March 2009, Interview with Spencer Tunick

 Joe Heaps Nelson (L) and Spenceer Tunick (R) in the Hotel Chelsea, New York City 

Joe Heaps Nelson interviews Spencer Tunick

Spencer Tunick is an internationally known photographer and has been for more than a decade. He made his bones in the mid-nineties running around New York City staging early morning public naked photo shoots. Everything was top secret and top speed, so the shoot could be completed before the cops arrived. Now his art star status affords him more time to compose shots. Spencer has shot nudes on every continent (yes, even Antarctica).

We were neighbors on the Lower East Side. I remember passing a mysterious guy in an overcoat on Ludlow Street in 1994. He handed me a card as we passed. I read it and it said "Pose nude for Spencer Tunick." I thought, oh, ok, that guy is Spencer Tunick. Soon I met him, because my friend, the painter (and now architect) Taylor Pierce knew Spencer's friend Justin Jay. The twin towers were still up, everybody was in their twenties, and we were all about to be famous. There were parties, and more photo shoots. Spencer was the subject of numerous documentaries. The whole operation was remarkably well-organized, and Spencer was nice. He accumulated massive street cred by making sure that anybody who posed for him received a print, usually picked up at Max Fish.

But New York, especially downtown, was undergoing a painful transformation from the benign neglect of the Dinkins years to the harsh Catholic discipline of Giuliani. If Giuliani hated graffiti, squatters, jaywalking, dancing, and drinking on the street, how do you think he felt about crowds of naked weirdos (most of whom had been up partying all night) popping up in the streets of New York every other weekend? Like a male baboon uncertain of his standing in the social order, Giuliani could be counted on to attack those without the resources to fight back. Giuliani sicced the cops on Spencer, Spencer unfurled the banner of artistic freedom like a champ, and thus did they become best enemies.

I posed for Spencer once, on the Williamsburg waterfront. First you went to the location, and there somebody would tell you the real location. A string quartet was playing. Spencer was up on a ladder, yelling at people. We were told where to put our clothes, and how to pose (on backs, toes pointing south). Spencer yelled "Now!" and, adrenaline surging, everybody ran. Once I found my position, I was jarred by the disconcerting sight of the rest of the crowd hurrying past and around me, with everybody's junk bobbing and bouncing ridiculously. In seconds a hundred naked New Yorkers were in place, lying on rocks and looking at the sky, and Spencer was working. A lone seagull circled overhead. Somebody said, "look, a bird!" and everybody laughed. I remember noticing that the girl next to me had on sparkly blue nail polish, and I thought, what an odd observation. It seemed like it was over in seconds, and like James Brown we hit it and quit it. Everybody grabbed their clothes and we scattered like roaches, anonymous individuals reabsorbed into the Brooklyn early morning. It was an unforgettable experience.

Of course, it was illegal, because you aren't supposed to be outside without any pants on, and Spencer resented the absurd but inevitable accusation that he was making porn. So, what about the photographs? The anarchic sense of humor is balanced by a sober formalism. The body or bodies, exposed to the environment, provoke empathy, or at least a sort of vicarious identification. The choice of location provides symbolic impact (i.e. the Brooklyn Bridge, the Dakota, the Stock Exchange), and as the models become more numerous, the compositions become progressively more abstract. These essentially humanist works slyly provoke and challenge our unconscious cultural assumptions. Generally speaking, the bacchanalian and apocalyptic connotations cancel each other. Only a weird pervert could find them salacious.

The new work? Epic. Like Spartacus.

Years later, I worked at I-20 Gallery, which until recently represented Spencer in New York. I-20 was the flagship gallery - great space, great views, parties on the roof - of 529 West 20th Street, perched atop a humble jumble of galleries that Dumbo artist / flâneur Max Goldfarb collectively dubbed, "Starving Artists' Liquidation Warehouse." I hung Spencer's works, and shows, plenty of times. By now there were very large crowds, very large photographs. Spencer would show up, shadowed by Hong Kong camera crews. He was the man.

About 2006, I had a studio in the basement of the Museum of Sex, at 27th Street and Fifth Avenue. Locking up my bike one day, I spotted Spencer in the lobby, so I invited him down to my cave. I was in a prehistoric, deeply shaggy woolly mammoth period, crunching Frank Frazetta with Caspar David Friedrich, inhaling enamel fumes and rocking Black Sabbath's Paranoid all day. We had a fun visit and that's when I found out he was a daddy. So, we go back.

For this interview, Spencer and I met for lunch at the El Quixote restaurant in the Chelsea Hotel. We were joined by Genevieve Dimmitt, who came to take photographs. (Genevieve, as it turns out, had attended a lecture of Spencer's while she was in art school). We talked about the old days, the challenge of keeping it fresh, and not suffering in Suffern. After the interview, we all checked out a show at Zwirner Gallery and went to Printed Matter, where Spencer bought me a pin that said "I've got a boner."

Joe Heaps Nelson: Spencer, pretend no one knows who you are or what you do. What do you do?

