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Scope Out: Spencer Tunick in Folkestone

21 May 2014

This road…

This journey, everything that you see here, every milestone and way pointer, has a backdrop of Tunick photographs at its point of origin. Landscapes of massed nudes on every continent, in geometry and disarray. Breakthrough images that trickled then poured into our mainstream media throughout the first decade of the 21st century. They became inescapable. But more than that: they became alluring, intoxicating: a Siren song. I felt a nagging compulsion to be part of a Spencer Tunick installation.

The road to Salford

It’s one thing deciding to participate but quite another to get the opportunity. My intent came too late for me to be part of his 2005 Gateshead shoot ahead of an exhibition at the Baltic Gallery in 2006. Who knew when Tunick’s global peregrinations might next bring him to the UK? I signed up to mailing lists and forums, and then waited… and waited. But as I waited I found little networks of like-minded individuals and learned of alternative opportunities. On Sunday 14 June 2009 I joined in a nude photo shoot at Prested Hall in Essex. It was my first time naked for an artistic endeavour.

Within a year Tunick was back in the UK to photograph two groups of 500 people over two days at locations around Salford. These were Everyday People, commissioned by The Lowry gallery. By sheer chance I heard of it on the day it was announced and was thus amongst the very first to apply. Weeks of silence passed before an email arrived bearing the wretched news that I had been rejected. Fortunately I was able to muster a bona fide case of appeal and, to my great relief, the decision was reversed. On Saturday 1 May 2010 I participated in my first Spencer Tunick installation.

The road less travelled

The majority of those who strip for Tunick do it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Others of us get the bug. We crave more. I was 40 years-old when I posed in Salford: just ripe for a mid-life crisis and a new beginning. Since then I have posed for artists, photographers and performance makers. I have been drawn, painted, body-painted and body-casted. I’ve performed in physical installations, film and live dance theatre. I’ve worked indoors and outdoors, in homes, studios and galleries, in city centres and remote countryside, in the UK and abroad. This has been my road, and it continues before me towards limitless naked horizons.

The road to the south coast

Four years had passed between the Baltic and Lowry exhibitions. Now, after another four-year gap, Tunick was returning for Museums at Night – but where exactly? On the south coast somewhere: either Brighton, Folkestone or Hastings, depending on the outcome of a popular vote. The voting opened on 14 January 2014 amid much campaigning from all parties. On 29 January the results were announced: Georges House Gallery, Folkestone had triumphed with 3,736 votes (38.2%), ahead of the Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton with 3,187 (32.6%), and Jerwood Gallery, Hastings with 2,856 (29.2%).

In due course a call-out came from Strange Cargo on behalf of Georges House Gallery, for volunteers to participate in Scope Out: Spencer Tunick in Folkestone:

We would like to invite you to apply to POSE NUDE in a performative photographic action by artist Spencer Tunick.

Spencer Tunick will be photographing multiple individuals one at a time. You will stand in a line clothed and then when it is your turn to be photographed you will disrobe and the artist will quickly photograph you.

Spencer will choose men, women and any gender identity to be part of this unique portrait series. In order to be chosen we ask that you please send in a low resolution photograph of yourself and a brief explanation of who you are and why you would like to participate. Please also include your address, age and phone number.

Participants will be selected based on photographs submitted and what is written. Please respond [by email]. The artist will then review the photos and the statements to choose the participants. Most installations by Spencer do not have limits to the number of people participating, nor do they require the submission of a photograph. However, for these individual portraits in Folkestone, there is a cap on the number of people participating due to the specific concept of the work. We are asking for a photograph of yourself because we want to have a wide range of body types and skin tonalities represented in the final work. Although everyone is unique, if you are not chosen, it is simply because we may have reached the amount of people with similar specific characteristics needed for the art project. We apologise in advance if you are not chosen for this particular idea but please do not let it deter you from signing up and posing in future works by Spencer where there are usually no number limits. Chosen participants will be contacted by email prior to 15th April 2014 with the project location in Folkestone and further instructions. Please only apply if you are committed to participating and able to be free for approximately an hour on Thursday afternoon the 15th May 2014. You only will be nude for a approximately 2 minutes… we know it could be chilly… so you will not be nude until right before its your turn to be photographed. In exchange for taking part, you will receive a unique (scope) key chain viewer of the portrait Spencer makes of you at the Museums at Night event at Strange Cargo on Saturday evening the 17th May 2014. All the photographs will be exhibited that same evening.

Thank you for wanting to be part of Spencer’s art, he could not make his work without you!

I made my pitch on 6 March and – happy days – on 23 April I received an email that confirmed I’d been chosen to participate:

There are only 125 spaces.

Shoot Day: Thursday May 15th. Rain or Shine.
Arrival Time: 1.15pm
Kindly please be on time.

