International Photographer Scott McGale braved a coolish early morning in Sydney last week to cover “The Base” an installation by Spencer Tunick. Below is Scotts account of the morning, sit back and enjoy!
It was 4.45am and I was just parking the bike near the Harbour Bridge, a good walk away from the event site, knowing that I would be able to get away easily after the gig was over. As I made my way to the Opera House, I was thinking, what the hell am I doing here? I’m still half asleep, its just about to start pouring with rain, and I am going to take pictures of a few naked people lying around the steps of the Opera House! I need coffee – fast!
The event I was covering was called “The Base”. The 2010 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, had invited photographer, Spencer Tunick, over from the USA to do his thing. Spencer has developed a solid reputation for roaming the Globe and asking as many people as possible to take off their clothes so he can photograph them, in good taste, for art’s sake.
I first encountered Spencer in London in 2004 I think, doing the same thing over there. A friend of mine was involved in the organisation of the event, and I ended up covering it for The Observer Magazine. I have to say it was one of the most interesting events I have ever been to. Spencer creates amazing body-scapes in an urban setting that are just incredible. Hundreds, or thousands of bodies filling the horizon makes for fabulous images. So when I got the chance to be involved with the event here in Sydney, I put my hand up straight away because I knew that there were some amazing images to be had.
After securing a rather large coffee, I made my way to the Media entrance to the event. It was still dark, cold, and it felt like rain was just minutes away. The Media were corralled into a very small, confined front, facing the left hand side steps of the Opera House. I was there at 5.00am, but it was obvious that others had beaten me to the prime spots already. I spent the next few minutes elbowing my way into a very nice spot on the railing at the front of the section, pretending to be very friendly to the other journos and photographers who had been up from the wee small hours before me. All in all, there must have been about a dozen of us there at that time in the morning.
It was plainly obvious to me that if I was to move even one step backwards, I was going to lose my position at the front, so I resigned myself to having to stay put exactly where I was until the event started in a couple of hours. Bugger! That’s about the time you start developing long and detailed conversations with the complete stranger next to you at the railing, who is also determined not to give up an inch of their position until the bitter end. One thing that was clear to all of us, was that we could only see about 1000-1500 people that had turned up to take their clothes off on such a cold miserable morning. And they were all right over at the other end of the steps from us! The media was only allowed at the left hand side of the Opera House steps, and we were trying to work out just how we were going to get a good picture from this side, when all the nudies were going to be on the other side of the steps. Typical!
After waiting ‘til well after the light started to rise from the depths of the shadows, did we hear that the event was going to get underway. Drew, the PR man, who was regularly scooting up and down the media line saying just how fabulous it was going to be, announced that there was a record attendance of five thousand, two hundred people and they were just about to disrobe! As it turns out, there were that many people, and they had been hiding either in the Opera House itself, or around the corner at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. Needless to say, this news raised our spirits and we all took up our positions with renewed fervor. A cheer went up from the crowd, and naked body after naked body started flowing onto the steps of the Opera House until all but a very small corner, just out of shot, was completely covered. It was still freezing at that time in the morning. Nothing like the early winter’s morning in London, I might add, but cold enough to give a man a reason to wish it was a lot warmer! And everybody was hopping up and down on the spot to get a little warmth into their extremities. A few minutes later Spencer Tunick was introduced to the crowd and the arrangement began.
Using a loudspeaker, Spencer very carefully positioned the nudies so they were evenly spaced across the steps. He also reiterated that everybody had to be completely naked, and that no undies, hats or jewelry could be left on, but he did encourage people not to take out any piercings they may have.
The Opera House was an exceptional venue for this type of event as the steps naturally tiered the bodies to full advantage and created a wall of nakedness of epic proportions. That coupled with the iconic shell shaped roof, made for some amazing compositions that were wholly Australian. The other factor that was in our favour on the day was the light. As it was severely overcast, the light was incredibly soft and even. Initially it was very difficult to get a good exposure below ISO 2000 without a tripod, but as the sun rose through the clouds and the event took shape, I was able to drop the ISO to about 400 to get some truly awesome images of a great event. The feel of the images would have been vastly different if the sun was shining directly onto the bodies instead of being diffused through the soft clouds.
During the picture taking, Spencer directed the crowds into a variety of positions. All this while, the more mainstream television stations were broadcasting the weather, on the half hour, using the event as a backdrop for their broadcasts. It was during one of these weather broadcasts, that there was a huge cheer from our end of the crowd on the steps. After a minute of cheering, Grant Denyer, the weather anchor from Channel 7, leapt over the media railing completely naked and ran over to the nudies, turned to camera, covered his privates with one hand and held his microphone in the other and presented the weather to the cheers and heckles of the crowd surrounding him. He just got it done when security “talked” him into returning to the media railing and to put his clothes back on. In a defiant stance against the event security, before remounting the railing, he turned back to the crowd and proceeded to shake his bits for all to see, and to the great amusement and approval of the crowd. Not too long after that, the event came to a close, and participants either retreated back into the Opera House, or made a dash for their clothes and a chance to get warm again.
It wasn’t until I had was back home in my studio did I get a chance to realize the magnitude of the event that had unfolded before my eyes. Never before had I had an opportunity to witness that many naked bodies, in that sort of composition, with that quality of light before. And I doubt if I will ever get the chance to do that again. Somehow I feel that we, behind the media railing, had an even better position than Spencer himself, who was shooting from a raised platform high above the bodies. Our low lying position, and the elevation of the steps gave us an unparalleled view of a wall of bodies. One, which I will never forget.