Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Emperor's Nude Tunick

by Drew Martin
I just watched Naked States, a documentary about Spencer Tunick, the photgrapher who made his name taking pictures of mass nudes in public. I have liked his work but had no idea who he was, I definitely did not expect the quirky New Yorker who was not quick to shed his own clothes when he ended up at a nudist beach in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. To fit in, he and his crew disrobed but he said it was too hard to concentrate on his work and he complained about a lack of pockets. Tunick's photos are beautifully still with bodies that seem to be in-between rest and death. He says his work has two sides: form and shape without fashion, and a reaction to war, terrorism and killing. For his first shoot with more than 1,000 people (gathered at a Phish concert) he photographed all the bodies lying down on an old Air Force runway that used to be home to fighter jets with nuclear capabilities. Now that Tunick is famous he can get whoever and however many people he wants to pose for him, but this documentary from 2000 is simply about a guy with an idea and a camera. It shows an unknown Tunick struggling to earn his recognition: driving across the country with his devoted girlfriend in a van to different shoots, trying to find models on the street like a guileless Greenpeace volunteer asking passersby to sign a petition. At a biker gathering an irate father tells him to F-off when he approaches his daughter. The amazing thing about the documentary is that it shows the cycle of participation. Some people are up for anything but for the most part the people he asks are bashful and reluctant but then speak about the experience as liberating and the awkward feeling of putting their clothes back on. One young woman in Fargo responds to his initial request, "Don't you know we are in North Dakota and we are very repressed." She talks to friends right afterwards. A guy is suspicious but a girl says that it must be as liberating as skinny dipping. The most moving subject is a young woman who is extremely shy about the offer and then after being photographed says she was raped six months prior to the shoot and that since the rape she had an invisible boundary around her. She says that Tunick's shoot was 90% of her therapy to feel "free to be me." Most of the bigger shoots seem completely chaotic and frustrating. At the time of the film, Tunick was arrested five times, three of those in New York. For a New York arrest shown in the beginning of the film, Tunick is charged with aiding and abetting disorderly conduct. The movie ends with the charges dropped and the triumph of a impressive solo show at the I-20 gallery.