and a few other guys were climbing in this area. We were young—all in high school, and there was an old guard—these guys from the ‘60s that had established all these climbs up there, and they didn’t like us. They were in their mid-20s or early-30s and had careers and such, and we were rude and obnoxious, we smoked dope, we laughed too loud and we dressed funny. So John Long figured out what their hardest climb was—a climb called Valhalla—and him and Ricky Accomazzo and Richard Harrison went out and climbed it. They just did it flawlessly.
When they came down, the declared themselves a club… the Stonemasters. And after that, the guys who did that climb were Stonemasters. It was a rite of passage. It meant that you had surpassed the generation before, and you were of the new generation.
And when we all ended up in Yosemite, which would have been about ’73, ’74, Jim Bridwell, who was maybe ten years older than us, had been cultivating various proteges like Ron Kauk, Kevin Worrell, Mark Chapman, and we all became the same group, sharing the same vision. Jim was head of the Search and Rescue at that time, and he put his friends on there, so we could camp in Yosemite as long as we wanted to.
We all wore the headbands and the white painter pants, and we all wanted to climb as hard as we could. It was about style, and the look, not just how you dressed, but how you climbed. And it was the 70s, so we had a lot of parallels with the Dogtown and Z-Boys guys. We were all the same age, and although we’d came of age in the 70s, we’d grown up in the 60s—we wanted our own revolution.
At that time a lot of these outdoor lifestyle things sprouted up… rock climbing, pool skating, mountain biking, BMX. What was going on to spark all these things?
The reason why I think it happened in the 70s was that gasoline was 25 cents a gallon, I could go to the store and get four boxes of macaroni and cheese for a dollar, and another dollar would get me three cans of tuna fish. You could live anywhere for 25 dollars a month. Our parents were way more liberal than the ones before, so you weren’t necessarily expected to go to college right away. And you could hitch-hike—one of the first times I went to Yosemite, me and John Bachar hitch-hiked from the San Fernando Valley, which is about 350 miles, and it took us a day. It was no problem. Gear was cheap. It was easy to get a part time job during the winter to make a few hundred dollars to live on through summer and fall. I think the economy and the relaxation of your pre-determined path contributed to all these sports happening.
I think we also saw the same thing in the late 90s. You didn’t have to work so hard as everything was reasonably priced. After 9/11, things definitely changed.
I’d never thought about it like that, but it makes a lot of sense. Was there much crossover between you lot and the surfers and skaters in California?
Yeah, we were definitely aware of what was going on, and we emulated it a lot. That’s where the white painter pants and the headbands came from—we wanted to distinguish ourselves from hippies. Even though we had long hair, we’d have been insulted if we got called hippies. We were climbers, just like how surfers were surfers. But the difference between climbing and surfing is that there are a lot of women at the beach… and not so many in climbing. You have to be prepared to be a social outcast.
Also, one of the things that really gelled the Stonemasters as a community was that in 1970 in Yosemite there was an uprising. All these hippies after the Summer of Love were looking for something to do, so they ended up trying to have a love-in in Yosemite. They took over a meadow, but the rangers told them to leave and shot tear gas at them and charged them on horses. But the hippies were anti-war protesters, so they knew what to do. They threw the tear gas back and pulled the rangers off their horses—they kicked their asses. The rangers ended up calling in the National Guard who got rid of all these guys, and after that, the National Park service started cracking heads if they determined you were a hippy.
And we’d sleep out of bounds, smoke dope and be ourselves, and they didn’t like that, so they came after us. It was that us against them mentality. It was us against society—because the rangers were society—and it was also us against all the other climbers who weren’t as good as us… the ones who climbed with helmets and used petons. We felt elite within our sport, and we felt persecuted by the man, and that’s a great way to feel like a revolutionary.
How important was the style in all this? Was that a way to set you apart?
Style was everything. You climbed really smoothly, without much protection, and you never got shook or rattled. We were aware of gymnastics, so we knew that everything had to be perfectly aligned and well defined. We had it all in our minds… the style of climbing, the actual climbs we were attracted to, the philosophy we used… it was all about having our own style that separated us from everyone else.
The guys before wore these big combat boots, and most of their gear was hand-made, so they seemed to us to be almost antique. And their techniques seemed antique too—because we could do the same lines that took them days in an hour or two. But that generation before us, that we were trying to surpass, were making our gear—Yvon Chouinard was making nuts and ropes.
I remember when I was 16 me and a few of my buddies went down to his shop in Ventura, the Great Pacific Ironworks, and he could see we were young punks who had no money. So when we asked how much a set of nuts was, he said, “You know, these things are too expensive for you guys, I don’t want to take your money. I’m going to tell you this one time; do not go through my trash cans.” So we went through the trash cans and got a rack.
He was hooking you up.
He knew what was up. He also wanted us to follow his philosophy. His catalogue told you what free climbing was—it became a thing of education for us. He was also about style, so we definitely ate that up. So there was a number of those older guys who gave us guidance.
