Spencer Tunick - Biography and Legacy
Middletown, New York
Biography of Spencer Tunick
Spencer Tunick was born into a Jewish family and grew up in upstate New York. His father, Earl, owned a keychain photo-viewer franchise that operated out of the Brown's Hotel in Loch Sheldrake, in the Catskills. His mother worked as an artist and interior designer. Tunick was inspired by his mother's artistry, and had the opportunity to experiment with his father's cameras. He recalls "I found a passion in documenting my ideas with photography, because I didn't have that sort of natural ability to paint or sculpt. My ideas were coming so quickly that I wanted to get them down on paper and that was black and white photography paper."
During his childhood, Tunick's parents took him on frequent visits to museums in New York City, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Met, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney, where he saw and felt inspired by works by Claes Oldenburg, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Pablo Picasso.
Tunick spent much of his youth near the Village of Wurtsbro, where his grandmother, Helen Morrell, owned a fashion boutique, and his grandfather, Leo, worked as a Sullivan County deputy sheriff. The couple also had a vacation cabin on Masten Lake, which Tunick visited frequently.
Tunick recalls, "I was a basketball star at military school. The son of the gangster John Gotti was there with me. Even then I had a rebellious streak, marching the military band up and down stairs." When he was 19, Tunick visited London, where he arranged and took some early experimental photographs of a single nude volunteer at a bus stop and of a group of nude volunteers in Alleyn's School's Lower School Hall in Dulwich, Southwark.
Education and Early Training
Tunick earned a Bachelor of Arts from Emerson College, Boston, in 1988. In the following years, as he was beginning his photography career, he supported himself by working at his father's keychain photo-viewer franchise in the Catskills on weekends. He would photograph hotel guests in their evening-wear, then hurry to Kerhonkson to develop the film before rushing back to the hotel to insert the slides into the viewer. At breakfast the next day at 7 a.m., he sold the images to the guests as souvenirs of their vacation. He says "I lost my weekends, but I made enough money so that I didn't have to work a regular job during the week." This allowed him to spend his weekdays working on his art.
In 1990, he attended the International Center of Photography in New York City, where he lived in the East Village, in an apartment on "C" street, and became part of the New York art scene. That same year, he began taking photos and videos of live nudes (mostly individuals or small groups) in public locations around New York City. He recalls, "I started shooting on the weekends in the East Village and the financial district."
In 1993 and 1994, he developed an interest in Performance and Installation Art, and sought a way to incorporate elements of these into his photographic work. He says, "I began thinking, 'How can I change a photograph to make a document of some action, or performance-oriented action; how can I do this with photography?'" It has always been clear in the work of Tunick that he is equally interested in interaction with his participants as he is the making of a photograph.
A turning point in Tunick's career came in 1994, when he posed and photographed a larger group of 28 nude people in front of the United Nations Building in Midtown, New York. Since then, he has carried out over 125 such large-scale projects, which he refers to as "temporary site-specific installations" and "human installations", in over 25 countries around the world.
Tunick began to recruit volunteer models for his larger installations in New York by handing out flyers in the street. He recalls that in the early years of his career, he "was worried someone would take the flyer and hand it straight to a police officer." If the individual expressed interest, he would show them a miniature portfolio that he carried in his wallet, in order to demonstrate the type of work he was creating, and to reassure prospective models that what he did was art, not pornography. For several years now, he has also had a model application/registration form available on his website, where applicants are asked to identify their gender and skin tone. In executing his projects, he often groups models according to these criteria.
Tunick notes that he tries not to re-use the same models, and also tries to avoid recruiting individuals from nudist organizations. In this way, he says "On Tuesday [the models] were just everyday people and they often have strong reactions because it might be the first time they are nude in public. They each have their own reactions to participation. Most people think they can predict what it feels like, but it's a collective, new experience for the body." His models have remarked that their experiences of participating in his nude projects in public spaces have been, "meaningful, remarkable, memorable, transformative".
