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Public Bodies – nudes in the city

19 October 2014

How far should we push it? Those of us who gladly shed our clothes for art, or for the causes in which we believe, or simply for the joy of it – how far do we take our nudity in public? We don’t set out to cause offence, and we don’t believe the naked human form is intrinsically offensive anyway, yet we know people get upset at the sight of it. This can be felt at a deep personal level, not merely the reflection-by-rote of religious or societal conventions. So how far should we push it?

The question was brought into fresh focus when photographer Matt Granger posted his call-out on 9 August for participants to join a group photo shoot in central London. There would be something of a guerilla approach to the work; a literal flash mob. We would turn up unannounced, strip off en masse in some still to be determined public space, capture our shots, then quickly dress and leave.

Support Matt’s Public Bodies – Nude in Public art nude photography book

I signed up immediately, with the caveat: “I’m sure all models would like to hear the exact proposal before committing 100%; we all love what we do but are equally all keen to avoid arrest, unemployment and the sex offenders register.

Of course, our capital has seen me naked in public many times before, during the London Naked Bike Rides (see 2013 and 2014 blogs), but those were recognised, well-established events with the police already on side. Plus there is the weight of numbers; even the most committed copper would struggle to round up a thousand naked people, all on bicycles.

I thought Matt’s concept might have the potential to leave us a little more vulnerable. It’s important to remember, however, that it is NOT illegal to be nude in public in the United Kingdom. Crown Prosecution Service guidance states:

In the absence of any sexual context and in relation to nudity where the person has no intention to cause alarm or distress it will normally be appropriate to take no action unless members of the public were actually caused harassment, alarm or distress (as opposed to considering the likelihood of this).

In this case such conduct should be regarded as at most amounting to an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986; and regard needs to be had to the question of whether a prosecution is in the public interest.

Matt is an extremely experienced professional photographer, and it was quite evident he had no intention of putting his models at any risk. Still, one always wonders what difficulties an over-enthusiastic police officer might create, and with what long-lasting consequences.

Anyway, that was as far as my concerns went as a mature responsible adult. There would be no holding me back if the shoot went ahead, assuming I was available and invited. It did go ahead, I was available, and I was invited. We would converge by the River Thames:

The gathering

It was a horribly early start. I set my alarm for 3:45am with the plan: get ready, catch the first train into London, do the shoot, go directly on to my day job, then from there head straight to Telegraph Hill for life modelling in the evening – a long day.

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Behind the scenes (BTS)

By ten to six I had arrived at the north end of the Millennium Bridge. The sky remained midnight-black but there were small signs the city had begun to stir from its slumber. I stepped onto the metal walkway and started over the Thames to our rendezvous. Even on the river there was barely a breeze; the lingering chill just a remnant of night.

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Behind the scenes (BTS)

As I crossed to the other side I passed a black-clad figure adjusting a camera tripod, and assumed it to be one of Matt’s team. Down to my left I could see a set of figures alongside the river path and decided, first things first, I’d best check-in with the group.

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Behind the scenes (BTS)

I checked in. When everyone was there who was going to be there we were 15 strong. As is often the case, there were friends from previous projects: Cy and Natansky from numerous events; Louise and Nefretari from recent photo shoots; lots of familiar faces. The black-clad figure from the bridge came over to join us – it was Matt himself.

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Behind the scenes (BTS)

One couldn’t help but warm to Matt immediately. His laid-back approachable manner, his clarity and authoritative delivery on the work in hand, it all inspired confidence from the outset. He briefed us precisely on what we would do, when and how we would do it, and the shots he would capture. Not in a demanding way; simply helpful, thorough and professional. Exactly what a model needs.

The shoot

We would be photographed in a number of arrangements on the bridge and afterwards on the areas of grass in front of Tate Modern. Before, after and between arrangements we would be back in our clothes. For the first shot we were arranged in a line, side by side, fitting exactly the full width of the bridge. As tallest I faced forwards in the centre whilst on either side, wings of seven stood sideways in descending order of height.