So it wasn’t a cut-and-dry case of everyone before was against you. You mentioned how important style was—what inspired you lot back then?
We all listened to Jimi Hendrix. We loved him. It was all about revolution and freedom. And then Eric Clapton would have been another person. Another thing that really fed into us was Carlos Castaneda. We were doing peyote and mushrooms and climbing—running around the valley doing all kinds of bodacious things, but also we would train, doing pull-ups and dips—so we felt like we were part ninja, part explorer.
And then Bruce Lee too, because he was all ripped. He was badass with his style.
I suppose Bruce Lee was strong, but he was lean—similar to you guys. You can’t be the World’s Strongest Man trying to climb.
No, it’s not going to work out. We were as lean as we could possibly be. Any excess weight was just going to slow you down.
We were trying to define ourselves. Things were being marketed to us, and we were aware of it all—from the dishwasher soap marketing to the cigarette marketing to movies. Like when Superfly came out, all of sudden everyone was trying to get bell-bottoms and platform shoes to look a bit more fly. And we brought all that in, or as much as we could without having any money. It wasn’t like we could go out and get a nice Cadillac—but it didn’t matter back then ‘cos you could get a car for $50.
The style was in how you acted, how you looked, even in the kind of sunglasses you wore. Mostly we had thrift-store fashion—you’d go to the thrift-store and get all that cool rayon stuff from the 60s, and then you’d go to the paint-store and get a pair of white painter pants for almost nothing, and then we had a bandana. It worked out well.
What was the reason for the painter pants?
Royal Robbins used to wear white pants, and Bridwell used to wear white pants. But then I can’t remember who found the painter pants, but they were real cheap as you were supposed to get paint on them then throw them out. And they had a drawstring—so you could be a little fatter or a little skinnier and it didn’t matter ‘cos you could draw them in. They were kind of baggy and lightweight, and they didn’t rip—and even the heavier canvas ones were still cheap.
And it looked good to have those white pants on with no shirt and maybe a headband. It definitely set us a part. Everyone else had these weird outdoor pants on that looked not nearly as cool as what we had. We were definitely really cocky.
What would be an average day up there in Yosemite be back in the mid-70s?
If you weren’t on Search and Rescue, you’d probably be camping in the meadow or up in a cave. You’d come down and go to the cafeteria. Everyone would meet there. The thing is, no one has money for food, but back then, they didn’t have bus-boys or people to clean up your plates, they just had a long conveyor belt which went up one side of the cafeteria. All the climbers sat on the tables next to the conveyor belts, and we’d wait for the tourists to put their half-eaten food in the conveyor belt, and as it came down, you’d pick a plate. And then you’d steal some coffee. And then at least a couple of times a month, a woman in her early-40s would come up to the table and say, “You guys remind me of my son,” and give us money. And this would happen quite frequently.
That was nice of them.
It was nice. There was also a lot of British climbers who had came over. And they had no money, but they knew how to survive and how to steal, and they were more than willing to teach us. We learned a lot. But like I say, on a normal day, you’d steal some food and smoke some cigarettes, then everybody in the group would go to the meadow, which was near the caf’, we’d get in a circle, smoke dope and then we’d all pair up. We’d have all figured out what climbs we were going to do that day, but generally there might only be one car in the group, so some people would be hitch-hiking to their destination, and others would be riding a bike. And then we just went climbing—pretty much all day.
It was an interesting rhythm, because you knew at any particular time of day, where everyone was. You knew that between ten and four, people were climbing. After five, at the meadow, you were going to start seeing your friends. Then as it got dark, you’d go to the lodge, and that’s where everyone was.
And all the while this is going on, you’ve got a camera with you.
I had my camera with me most of the time—I had a Minolta and a 50mm lens. Since I had studied photography, during the winter I’d work in photo labs, so every morning after climbing, the first film that got processed was mine. Then I’d bring prints to people on climbs, and that would keep the psyche going.
I was also really aware of who else had a camera, which did me well as when I started making The Stonemasters and those other books, I knew who had those photos. I’ve found with all my books, even Yosemite in the 50s, that all the photos that people didn’t think existed… they existed.
What inspired your photography back then? I can’t imagine there was much climbing stuff to look at.
There wasn’t. There was Glen Denny’s work—he was and still is a huge influence on my work. I’d see him in the few climbing magazines that were around. I’d seen Tom Frost’s work too, but also having studied photography and having a somewhat inquisitive mind, I’d go to the library or book-stores and see people like Henri Cartier Bresson, and in Yosemite I went to the Ansel Adams gallery. So I was aware of outside photographers work—documentary photographers like Dorethea Lange and Edward Steichen. So I kind of knew what good photography was, and Glen Denny seemed to optimise that for me—that black and white look.
You didn’t just capture the climbing—you also shot the stuff that was going on around the climbing. Was that a conscious decision?