Meeting location: The wooden hut below the Martello Tower (opposite No 76 Wear Bay Road, Folkestone, Kent. CT19 6BL) GOOGLE MAPS VIEW. From there, after we register you, we will walk to an undisclosed area to make the artworks.

Be prepared to walk a little. In exchange for posing you will be given a unique photograph of yourself in a Keychain (Scope) at the exhibition on Saturday 17th May at Georges House Gallery in Folkestone.

You will only be nude for a short period of time. You will not be disrobing until right before you are photographed. Please do not take off your clothing until the artist requests. After you are photographed please get dressed. The portrait will only take a few minutes, but there will be a short line of people waiting to be photographed.

While in position do not wear any clothing. No sunglasses, no jewellery, completely nude. Piercings and tattoos are fine. There will be people on site to watch your clothing. Wear warm, loose fitting clothing. (please avoid strap marks from tight underwear). Please do not take photos or video of your fellow posers. After your session is over, you can stay for 10 minutes, but you will be asked to move to a safe distance away from the shooting location. After the 10 minutes are up, have a safe trip home and we will see you on Saturday evening at the exhibition in Folkestone.

The road to Folkestone

I’d intended to travel by train to Folkstone for the shoot, but a little flurry of Facebook activity on the morning of the day itself resulted in me getting a lift with artist / model friend Natansky, plus fellow model / body-paint specialist Lee Rex. We met at 11am on the outer rim of east London and began our road-trip south. I was due to pose first at 1:15pm, with Lee next at 1:30pm, and Natansky following at 1:45pm. Other familiar faces from past modelling and performance pieces would also be descending on the south coast: Andi, Camila, Cy, Gil, Karen, Keith. Overwhelmingly, however, this was an event for the people of Folkestone itself.

It looked set to be a great day, and so it proved. The sun was warming us generously from a rich blue sky. T-shirts were all that we would be removing from above the waist. We passed over the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge without delay and made good time down to our destination. A drive through a cloud of large and exceptionally juicy flying insects provided the only startling moment on our journey across Kent.

We parked below a Martello tower, a little further along Wear Bay Road than the one we were aiming for, but it was free parking and the sun was still shining so we didn’t mind the short stroll. A small gathering of participants had already assembled at our designated meeting place – the correct Martello tower – where a portable table strewn with paperwork was being attended by three volunteers in official tops.

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We introduced ourselves and were handed model release forms that conceded so many of our rights that Spencer Tunick could have reversed his car over us and we would have had no recourse to complain. It’s standard stuff, however, so we signed and joined the crowd, sunning ourselves in a lush green field overlooking the English channel, with France hazy in the distance. A cooling coastal breeze deceived us as we simmered to a soft pink.

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The road to Spencer Tunick

Participants were called in groups at fifteen minute intervals. After 45 minutes’ waiting, during which we were joined first by Karen and later by Keith, the 1:15pm call came: I was the first from our tribe to go. Along with others in my timeslot, I was taken for a ten-minute walk down an undulating country road, past the Folkestone Camping and Caravaning Club to a large rectangular man-made surface lapped by the sea.

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A precautionary ambulance was parked on the land side of the rectangle, and at the centre by the water’s edge were two bright orange tents for models. Spencer Tunick was seated at the very edge of the water with Gil, and Brigette of Strange Cargo, as foot soldiers to keep the operation moving.

A line of naked people queued between tents and artist.

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I stripped out of my clothes and joined the back of the queue, bantering and laughing with fellow participants. Everybody had travelled their own unique road to arrive at this one moment of exuberant liberation. As if emphasising the point I found myself ahead of a local chap from Folkestone, and behind Rachel, originally from New Zealand.

On reaching the front, each person was asked by Brigette to confirm their name, then ushered forward and a little to the left to stand directly facing Spencer. Blue sky, white cliffs and a barely rippling sea was our backdrop. Back a bit, right a bit, step forward, that’s fine, hold that. There was no posing to speak of; we were simply to be natural.

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Minutes passed as we shuffled forward. Soon Rachel was in position for her full-frontal photograph and I was due next. I gave my name to Brigette, removed my sunglasses, offered a cheery ‘hi’ to Gil, then stepped into position. Just Spencer Tunick and me.

Spencer was working with two cameras – no tripod, nothing digital, these were vintage Olympus Pen EE-3 half frame models. A novelty in itself.

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Within a couple of minutes a photograph had been taken on each Olympus. Thanks were offered, and that was me done. I was handed a slip of paper that I should bring back for the exhibition’s opening night on Saturday to collect my personal keychain viewer (scope) – a mere two days later – then wandered along the adjacent beach while waiting for the others. I was happy.

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A small number of beach-goers and dog-walkers were clearly curious about the line of completely naked people queuing to have their photographs taken, but they kept their curiosity coolly distant. The organisers had succeeded in keeping the location secret. No gawpers or voyeurs were apparent.