Spencer Tunick: Right now, and what I've been doing since 1994, is gathering large groups of people in public spaces and running around them frantically trying to document them the best I can, with a camera and a video camera. The resulting works are photo and video pieces. I consider them installations; that's the technical term. The other term is... I just get a bunch of people naked.

JHN: I'm confident that you have seen more naked people than anyone else in the history of the world.

ST: More than Genghis Khan?

JHN: You've probably seen more people naked than there were people alive at the time of Genghis Khan.

ST: I have seen as many people naked, obviously, as I have photographed, over 100,000 people. Plus probably twenty.

JHN: I remember when you were doing it in the streets of New York, and Giuliani was after you all the time, and twenty naked people was a big deal, and then you ended up in South America and all over the world, getting enormous crowds. What is the biggest number of people you have got naked and photographed?

ST: A little bit over 18,000, in Mexico City.

JHN: I've known you a long time... I remember your show at CB's 313 Gallery, on Bowery.

ST: A two-person show, with Justin Jay.

JHN: I remember a woman swinging from the signal at the Canal Street train station, and some Atlantic City pictures.

ST: Yeah, that's when I was doing individual works, one on one. Early sunrise down in the Financial District, everywhere below 14th Street at sunrise, on a weekend you might see me working on the streets. Those photographs were the result of a lot of early morning adventures in New York. At that time I was just honing my craft, and there weren't that many galleries out there, I just wanted to put together a little show with my friend and CB's Gallery seemed like a great place to do it.

JHN: I miss that place. Well, in those days you were pretty much the only one doing what you were doing... Mayor Giuliani wasn't a big fan, but I remember you had a pretty good lawyer. [Ron Kuby]. How many times did that guy get you out of jail?

ST: Five times! I was only behind bars three times, but he always kept me working, as opposed to the city shutting me down.

JHN: Did other people get arrested?

ST: My wife was stopped, but not arrested. Arrested I guess means they detain you and take you away, and put you behind bars for a time. My wife climbed a ten foot pile of snow that was shoveled onto a sidewalk in front of a yogurt store. On the awning was the words "Frozen Fantasy". She was my fantasy. She got a summons from a police officer. My friend Michael Wiener and I got arrested when I photographed him on a giant Christmas ornament at Rockefeller Center. They usually arrest me. The police usually go for me.

JHN: What's Mayor Giuliani's problem?

ST: I don't know. Probably the lights are off in his house. Lights are off and the dress is on. He was running against Hillary Clinton for Senate at the time. I assume his position would have been the opposite of a Democrat. I guess he had to take a position against the body.

JHN: He dropped out of that race because he knew he couldn't win.

ST: I was at the Brooklyn Museum for the Sensation show, and the head of the ACLU was there.

JHN: Was that Norman Siegel?

ST: Yeah. It was about the controversy with Ofili and I was at the rally. I got there a little early to say hello and give my support, and he said to me, Spencer, look what you started.

JHN: Really? I remember that, I was there too. Since you've been photographing naked people in public - I guess in public is an important part of the work - If you were photographing naked people in the country, nobody would really care much about a bunch of naked hippies in the country.

ST: Actually, Justine Kurland, who is a wonderful artist, does a series of people who live in alternative communities, aka hippies in communes. She shows at Bravin Post Lee, and her work is beautiful and people do care about her work. But I think engaging the public, in a public space, brings attention not only to the bodies but also what you're working in front of.

JHN: Absolutely. It was an edgy, New York City thing. Now how do you keep it fresh, and how do you keep it evolving?

ST: I'm a big fan of Ellsworth Kelly, Nancy Rubins, Barnett Newman, Rothko. I think there's a passion for extending their work in similar ways, and not diverting from it.

JHN: You're talking about artists who have had a particularly long career, working on the same theme.

ST: Right. I have different series. My large group works are one series, and I have individual portraits, and I have a party series, and a few others. The nude is the main subject matter, as far as the group series, I'm still exploring the theme, I still enjoy it and it's still provocative, especially in countries where their liberties are not as protected as ours. I think there's enough variance in my work. If you see my work, the really huge ones with 5,000 or 8,000 bodies have a different feel from a work with a hundred people where they are facing the camera like a group portrait. The big group work is more of
an abstraction like a land work or an environmental work. I have all these pockets going on, so in a way it's the same thing, but it's not.
I honestly think if someone curated a show of my work and really dug deep into my archive, their idea of who I am might change. I think they would be blown away by how diverse it is.

JHN: Well how did you get started down this path?

ST: My dad used to have this keychain viewer business. That was my college job. I'd photograph people in Catskill Mountain hotels, shooting guests. I'd shoot the guests, and the next morning I'd sell them their pictures in a little novelty plastic keychain viewer. I'd photograph a thousand people, and then I started using them for my art. I lived on Avenue C and Second in the early nineties. I discovered the way I work, specifically, by finding the tool, which is a camera. Buying that camera was a big, momentous experience for me. The way the film looked, and the way the image looked created this inspiration for me to begin working on big series. I bought a Pentax 6 x 7. I shot it with a tripod at 1/60 of a second wide open at 2.4. The subject, nude on the street, would be in focus and the background would be out of focus. Only a medium-format camera, with this Pentax lens which was amazing, started to create this very surreal, urban, abstract narrative with individual people in the streets. That look of the
subject in focus and the background blown out was fascinating to me. It was about the body, but the background became important as an abstraction, creating a new meaning for this abstract background. So all the attention wasn't on the body. You went to the background but then you weren't satisfied with the background, you didn't get a lot of information, you had to bring it back to the body. It's interesting and that's how I discovered my work.

