Spencer Tunick: 'Lights on, clothes off'

Spencer Tunick (1967) recently exhibited with Public Interventions at the Reflex Amsterdam gallery. The American visual artist is known worldwide for his colossal nude photography and human installations in urban and natural environments. MASTERS spoke to him during his very first gallery exhibition in the Netherlands.

You grew up in Middletown, a town in the American state of New York. Tell me about your childhood.

“My mother put a lot of time, energy and love into me – I was a lucky boy. She had attended the Parsons School of Art and introduced me to art. For example, she took me to museums and Broadway shows in New York City. The fact that I eventually got into photography was due to the other branch in my family: my father was a professional photographer, just like his father and grandfather had been. He worked in hotels. There he made portraits of the guests in the lobby. He incorporated the photos into key rings, which he offered for sale to them the next day. During high school I helped him in my free hours. When I went to study art at Emerson College in Boston, I also took photography classes there. I fell in love with the medium and enrolled in the Creative Practices Program at the renowned International Center of Photography in New York. There I discovered the photography of nude performances by performance artists such as Yayoi Kusama and Carolee Schneemann. That triggered something in me. During my training I didn't take a single photo, I was just listening, absorbing all the knowledge like a sponge. The day I finished, in 1992, I knew exactly what I wanted. I had studied a lot of different photographers – Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Edward Shames, Dwayne Michaels, Sally Mann… I combined everything I liked about their photography and brought the body into it: I took to the streets with nude models.”

Even though public nudity wasn't illegal, you were still arrested several times.

“You had to apply for a permit. I did that too, but I didn't get it. The person behind the counter literally told me that I should 'steal' locations, because he really wouldn't grant me a permit. That's why I photographed my nude models early in the morning, before sunrise, when the streets were empty. And then peek around the corner to see if a police car was passing by.”

At that time, a good living could be made in fashion and advertising photography. Did you have a business plan?

“I was able to make a living with keychain photography for my father. He retired early and gave me one of his cases. I worked my ass off for a year and earned enough money to survive for six months. At that time I devoted myself completely to art photography.”

1994 was a turning point in your career. Tell.

“Until then I had only made individual portraits. I had become quite famous for that: more and more people came forward to pose for me. I ran out of time to photograph everyone. Why don't they all portray at the same time? I asked myself. I called everyone who had registered, fifty people in total, and told them I wanted to photograph them as a group. As a background I chose the United Nations headquarters in New York. Twenty-eight people showed up. There, on that day, my photography evolved from individual portraits to complete installations. This was something new, I saw opportunities here and started handing out flyers. My then girlfriend and current wife Kristen is a graphic designer and saw what I had designed. 'Shall I make the flyers from now on?' She came up with a beautiful design. I handed out a thousand flyers, to which one hundred and fifty people responded positively. While experimenting, I developed my own style, where the street became my studio.”

Is there a philosophy behind portraying groups of naked people?

“There is a search for energy behind it, an explosion of life. Naked individuals together change into a different form, a new organism. One hundred and fifty bodies become one, it is no longer about the individual gender. These abstract forms are far removed from sexuality and make you look at nudity differently. The compositions depict genuine unity and diversity. It has nothing to do with pornography and everything to do with dignity.”

What is it like logistically to work with hundreds, sometimes thousands of models for one photo?

“In the early works it was all very spontaneous. The people gathered, I gave my instructions in fifteen minutes and five minutes later the photo was taken. Sometimes I only clicked four or five times. I had to finish quickly because of traffic. I like to shoot in the canyon of the urban setting: the street is my river and I am in the middle of it. Since I work with larger numbers of models, I have to have streets and squares cordoned off. Spontaneously taking a photo in a busy city with a thousand people at the same time is of course not possible. Once they are in place, I quickly scan the faces and posture – I have a good eye for that. Looking at detail within a mass.”

As a photographer you always have to take a higher position. How do you do that?

“With the help of a scissor lift. It goes really crazy high. It's really crazy.”

MASTERS Magazine

Curious about the rest of the visual artist's interview? In the spring edition of MASTERS, three entrepreneurs shed light on the future: Raymon Pouwels (GO Sharing), Merel van Helsdingen (Nxt Museum) and Tim van der Wiel (GoSpooky). According to the latter, ever-accelerating technological progress offers enormous opportunities. “There has never been a better time to have a good idea. The technology is in your pocket!” Sports journalist Jaap de Groot outlines the contours of the new playing field of international sport after the resounding success of the World Cup in Qatar. And futurist Adjiedj Bakas also sheds light on the future. According to him, next year will be all about the search for the economy of happiness. “We are not just going to look at what makes us money, but at what makes us happy.” Perhaps this edition will contribute to this, with a look back at MASTERS EXPO, a road trip with the new Range Rover and interviews with horse pope Jan Tops, Red Bull Racing team boss Christian Horner and chef Margot Janse.