Since the beginning of his career, Tunick has found the urban landscape of New York City to be very inspiring, saying, "Working in a city where the buildings were not just a few stories high was a new visual experience for me. There was a canyon-like feel to those streets lined with skyscrapers." He also remarked that the city looked much different than it does today, stating that "it was less policed - no security cameras or surveillance - and the landscape was more beautiful," and "There were no preventative one-meter concrete or steel structures blocking off buildings that would ruin the vision of the cityscape. If you saw a courthouse, there would be a beautiful set of stairs, just flowing into the street."
In those early years, Tunick consciously aimed to complete his nude installations clandestinely and quickly, to avoid any encounter with the authorities. He says "I had several years of working in this magic apocalyptic jungle of barren streets [...] I felt most safe and comfortable in the city at sunrise, when there was no traffic, perhaps only a car driving by every three minutes. This place was a massive studio for me - and it was empty."
Despite efforts to be discreet, Tunick had several run-ins with law enforcement while carrying out his controversial projects. Between 1994 and 1999, he was arrested five times in New York alone; including once in 1994 when he and a model were arrested while he was photographing the model perched atop of an eight-foot high replica Christmas tree in Manhattan's Rockerfeller Center, once in January 1996 when he and two models (including his future wife Kristin Bowler) were arrested while posing at the top of a snow drift, and then again in Times Square whilst photographing 150 nude individuals in 1997. He later explained that these experiences altered his former "romantic idea" of being arrested in the name of art. He says, "Being handcuffed is very painful. To get stuffed in the police car, it's very traumatic [...] It's humiliating and it's a very dangerous situation. You are in [jail] with anyone: they could have committed a horrific crime or jumped the subway turnstile." Although always ultimately dropped, charges against Tunick have included unlawful assembly, creating a violent act, disorderly conduct, public exposure, and reckless endangerment.
Tunick began to come up with strategies to avoid problems with the police, explaining that "I once had a person dress up as a mythical magician, with a pointy hat and a magician suit, and when the police came by, we'd pretend to be photographing him," and "Once, I had somebody dressed up in a grape suit; like, a giant grape. Another time, when I was on the Brooklyn Bridge and police would come as people were gathering, we had a sign that said Bird Watching Tour." Nevertheless, having to constantly come up with strategies of distraction alongside feeling the brunt of the city's censorship continued to bother him. It was around this time that Tunick was quoted saying "In the past the New York administration considered the body to be a crime, or pornographic. I hope this administration considers the vulnerability of the body."
Mature Period & Current Work
From 1999-2001, Tunick spent two years fighting in court for permission to carry out his photography in New York City's public spaces, on the grounds that as a working artist they were preventing him from earning a living. He finally won the case, and New York police were prohibited from interfering with the artist's public nude installations, on the terms that they were unpublicized, and kept to less than one hundred participants.
From that point onward, several art institutions around the world, including the Musée d'Art Contemporain de Montréal and the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art in Newcastle, commissioned and supported some new Tunick installations. He notes that the project in Montreal was particularly significant, as he "started to be able to relax, and my work started to change." As curator and artist Valentine Moreno writes, "Museums and art institutions provide Tunick with a solid structure and organization, since museums handle all travel, logistics, legal permits, and negotiations with local governments. Museums also guarantee safety and security, ensuring police protection for Tunick and the participants. Furthermore, museums provide all the necessary funding, which may be private or public, depending on the nature of the institution. Additionally, by allying with museums, Tunick guarantees a large number of volunteers and great media exposure through the museum's press office, official website, and printed material. The installations usually happen connected to an exhibition, which enhances the artist's curriculum; and finally, and most importantly, under the museum's umbrella, Tunick's controversial artwork is authorized and validated as art."
