"People are afraid of naked people,” said Spencer Tunick, who was in Jerusalem last Tuesday to talk about his new project, an installation of nudes he was planning to photograph in Arad on October 17.
“I am hoping this project will represent the body as an agent of change” that will bring attention to the environmental problems of the Dead Sea area.
Tunick is a world-famous American photographer who has won acclaim for his pictures of large groups of nudes, which he has taken all over the world. Since he started in New York in the 1990s, he has photographed nude groups in every continent and in every kind of landscape imaginable, featuring hundreds of thousands of models over the years.
This is his third visit to Israel, and he has shot photos in the Dead Sea area during his other trips here. Many of those pictures are on display at the Dead Sea Museum in a virtual show, which features two floors of Tunick photos, including some from the previous Dead Sea shoots which have never been exhibited before, as well as a video. His works have an otherworldly-beauty in which the viewer appreciates both the landscape or buildings in the setting and the human bodies posed there.
Ari Leon Fruchter, the founder of the Dead Sea Museum, said last week that plans are underway for a physical version of the museum to be built in Arad by architects Sharon Neuman and Iftah Hayner, of Neuman Hayner Architects. It will blend into the natural landscape and offer a cultural center that will be a gateway to the Dead Sea. Arad’s mayor, Nisan Ben Hamo, fully supports Tunick’s upcoming photo shoot and the museum project.
Tunick is passionate about bringing attention to the environmental situation at the Dead Sea. “I first shot there in 2011 and when I came back to Mineral Beach five years ago, sinkholes the size of basketball courts had opened up. It’s unbelievable to return to a place five years later and it has been destroyed, and it’s a man-made situation.” One of the goals of the Dead Sea Museum is to “help preserve this area for future generations,” said Fruchter.
A fourth-generation photographer whose father photographed guests at a Catskills resort and put their images on souvenir key chains, Tunick said he had never had trouble getting people to pose. “When I started out in New York in the 90s, I would give out flyers by the entrance to the subway. I would give out a thousand flyers and maybe 100 or 150 people would show up.”
He thinks it is especially important for people to see his work in the age of photoshopped photos on Instagram and other social media, which show a single, idealized kind of body. “Ever since I started making my nude artwork in the 1990s I made my art with all shapes and sizes of people... There was no prerequisite, you sign up, you come and you pose... It was the more the merrier.”
He is happy about the body-positive movement, joking, “It seems that everyone and their mother is getting naked now.” He said he felt that his work was “quasi-conceptual and quasi-documentary” and that “without revealing their identity, people want to be anonymous but they want to be part of an artwork that has a little bit of a surrealist aspect.”
During the Jerusalem press conference, Tunick said, “If I was invited by a museum or institution in Egypt to do a work in front of the pyramids, I would take that opportunity without even thinking about it.” But he knows such an invitation is not likely to come anytime soon, and that for now, Israel is his only option if wants to work in the Middle East.
When asked if there is a site he has dreamed of photographing, he does not hesitate: Mount Fuji in Japan. “If there is a golf course at the base of it, that would be flat, that would be great.” However, while he has photographed individuals in Japan, he has not done any large-scale photographs there. “I am hoping for the day when a really brave museum director in Japan will invite me.”
YOU MIGHT have a certain stereotype about an artist who has chosen to surround himself with nude bodies during his career, but the down-to-earth Jewish-American Tunick does not fit them. He lives with his wife, artist Kristin Bowler, and their children in upstate New York.
He does not keep his work in the house, because he needs a break from his photography when he is at home. But his children have seen it, and he said he was proud that his 14-year-old son selected one of his photos for his room for his recent birthday.
His wife does not come to the photoshoots because “she is a more caring person than I am. When she sees people suffering, she has to help them. We did a shoot in Australia; people were cold and she tried to shut it down, there were 4,000 people there... She has made me more caring about how people feel.”
Speaking of feelings, when Tunick is asked how he puts the models at ease during the shoot, and what he does if people who have arrived at a remote location balk at stripping, he said this was not a problem. “People show up and they are ready,” he said.
What has been a huge problem for Tunick is the pandemic, since in most of his photographs, the models are very close together. “I was slammed by COVID,” he said. In some ways, “I’m still slammed.” But he adapted during the worst of the coronavirus saga and photographed models on Zoom.
“It’s a work called ‘Stay Apart Together,’” he said, which was named after instructions a friend saw during the pandemic. “The coronavirus made me crazy, because I thought my work would end.
“But I saw a protest in Tel Aviv, right at the beginning of the pandemic, where people were separated by six feet, and I saw the place marks. I don’t remember what it was for, but it was one of the first protests in the world that was organized by separation and I thought, my work is going to continue. I’m going to survive.”
While he said he did not know the exact number of those who had volunteered for the Arad shoot via his website, he said there were “many brave collaborators who want to disrobe and make art. [Nude photographs] should not be deemed pornographic. Nudity has its place in beauty and art and life.”