Yeah, that became intentional pretty quickly. I liked taking the pictures of my friends hanging out, and I tried to make them as good as I could. It wasn’t like they were just snap-shots where I put the camera to my face, and I wasn’t asking people to move around for me, I moved. That was that Bresson sort of thing—where you capture that moment and find that composition. And it kind of worked.
I suppose even with you taking your pictures, I can’t imagine there was the idea of an exhibition or a book at the time.
It was just what I did, and who I was. Early on, John Long and I had tried to get a few of the climbing magazines interested in stuff on the Stonemasters, and it was rejected because there were pictures of people smoking marijuana and climbing without ropes. It wasn’t fitting into the mold of what they wanted—they were very conservative and because of that, the work got rejected. It wasn’t even seen again until 2008. I put it away.
By the early 80s the Stonemasters had spread out a bit and people had grown up. Am I right in saying you started shooting music and fashion stuff?
Yeah, in the 80s I went to New York to do fashion. And then I went to Europe, and did more fashion. The reason I was doing fashion was that if you want to compete with climbers, you go to where the all hard climbing is, and if you want to compete with the photography world, fashion is king—I thought that was where I needed to go with it.
But then I realised that for those guys and girls who are really good at what they do, their whole lifestyle is fashion—that’s their community. But I needed to turn around and go back where I came from and make the photographs that I make best—not these fashion photographs. That’s when I started coming back into the climbing stuff.
You took a lot of photos of the Stone Monkeys too, who were maybe the late-90s equivalent of the Stonemasters.
When they started to come around, which would have been around ’98 or ’99, I said to myself, “You’re really in luck here, lightning is striking twice. Have your camera with you the whole time.” I could feel the energy.
A lot of really young guys and women started showing up at Yosemite, and once again, they were just out of high-school, they had no money and they needed to steal food. And then the rangers are harassing us, and that’s the job, but it was cat and mouse. And at the same time people are pushing these El Cap routes, and people like Dean Potter are free soloing routes. Everything was just on steroids, but it was the same as the ‘70s—they were persecuted because they were young, they had no money and they were totally, passionately dedicated to all that was going on. And I was living in the same way, sleeping in the meadows and running away from the rangers. I could just make the photos.
You were part of it. You weren’t just some old guy from a newspaper who came along with a camera on a Saturday afternoon.
I’m not a tourist. I’m not somebody the magazine sends in to make photos… and they wouldn’t hire me anyway. To them, I was part of that story. But I was getting by—I knew I wasn’t going to be making much money, but you don’t need it here—you’re best off without it. It was more important to be here and be part of this community.
Also, I said to myself, “Remember who’s taking the photos.” So when it comes to documenting something I can reach out, cast the net and pull everything back in. It’s wonderful seeing that stuff that other people took. Especially that stuff from the 1950s. When I was going through all those shoeboxes, that was really special. These guys were my father’s age, so it was fascinating to meet them and hear their stories.
Talking to these climbers from the 1950s up until now, do you notice any similarities between the characters?
Yeah—number one is their connection to the land. To them, it’s about freedom. The climbing brings them closer to being free in their minds. It’s like this power that they have which allows them to be fully in the present, and to fully express who they are. When they talk about climbing, you know they experienced the same thing you did—when you felt like the world was yours. It’s that passion for freedom, to break the rules and live outside of society… to write your own destiny.
Do you think that’s why the Stonemasters and the Yosemite climbers have that legend around them? Everyone craves that freedom, but only a small percentage have it.
I think there’s part of that, but also it was a period of time that’ll never come back around again. Climbing in the 80s became kind of complicated, and nowadays there’s no partnership with climbing. Pro climbers have to lead every single pitch of a climb to put it on their resume. So I think that one reason why in the 80s people started to look back at the earlier climbing in a nostalgic way was that they were disconnected from it—all they were doing was pushing a number, and getting to the top of something.
You’re still heavily involved in it all, still taking pictures of climbing, publishing books and working on a gallery in Yosemite preserving the area’s history. What’s kept you involved after all these years?
It ended up being my passion. I’m an artist, and my canvas is climbing. I think Stieglitz said, “A great artist could spend their entire career creating work in their back yard.” And my backyard is anywhere where there’s climbing, there are photographs to be made and community to build.
Yosemite is the first place I fell in love with, and it’s where I find my identity. It gives me the sense of satisfaction, and that’s probably why I’ve stayed. Feeling satisfied is very rare in one’s life, and Yosemite does that for me.
Also, so many of my friends have passed—so I can’t not honour their memories by paying it forward, by making these books. I have a sense of responsibility to these people, and that’s why it’s always fresh for me, and that’s why the passion is still there.
Definitely. I suppose we’ve talked for a while now so I don’t want to keep you any longer—have you got any wise words to wind this up with?
Yeah, always remember the first things you fell in love with, because they’re the things that’ll bring you the most joy in life. Whether it’s a sport or a place, remember those, and they’ll keep your passion alive—you should always keep your passions alive.