In 1999, Tunick set out on a road trip around the USA, with the aim of photographing nudes in public in all 50 states. The project was documented in the HBO documentary film Naked States (2001). Building on the success of this idea, in 2001, he began a similar but international project, titled Nude Adrift, in which he set out to complete at least one nude installation in each of the seven continents.
In 2002, Tunick was invited to participate in the 25th São Paulo Biennale, indicating his positive reception within the international art community. That same year, he completed a project with 5000 volunteers in Chile, and was subsequently named "Man of the Year" by a Chilean newspaper.
In June 2003, Tunick set the world record for the largest nude photo shoot, when he photographed 7000 volunteers in Barcelona. He subsequently broke his own record in May 2007 when he photographed 18000 nude volunteers in Mexico City's Zocalo Square.
Tunick is married to painter Kristin Bowler, with whom he fell in love with having seen her at St. Marks Place, New York. He gave Bowler his card and asked her to model for him, but she never called and it was not until a year later when they met again at a party that their relationship started. Bowler talks of how she was strongly attracted to Tunick's confidence and fearlessness. The couple have two daughters together, Seda and Isla.
Tunick and Bowler have collaborated artistically, for instance, with Tunick photographing nude models alongside Bowler's paintings. The couple also organized the nude, all-female protest against the hateful rhetoric spewed by Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
Tunick and Bowler lived for a time in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where Tunick worked out of a fifth-floor studio in North Tribeca. His studio featured a large room set up with cameras for taking individual nudes, however the room got little use, as he continued to focus more on large-scale public installations, spending most of his studio time editing at his computer.
In 2006, Tunick and Bowler purchased a 2,200-square-foot, turn-of-the-century, three-story, four-bedroom house in Suffern, New York, and Tunick now works out of a converted barn behind the home. Tunick says of Suffern "No one really knows about this town. They see it on the highway, but they don't know it exists," he says. "There are a lot of storefronts for people to hopefully open coffee shops and liquor stores and whatever [...] I would love to open up a hiking shack/coffee shop in the corner of town, take people up for hikes, and then of course photograph them naked on the side of the mountain, but that's beside the point."
Many friends and guests stay with the couple regularly and sometimes help take care of the couple's daughters so that Tunick and Bowler "can go out and rage in New York" (their home is located five minutes from the local train station, making it easy to travel to and from the city). New York City continues to be an important place for Tunick, who says, "The reason why I love New York, and why it's my home, is because of its people. I think New York is this juggernaut of humanity."
The Legacy of Spencer Tunick
Comparisons can be drawn between Tunick's work and the photographic oeuvre of Vanessa Beecroft, who also photographs groups of nudes in public spaces often with overt political associations. Tunick's work is also comparable to the 2018 project Weil Ich Dich Liebe (Because I Love You) by performance artist and activist Mischa Badasyan and his partner, photographer Abdulsalam Ajaj, which involved photographing ordinary people nude inside subway stations. More widely, and outside the genre of photography, Tunick's work strikingly updates the long tradition of the nude. Since a taboo of nudity has developed, bodies in art have been portrayed as either hidden or idealized. Tunick, by contrast, depicts the body as utterly natural and at peace in its exposure. Indeed, fellow contemporary photographer Wolfgang Tillmans says, "I find it amazing that the body is not treated in a matter of fact, relaxed way. It is either idealized or hidden. Happiness, in a way, is found in accepting your own body".
Due to the content of his pictures, as well as his working methods, Tunick has become a vital figure in debates surrounding censorship since the 1990s (in the same way that Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe were in previous decades). Tunick's successful court battle against the city of New York in the late 1990s set an important precedent, shifting public understandings of nudity away from connotations of indecency, obscenity, and immorality, toward a greater appreciation of the nude human body as beautiful, and a work of art in its own right. More recently, in his 2019 "#WeTheNipple" campaign made in collaboration with the National Coalition Against Censorship, Tunick has been creating activist art that aims to challenge inequitable social media policies that forbid the publication of images of the female (but not the male) nipple.