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naked in cleveland

A bunch of naked Mexicans. 18,000 to be exact. What could be better?

Spencer Tunick, the photographer known for his mass nudes, broke a record this past Sunday by photographing 18,000 people in Mexico City .

Before he was in Mexico City, he was in Cleveland. Some of you may remember his stint here in town a few years ago. I know I haven’t forgotten. In late June of 2004, nearly 3,000 people gathered beginning at 4 a.m. on Pier 9 down by Lake Erie to bare their souls -and their asses- in the name of art.

When my alarm went off at 2:30 that morning, I almost backed out. I was tired. It was cold. And I was supposed to be naked shortly for the entire world (or at least a good part of Cleveland ) to see. I rolled out of bed, grumbling, and got in the shower. I wondered as I was drying my hair what the protocol was for make up when you are to be naked in public. Just to be safe, I brushed some mascara over my lashes and swiped on some lip gloss. You never know, right?

I jumped in the car and headed north, the highways still empty at that early hour. Shivering from the cold as I got out of the car in the parking garage, I wondered if it was really June. It was really cold. At around 50 some degrees, this was not the weather you were hoping for if your intention was to disrobe. (Although, as things progressed, it dawned on me that cold weather is really good for naked women. Really bad for naked men. The females were shivery and perky. The men ...uh… were a little more introverted.)

Just as dawn broke, Mr. Tunick (who doesn’t use flashes or artificial lighting) called to the crowd to gather for the first shot. The clothes came off. The people scurried. It was surreal. I fought the urge to not stare, but quickly gave up as it was impossible to have your eyes open and not see a nude body. So many bodies, too. Maybe I thought somewhere in the recesses of my brain that everyone would look like something out of a Playboy magazine or a strip club. Not even close. There were all types of bodies – old, young, fat, thin. There were pregnant women, men with scars running down the length of their chests. There were cancer survivors missing one or more breasts. There were bruises and bumps. There were perfect men and women that could be in the pages of magazines. We had it all. Instead of being repulsed or turned on, the overriding emotion I felt was humbled. There was so much beauty in even the traditionally ugly right at that moment that it was overwhelming. I was lost in the fantastic bizarreness of it all when I heard the very thing that you don’t want to hear in a sea of nakedness … “Hey Kelly! How are you doing?!”

Oh. My. God. Someone I knew was calling out to me. I turned to look at the barer of good cheer (pun absolutely intended) and saw an old friend walking along beside me. We exchanged pleasantries for a few moments. I was awkward. He was not. And the reason? I had already seen him naked. Photographed him that way, in fact. Yes, the subject of the very first nude shoot I did was standing next to me in some kind of divine back-at-cha retribution.

There were some amazing shots taken, though. I was awed at the unveiling (again with the puns) of the piece months later at MOCA Cleveland. I have a print of the main piece and saved newspaper articles recounting the event so that when I am eighty, I can sit in my rocking chair and remember that I did something Cool.


But my favorite part of the day came early on when the bare-assed participants greeted and waved at a garbage truck sitting at a traffic light near the Rock Hall. I wonder what he thought as he honked at the thousands of naked people so early in the morning. It’s just not something you see every day on the Shoreway. Or at least, I don’t think you do.