Lee had been and gone again by the time I returned to the shoot location; Natansky was dressed and on her way back too. We met Lee at the field and made straight for the car to beat the Thames crossing rush hour traffic. There was just time to stop for cola, coffee and ice lollies at Folkestone service station, along with a water top-up for Natansky’s insect-splattered windscreen.

Back in east London we parted where we had met. Neither Natansky nor Lee would be able to return on Saturday so I would be collecting scopes for all three of us.

The road to Scope Out

Come the Saturday, a high speed train took me southbound from London St. Pancras International to Folkestone Central in less than an hour. From there I slowly navigated the local roads with Google directions in hand. An amiable woman with strikingly short spiky blonde hair who’d arrived on the same train, asked if I needed help to get where I was going. I thanked her, but said I was fine as I had a map. Little did I know we were both headed towards the same place. Was everyone in town there that evening for the Scope Out opening night?

A crowd had already gathered outside Georges House Gallery by the time I arrived at 6:20pm. It continued to grow steadily.

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When proceedings got under way the first business was to hand out individual scopes to the participants. This was done in small batches numbered as per the slips passed to us on the day of the shoot. Scopes were given out randomly within each group, so it was up to participants to check and swap with others till eventually they recognised themselves. This in itself was a great ice-breaker.

By now I had chanced upon my friends Martin and Yvonne, who hadn’t participated in Scope Out but who would be part of a Spencer Tunick party series shoot in Notting Hill, London the next day. Martin captured the moment of my first viewing.

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I swiftly found the keychain scopes for Natansky and Lee too. As with everything else in the organisation of this event, the process was simple, smooth and jolly.

The gallery was rammed by the time I entered. Patiently I waited for the chance to squeeze into line and begin peering through the back-to-back wavy rows of back-lit scopes that formed the centrepiece of the exhibition. There were 120 in total, 60 on each side in two rows of 30. These, together with a smaller batch of 25 scopes at an outside window, showcased almost all the 156 who took part in their full naked glory.

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Words on the gallery wall answered the natural question: why keychain viewers?

I began photographing people in keychain viewers when I was 16. I was working for my father at a young age, taking photo keychains of guests in the hotels of the Catskill Mountains in New York. When my father retired, he gave me 50 half-frame cameras and all the keychain viewers I could ever dream of. I use them as a visual diary, documenting friends and nude situations. I am rarely somewhere without a keychain of a nude friend in my pocket.

Spencer Tunick – May 2014

Indeed, in one corner of the gallery stood a separate panel of 36 scopes from Spencer Tunick’s personal collection: unexplained, seemingly random images of unclothed people from his private world sharing space and context with the Folkestone folk.

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I wondered whether the unknown people in these viewers had any idea that they were being displayed naked to hundreds of people in a distant town on the English coast.

Spencer, meanwhile, mingled among us.

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Familiar faces were all around. Keith gave me a pointer as to where I could locate my portrait in the five panels of the main display – the window-facing side, second panel from the right, bottom row, second in from the left on that panel: yellow scope. Once there, I found myself standing next to Rachel, whom I’d queued behind for the shoot. We continued on, merrily seeing who else we could recognise from our little group.

I remembered one young woman who had been about four places ahead of us in the queue. She was desperately nervous, the only person to keep clothing on – a single long vest – until the very last moment. With all our encouragement and support she bravely went for it, earning hearty cheers and applause for her efforts. The resulting photo was truly wonderful. I hope she’s rightly proud of the strength she found, and that it helps her along her own road with more confidence and freedom.

Still in the packed gallery, I crossed paths at last with Cy. We had somehow missed each other on the day of the shoot. Now we needed a drink. Wine was on offer in the gallery for a £2 donation but we opted instead to try Kipps’ Alehouse next door. We were later joined by Martin and Yvonne. Martin seized the opportunity to get his lips around Spencer’s blonde – that’s the beer, ‘Spencer’s Ale’, created especially for the occasion, in case you’re wondering.

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When the crowds started to thin and I’d said my goodbyes to Rachel, Martin, Yvonne and Cy, there was space at last to return to the gallery for one final photograph of the main exhibition in its entirety.

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This road continues…

Some life models shun Spencer Tunick’s installations because the artist profits while his models go unpaid. It’s a point of view, sure, but my message to anyone is this: if you get the chance to take part you must grab it with both hands. It’s pure fun, worth doing for the enjoyment alone, and even better if – like me – you appreciate his work. There’s the gift of a personal work of art at the end, which itself has value, plus many great memories and always new friends.

Good luck to Tunick and the galleries that make these events possible. May they get every reward for putting smiles on the faces of scores… hundreds… sometimes even thousands of participants. Happiness and art make great companions in life.

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