Naked In New York
Spencer Tunick's living sculptures land him in the pokey

Spencer Tunick photographs naked people. It's his living and his passion. It's what he does. But it's not what you may think. His shots aren't erotic or sexual, and his subjects are average, everyday people -- some good-looking, some not, all volunteers. They aren't shot in studios, but lying in the street or standing at gas stations or in vast fields. According to Spencer, his photos are art. And his art has New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani pissed off to hell.

See also...
... by Larry Getlen
... in the Scope section
... from November 16, 1999

I spoke with Spencer at New York's I-20 gallery about his Naked States tour where he took nude photos in all 50 states, about upcoming projects, and about the "romantic" life of an artist -- as seen from a New York City jail.

GETTINGIT: How would you classify what you do?

SPENCER TUNICK: I don't consider myself a photographer, I consider myself an artist. I'm an artist who creates site-specific sculptures, with a mass amount of human forms, and I document it with video and photography.

GI: What was the point of the Naked States tour for you?

ST: It was all about growing up wanting to travel, doing reports about national parks and thinking, "when am I going to have the time to do all this?" I decided that rather than spending my whole life searching out these places, I was gonna find a way to do it all at once, to work as a traveling artist.

GI: So it was more for a self-serving purpose than for an artistic one?

ST: I think that's what art is, I think that's where you get confused. Art is all about creating work for yourself and then sharing it with others.

GI: What do you look for in a location?

ST: Gas stations in the background are very colorful. I like delis, supermarkets.

GI: Why do you like what would normally be considered mundane settings?

ST: I've had great times at these locations. I'm fascinated by gas stations, because of our involvement in the Middle East. By creating these rivers of bodies juxtaposed with these gas stations, it creates a dynamic tension between nature and culture. I'm dealing with that in my own visual way. Sometimes I'll work with a specific building in the background, like the UN or the French National Assembly. That's a little bit more of a statement about authority and humanity. But most of the time it's the anonymity of states, so often I have to come up with my own ideas.

GI: What was the toughest shoot you ever did?

ST: When I was arrested this year. It was on 47th and 7th in New York.

GI: How many people showed up to pose?

ST: I think 260. Then the police showed up. I think one cop saw it, or maybe the hotel next to it called, and then another cop came. By the time I organized my shoot to get started it was 15 minutes later. So cops just kept coming, and before you knew it there were like 30 cops, and 10 undercover cops.

GI: Did you have a permit?

ST: I had a permit for clothing. I executed the nude shoot on my First Amendment right to freedom of expression. The most amazing thing is that there's actually a law that protects me from being arrested, a law that says I can do this, but Giuliani's saying "Fuck the law, arrest him. Don't let him do his work. I don't care, because I don't like it."

GI: How many times have you been arrested?

ST: Five.

GI: All in New York?

ST: All except once -- in the national assembly in Paris.

GI: What was the longest amount of time you ever spent in jail?

ST: Eighteen hours for the last New York shoot.

GI: Have you ever been found guilty?

ST: Never. It's illegal to be naked in New York City UNLESS you're breast feeding, or if you're entertaining in a play, exhibition or performance. This law is made vague to encompass filmmakers and photographers. If Steven Spielberg wanted to create Amistad in New York Harbor, would Mayor Giuliani say "Well, you have to put clothes on those slaves?"

GI: Does the prospect of getting arrested ever get you nervous?

ST: Yeah. I work in fear. Jail time in New York City is different from jail time in other places around the country. When you're thrown through the system and go down to the tombs, as they call it, 18 hours feels like two weeks. It's a horrible situation, and you're in harm's way. It's not a safe place at all.

GI: You're not in a private cell, are you?

ST: No.

GI: Were you ever harmed in jail?

ST: The most recent time someone grabbed onto my chain and said "if you go to sleep, you're not going to have this when you wake up." So that made me a little frazzled. But I think of doing my work as pure, and whatever laws are against my work are wrong, and rather than fight the system legally, I just do my work. I'm not government-funded. I don't do my work in front of churches or synagogues. I'm not attacking anyone. I'm just reflecting on different social issues and personal issues that I have with these blankets of sculptural forms I'm making with people.

GI: Your next project is Nude Adrift?

ST: My next exhibition is of my color street photographs of groups, my Reaction Zone series. That's gonna be here in mid-October 2000. Then I'm gonna try to do what I did with Naked States, and do a trip around the world. The thing about this is, I want it to be relaxing. That's why I call it "adrift," and I didn't use the word "naked." I think there's a big difference between "naked" and "nude." Nude Adrift means just floating through countries that I feel are free.

GI: How long a trip, and how many countries?

ST: I'm hoping it can be longer than six months. I would say, hopefully, six months to a year. I'd like to cover 30 countries.

GI: So what does 2000 hold for you?

ST: In 2000, there will be a massive shoot in New York called Good Citizens. People can sign up to pose for that by going to the Web site. It will be somewhere near City Hall. Rather than run away, I'm going to push forward with my work.

Larry Getlen has written for Raygun, Salon, and MovieMaker, among many others. He writes a weekly satire column called "Larry's Look at Life," which goes out via email.