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High court upholds nude photo shoots in public places

June 21, 2000
Web posted at: 1:42 PM EDT (1742 GMT)

In this story:

Critics call it performance art

Next series shot in color

BROOKLYN, New York (Reuters) -- New York Mayor Giuliani is used to battling powerful adversaries like first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and junk bond king Michael Milken.

The take-no-prisoners mayor almost ran against Clinton for a U.S. Senate seat, dropping out because of prostate cancer, and he once jailed Milken for violating securities laws.

But he found a more troublesome opponent in Spencer Tunick, a 33-year-old artist who photographs masses of nude people in public places like New York's Central Park, outdoor rock concerts in Maine and the Nevada desert.

This month, the U.S. Supreme Court said it was Tunick's right under the First Amendment to the Constitution to stage such photo shoots, rejecting Giuliani's argument that the city would be "irreparably harmed" if one took place there.

Not 24 hours later, Tunick was directing 125 mostly hip young urbanites to shed their clothes, bare their tattoos and stretch out beneath the Williamsburg Bridge into the city.

It was a triumphant moment for Tunick, who has been arrested five times but never charged, ending his yearlong battle with City Hall that began when police cuffed him and confiscated his camera during a nude shoot in Times Square.

"Giuliani made it very hard for me to do my artwork just because of his own personal opinions on what he thinks the body is," Tunick told Reuters at his modest two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment cluttered with empty film canisters, torn paperbacks and old postcards.

"It was a victory for the body as an art object, not a sexual object," Tunick said of the Supreme Court's June 3 decision, adding: "I wasn't very political until all this happened. Sometimes you have to scream."

Critics call it performance art

Tunick bristles at being called a nudie photographer or, worse, a pornographer: "I am a contemporary artist working with the nude," he insisted.

Critics categorize his work as performance art but find fault in its derivative nature.

"There's been naked performance in the art world since the 1960s and there's a history of artists creating situations," New York Times art critic Roberta Smith said, adding that Tunick was notable in that he married the two.

"He combines elements and he also popularizes them. He has figured out how to publicize his art by having it risque and against the law. That's worked in his favor."

Comparisons have been drawn to Christo, the so-called environmental sculptor, who since the 1960s has been turning the physical objects he works with into works of art, wrapping such landmarks as the Pont Neuf in Paris and the Reichstag in Berlin with plastic sheeting.

Tunick takes the same approach, staging an event that comes and goes, preserved only in photographs. Some of his work is striking, with naked bodies creating intricately textured patterns against a backdrop of bridges, buildings and skylines that Tunick calls a "fight between nature and culture."

His largest group shot, about 1,200 people at a 1997 Phish concert in Maine, looks like a school of hundreds of fish. Or consider the less notable but aesthetically pleasing zig-zag of bodies, three in a row, reaching across a vast Nevada desert.

Next series shot in color

These pieces, like the others in the "Naked States" series in which Tunick photographed nudes in every U.S. state in 1998, were taken in black and white. His next series, much of it taken during Tunick's battle with Giuliani, was shot in color.

It will be shown in November at the I20 Gallery in New York. Tunick makes limited edition prints of the large photos, which are then framed without mats. They sell for $10,000 to $15,000, a fair price according to critic Smith.

To hear Tunick talk brings out certain contradictions. While he castigates the media for getting in the way during his photo shoots he does not turn down requests for interviews.

"I don't want to feel above anybody," he explained.

And he said he finds it distasteful taking the pictures, a right for which he has fought so hard. "How can you enjoy making a piece if you know you're going to be hauled off in a police car and your film confiscated?" he asked. That feeling is not shared by his models, most of whom are in their 20s or 30s.

"I wanted to be part of and contribute to a production of fine art," Isamu Inohara, 29, a Legal Aid Society lawyer in San Mateo County, California, said when asked why he posed for Tunick's shot under the Williamsburg Bridge. "It struck me as innovative and beautiful as well as a bunch of fun."

He said he did not feel nervous since, "when you're around that many naked people, it's just a bundle of fun. You begin to wonder why everyone else was wearing clothes."

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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