Volunteers share all: Spencer Tunick talks about his daring project for Museums at Night

By Mark Sheerin | 01 April 2014

American photographer Tunick will be heading to Folkestone to create intimate portraits for Museums at Night. Mark Sheerin hears more

a photo of a large group of naked people draped in see-through fabric with arms outstretched amidst a desert landscape
Desert Spirits© Spencer Tunick
Spencer Tunick’s work is better known than his name. He is perhaps, to the casual art enthusiast, the artist who photographs outbreaks of mass nudity. Indeed, his carefully arranged shots feature thousands of nudes. Once seen, or even heard about, they are rarely forgotten.

But the man behind the camera is coming somewhat forward during his forthcoming appearance at Georges House Gallery in Folkestone. Taking part during Museums at Night, artist Tunick has reached back to his own earliest experiences to delight and intrigue the gallery going public.

“I'm going to pick one location, have a line of people and photograph everyone within approximately a two-minute time period. So there'll be people, clothed, waiting in line; they'll quickly undress and pose for a portrait and then I move on to the next person,” he tells me on the phone from New York.

Tunick worked for his father as a teenager photographing hotel guests in the Catskill Mountains in Upstate, NY. His father owned the photo concessions in many of the local resorts, and had young people working for him photographing guests. Tunick was one of these kids snapping holidaymakers' photos.

“There would be maybe 1,000 to 2,000 people in a hotel going to eat dinner,” he tells me, “and I had to photograph everyone.” He adds that this required diplomacy as well as technical knowhow, since not all his subjects were keen to be immortalised by the future artist.

“That’s where I guess I started having to deal with groups, in a rush of people, in masses, and I don't know if I would be good at doing what I do now without this previous work experience of photographing thousands of people rushing towards me,” says Tunick.

Working with a half frame camera and 72 shots to a roll of film, his father and eventual team would develop the film using a process known as E6 and then fit the results into pocket viewfinders (known as ‘scopes’). This would take place overnight before returning to the hotel to sell the results.

Along with a gift for taking photos, Tunick Junior was to inherit no less than 50 Olympus Pen half-frame cameras and all the scopes he could ever use. He now compares the novelty of using this technology to the many Polaroids taken by Andy Warhol in his lifetime.

Using the only remaining E6 lab in Britain, Tunick plans to use the obsolete tech to pay homage to the end of film. “I think the individual works in viewers are about secrecy versus candour and the act of revealing your nudity to friends and the public,” claims the artist. Such is the potential of nudity.

If you’re brave enough and lucky enough to get in the frame yourself, you can expect to receive your very own portrait in a keychain scope. But be warned, Tunick is keen to see if his subjects will share their image with friends and strangers alike at his Museums at Night event on Saturday May 17.

“I'm interested in the intimacy of having to show someone this keychain,” he says “Holding it up into the light is very prevalent to sharing an image on, let’s say, Instagram, with a friend.” The procedure may be analogue, but the spirit of Tunick’s individual work in scopes is pure digital.

The artist laughs when questioned about his rash generosity in giving away his unique works for free. “I have photographed over 100,000 people and I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if I had to pay each and every person,” he says.

“So I'm very lucky and I work my butt off to get everyone a print of their experience and in this case a keychain”. For those who took part in a memorable campaign to bring the artist to Folkestone for Connect10, and for those selected to pose for a scope, it should all prove worth it in May.

But whereas the town’s risqué campaign featured a bit of nudity, Tunick denies most of his subjects are nudists or exhibitionists. “Mostly it's everyday people that have been to a museum or are fans of the figure in art.”

Before now, the artist has worked with social workers, doctors, lawyers, scientists and students. On one occasion in Newcastle, he even engaged a man of the cloth. “The reason why I can get the high numbers is because it's not a certain group. I always consider my participants urban adventurers.”

Expect urban adventure then on a special evening this May. Has Museums at Night ever been about anything else?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

You might also like:

The Connect10 vote: Spencer Tunick heads to Folkestone for Museums at Night

Spencer Tunick celebrates L.S. Lowry with mass nudity in Salford

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

Latest comment: >Make a comment
I took part in Spencer's project in Folkestone yesterday and it was a surreal, amazing, brilliant experience. I created the campaign 'Ready for Spencer' that brought the community of Folkestone together to help Strange Cargo win the competition. I'd just like to say thank you to all the people who got involved and to all the people who voted for Strange Cargo to win. They truly deserved it for all the great things they do for the people of Folkestone. I cant wait to see the results :)
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