Spencer Tunick

JHN: Spencer, when I worked at I-20 one day I was looking at your press kit and there was an article from an Italian magazine. There was a picture of you shooting at the gas station on Tenth Avenue, and the caption read, in Italian, "Spencer Tunick photographing nude models in London."

ST: How did they know it was London?

JHN: Probably all the yellow cabs.

ST: What can I say, I was very fascinated with gas stations at the time because of the problems with our relationship with foreign countries and our connections with them through oil. I was fascinated with people posing, theoretically, on top of huge tanks of oil. Also, I was interested in where's public / private space with gas stations. There's no wall, so where's the sidewalk and where's the ownership of the gas station? When you're naked at a gas station are you on public space or private space? That was interesting. I've done gas station works at Gaseteria on Houston Street, Getty on 24th, and the Exxon on 23rd, and another gas station / car wash on 125th Street in Harlem. I
have done four gas station works in New York. That's a sub-series.

JHN: I just wonder how they know where to build gas stations. How do they know the gas is under there?

Spencer: One reason I wanted to do this interview was to tell artists about this amazing town I moved to.

JHN: How amazing is it?

Spencer: It's so amazing that people don't know about this town. It's good for people who feel the city is too expensive for them and they need space, but they want a quick train ride to New York. You don't really think about the other side of the river because you just see New Jersey. There's an express train through New Jersey, and the first
city it hits is Suffern, New York. So you can still be a New York artist... I always say I'm about 500 feet away from being a New Jersey artist. Nothing against New Jersey artists!

JHN: But your mail still comes addressed to New York, so you're still cool.

Spencer: Suffern looks like a small Western town. It's sort of like Williamsburg before it got exploded into all this. There are mountains around and a beautiful avenue where the sun rises in the middle of the avenue and empty storefronts, and the second floors of all the buildings are zoned for artists, and no artists are there. I actually can be in the city, on 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue, from Suffern, in 55 minutes. I'd rather people find out about it who are artists.

When you have one kid you can survive in Brooklyn. I had one kid and I lived in a six-storey walk-up in Cobble Hill. But once you have two kids your life changes. Chrissie said why don't we try to find a house with a garage or a barn, in the city, and you can work at home, and where the hell can you find that? Once you have two kids, everything

JHN: This is such a New York conversation. It always comes back to
real estate.

Spencer: Suffern used to be a vacation town. It's in between Harriman State Park and Ramopo Mountain, right near 87, the big highway.

I was talking to Matthew Barney. I was in Vienna, having lunch with him and the Director of the Kunsthalle. He said he lived in Nyack for some time but he couldn't stand it because he was driving to the city all the time and that drive is what kills you.

JHN: Which Kunsthalle?

Spencer: Wien.

JHN: That's one of my favorite bands! [Ween, get it? haha]

Spencer: The work he had there was the Drawing Restraint show. He did a movie on a whaling ship, and Bjork was in it, and he showed sculptures from the film. It was a pretty major exhibition. At the same time, I was commissioned by the museum and the 2008 Euro Cup to make an artwork in the stadium, so I made some beautiful works in the Ernst Happel Stadium.

[We pass around the I-phone and look at Spencer's Vienna photographs].

JHN: Oh, that's cool as hell! Send me anything you want, but I'd love to send these to Noah.

Spencer: Yeah, they've never been published in the U.S. I haven't even put them on my website.

JHN: I remember running into you down in Miami two years ago and you had done a shoot at the Sagamore Hotel.

Spencer: Yeah, this year Olaf Breuning had a big sand castle that the Sagamore commissioned and the year before me they commissioned Yoko Ono to do a performance. They are wonderful people, very supportive of the arts. Imagine a Borscht Belt hotel owner, then give him an arts education and a successful hotel in Miami Beach. They're fun people.

JHN: OK, are there any new and exciting projects coming from Spencer Tunick that the world needs to know about?

ST: What's coming up... I'm gonna work on an artist book. I've never done one. I don't want to give it to a big publisher. It's a homegrown, grassroots artist book, just my wife and I. She's a designer. Put it out there and give it to the world, see what happens. I've had offers from publishers to do a book but it takes a long time to build up a body of work. I sort of had to wait ten years to have enough work that I can edit and make a book that's good, not just here's a bunch of naked people. I figured why not do it myself? I had 100,000 people who posed for me and it's great to give them my personal vision and have some fun.

JHN: We'll look forward to that, Spencer Tunick.

ST: Thanks Joe Heaps.

JHN: You bet your ass!

ST: Your naked ass! WM


Joe Heaps Nelson

Joe Heaps Nelson is an artist and writer in New York City.

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