Flanders 2 (Gaasbeek Castle, Belgium) 2011 © Spencer Tunick

Spencer Tunick: On Stealing Cameras, Controversy, and Kickstarter

Who doesn’t know Spencer Tunick? Over the past two decades, the artist has photographed more than 100,000 nudes of all ages and persuasions on all seven continents. His large-scale projects, which he calls installations, continuously gather the attention of the world press and sometimes change the lives of the liberated participants.

The subject of two HBO films — Naked States and Naked World — and one-time “Man of the Year” in Chile, Tunick has raised awareness of environmental issues, including the melting icecaps in Switzerland and the evaporation of the Dead Sea in Israel, while also having fun with naked bodies and props.

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Aurillac 1 (France) 2010 © Spencer Tunick

What was your motivation for first picking up a camera?

I’m a fourth generation photographer. My great grandfather was a photographer and owned the first Kodak photo finishing plant in downtown New York, where the World Trade Center was later located. My grandfather was a photographer for the United Nations Council on Foreign Relations, where he photographed Truman, Eisenhower, DeGaulle, Castro, Tito, JFK, and countless other diplomats and world leaders. And my dad had photo concessions in several Catskill Hotels in the 1960s and ‘70s — selling pictures of guests in keychain viewers. I often worked for him for free and when he retired at an early age, he gave me all of his cameras.

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Brugge 1, 2005 © Spencer Tunick

How did you start photographing nudes in public places?

After attending Emerson College in Boston, I moved to a storefront in NY’s East Village that I rented from the surf and music photographer Justin Jay. I took a one-year program at the International Center for Photography and became interested in photography that documented performance art and took some sculpture and painting classes at SVA. I couldn’t find myself so I realized that I would have to satisfy my dreams of people floating naked through the city at sunrise with photography.

I discovered George Holz, a commercial photographer who shot nudes that I liked, and decided to intern with him. I basically stole his camera, not literally, but I bought the same camera and lens that he used — a set-up that allowed the subject to be sharp and the background blown out of focus. You can have an idea, but you have to find the materials to manifest it — you have to buy the right canvas or clay. In my world I had to get the right camera to do what I wanted to do.

Sometime in 1990, I was walking down the street and saw a guy who looked absolutely amazing (he turned out to be Alistair Butler, a Robert Mapplethorpe model and Alvin Ailey dancer) and I said, “Trust me, even though I don’t have any pictures to show, I could take a wonderful photograph of you,” and he did. I photographed him on Wall Street, which was my first public nude image.

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Ireland 1 (Dublin) 2008 © Spencer Tunick

What was your process for finding other people to participate nude in your work?

Through conversations with people, I accumulated a booklet of about 25 to 30 models that were willing to pose for individual shots. I would look at the city to figure out how to connect to a sinkhole, a pile of bricks, an architectural structure, or the curvature of the street — where I thought a body would fit — and shoot them on weekends. My first group installation was made in 1994 at dawn outside the United Nations. The police actually helped me by diverting traffic, and in return I later gave them prints. My next group projects were downtown — on Broadway and Crosby Street. To gather people there, I printed flyers that Kristin Bowler, who’s now my wife, designed for me. I handed them out at art events and clubs. Nowadays, museums send out a press release and people sign up online.

You can have an idea, but you have to find the materials to manifest it – you have to buy the right canvas or clay.

Once you realized that you were making art photography and had a body of work, how did you get it out there?

I befriended art critics Walter Robinson and Cathy Lebowitz and artist Paul H-O, who had the cable access TV show “Gallery Beat.” After ICP, hanging out with them was like a “Three Stooges” grad school that took place on the streets of SoHo. I became the videographer for their irreverent show while I was making my work. I had shows of individual shots with Aaron Rose’s Alleged Gallery on Ludlow Street and Kelly Lamb’s Thicket gallery in Tribeca. I printed a large photo of a group installation and hung it in my apartment. The artist Ryan McGinness saw it and told I-20 Gallery’s Gil Presti that he should check out my work, which is how I started showing there.

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Switzerland, Aletsch Glacier 1 (Greenpeace) 2007 © Spencer Tunick

Do you remember when things started to publicly click?

Things were already clicking with the work, but when I started getting arrested I got swept up into the mass media. At the same time, I was getting a lot of street cred from the side of the art world that knew I wasn’t just making a commercial product. I was out there busting my ass trying to make my vision into a reality. My work was about gathering people and there was nothing better to gather people than getting press — especially if you want to work with larger numbers.

Then the project Naked States was conceived. It wasn’t a film project yet — it was just me wanting to go on a journey with my wife to make a body of work. I pre-sold work, sight unseen, and right before we were set to go film director Arlene Donnelly thought she might be able to make an independent film about it, which she did. After it was made and won awards, it was acquired by HBO and broadcast around the world.

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Spencer Tunick, Dead Sea (Israel) 2011 © Casey Kelbaugh

What’s the most difficult project you’ve ever done?

I think it was Israel last year. Most of the Israeli museums are funded by the government, which makes them fearful of the controversy of taking art into the public sphere. They’re OK with bringing controversial work into the museums, but working with nudes outside of this institutional fortress proved impossible.

When I work with museums it makes it easier to get permits. You can’t hide 1,000 nude people around a corner and hope that a police officer won’t show up. None of the museums we approached could get permission from the government to sanction the work. We had a lot of opposition from the government. I was brought up in the Knesset and condemned by the orthodox party. They called the project “artistic beastliness” and me the corruptor, who had to be “prevented from carrying out a disgraceful display.”

I wasn’t just making a commercial product. I was out there busting my ass trying to make my vision into a reality.

When you have something so extreme said against you, it rallies the more liberal-minded people for you. It energized the people that wanted to participate, but made it almost impossible to do the work. Our last resort to realize the project was for me to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money. I raised $116,000, but now I have 700 reward orders of ephemera and prints to fill.

A week before I got there, a local government that had been supporting the project pulled out and denied us access to the site — a location that I had been scouting for two years. There was tremendous pressure to still complete the project — which I did — in order to get the Kickstarter funds to pay the organizers and crew.

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Dead Sea (Israel) 2011 © Spencer Tunick

You work with nude people all the time. Are you comfortable around them?

They’re not really that naked to me. They’re just amazing spirits. I think for the people around me it’s a much more sensual experience. I’m more concerned with making a sculptural installation. I went to a military academy during my high school years and reached the rank of captain, which put me in charge of 60 kids for the year. I would march them through formations. From that and by working for my Dad at hotels, I got used to working with people at an early age. Working with people in uniforms is kind of similar to working with nudes.

Paul Laster

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Paul Laster is an editor, writer, independent curator, and artist living in New York.
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