In subsequent shots we spanned the bridge while laying down – very cold on metal – or stood in a V-formation, or we created parallel rows side by side running lengthways. It remained dark as we began, but in our concentration on the job in hand we perhaps failed to notice the emerging greyness of dawn.

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This image has been blurred on request as a courtesy to fellow models

There was a steady flow of passers-by on the bridge, mostly joggers and cyclists, but certainly never the throng of commuters that I imagined. And no sign of the authorities either, although presumably we were being observed by who-knows how many CCTV cameras. Most joggers just bid us a smiling ‘good morning’. We felt bad for the times we blocked their path when in position for a shot, but in total I reckon we heard only a couple of grumbling voices during nearly two hours of activity. At least one bemused observer tweeted:

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After several shots that involved all 15 volunteers, Matt called for just the five women among us to strike strong poses across the middle of the bridge. Later he called for the three men with the finest physiques – alas, I was never in the running – to pose astride spotlights in the ground. Six-packs and shadows; Matt knew his subject.

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This BTS image has been blurred on request as a courtesy to fellow models

By now the morning had fully broken, albeit wth diffuse light through a mantle of cloud. We never felt the sun on our skin. Passer-by numbers had increased, yet still they left us untroubled as we lay bare on the grass in three rows in front of the gallery. The chill of night remained on the damp earth at our backs; I succumbed to shivers.

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This BTS image has been blurred on request as a courtesy to fellow models

In a different part of the grounds we posed standing along a winding footpath. To finish, eight of us paired-up and posed as couples, standing or seated beside the path. I was joined in this piece by Louise, while Nefretari was seated on the opposite side.

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This BTS image has been blurred on request as a courtesy to fellow models

With that we were done. Several of the group would be heading off for a nice breakfast together, and it grieved me hugely to dash away for a day at work. Couldn’t be helped, though. It’s the day job that puts food on my own table.

I walked through the now-busy city streets to a station and train that would take me away. In the train’s toilet compartment I changed out of my light modelling gear into formal clothes. And so to work I went – butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth.

The product

It’s now a little over two weeks since the shoot. Matt has launched a new Kickstarter campaign to finance ‘Public Bodies’, the book in which his London photos will appear. His persuasive statement begins:

Public Bodies is an Art Nude Photography Book shot in public locations around the world. Why should the naked body be kept private?

I think there is something wrong with our censorship standards, putting nudity in the same category as violence, drugs and anti-social behaviour. So for this sequel to my first book, Private Bodies, we took the nudity to the streets.

After publishing Private Bodies, I was confronted by the way nudity is categorised. For example I was twice kicked off Facebook for sharing a non-erotic image that showed partial and blurred nipples. This was deemed as offensive, inappropriate and in breach of the Community Standards. At the same time I saw videos hosted on the site of graphic violence, brutal murders, drug abuse etc… and these were not removed.

I felt it was time to move the Private project into the Public.

The subjects of the book are a cross section of society – there were no conditions or requirements to participate other than being committed to the concept. Subjects include people totally comfortable with their bodies, up and coming models, and people who had never posed for a photo shoot – let alone nude.

The one thing they all share is the belief that nudity in art should not be considered private or offensive.

Which brings us back to the question: how far should we push it? There is no tidy answer. With each little push of this kind maybe we help erode society’s received conventional wisdom, that the human body is an object of horror and shame to be concealed, mocked or reviled. The human body is better than that. We all are.

Perhaps a day will come when nobody – no body – need be blurred.

Please help Matt in his work.

Support Public Bodies – Nude in Public (Art Nude Photography Book).

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From → Art

3 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on clothes free life and commented:
    Tackling the interesting question of public nudity. Particularly relevant in the wake of the latest Steven Gough arrest

  2. naughtymonique permalink

    Very far, depends on how much we dare

  3. Antandrian permalink

    I do not think that *passive* offence, that is, offence taken by merely observing someone else, who is minding their own business and not doing or saying anything to deliberately offend the observer, should be an issue that the law concerns itself with.

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