When indie-pop duo Matt & Kim disrobed in the middle of Times Square for their 2009 video “Lessons Learned,” the people in the background—clad in their winter garments—appear curious yet unphased. It’s New York, for Chrissakes, people do unconventional things all the time. Whether it’s homeless people shitting in alleyways, or rats hoarding pizza slices to their rodent domiciles, you’re susceptible to the madness of an island where chaos and eccentricity barely bleep on the cerebral radar. Nothing is normal, everyone’s weird and no one pays attention to anything. To thrive in NYC, as both resident and tourist, is to share your space with the rats and the outcasts, and, like in the case of Matt & Kim or the Naked Cowboy, the barely clothed.
For photographer Erica Simone, who walked naked among New York natives for six years shooting photos for her upcoming book, Nue York: Self-Portraits of a Bare Urban Citizen—published by Damiani and launching Jan. 14 at Castle Fitzjohns Gallery—the idea went deeper than shock value. After observing society’s obsession with image, status and class, she willfully challenged whether a world without clothing could empower or disempower the people. With the help of a fully-funded Pubslush campaign, questions of, “Could we overcome our self consciousness and become fully confident in our own skin? How would we assimilate or dissimilate? Could being naked in the world transcend sexual connotations and why is nudity so taboo that it’s against the law?” posed by Simone are tested in the book’s glossy collection of self-portraits.
With some proceeds from print and books sales donated through the gallery to Beauty for Freedom, a charity fighting human trafficking around the world, Simone is using photography and the human body to provoke the current state of affairs. In a recent interview, we spoke with the photographer about how she came up with the idea for Nue York, getting the perfect naked self-portrait on a NYC subway and the first time she met Susan Sarandon (also without clothes).
You’ve ping-ponged naked with Susan Sarandon. Explain this.
“She actually owns SPiN [a ping pong club in Brooklyn]. That’s her and her boyfriend’s club. They run it together and I’m friends with her boyfriend. So when I was shooting for the project I was like, ‘I want to get a ping-pong shot,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, come in. Maybe I can get Susan on board.” I thought that that would be awesome.”
So the first time you were introduced to Susan Sarandon, you were naked?
“Yeah, pretty much. Initially, I didn’t know if the shot I was going to be using was going to have her in it, or with Wally, who was also in the picture, but I just ended up using a photo with Wally because it felt more organic. Playing ping-pong with her didn’t make as much sense with the image.”
“He’s the pro ping-pong player who’s in the shot with me. He’s also, I think, a partner at SPiN.”
Did you decide to shoot at SPiN in order to promote the book?
“In the book, it’s all day-to-day scenes in New York. The idea is to capture myself doing mundane, daily things, like a ‘What would New-Yorkers do?’ kind of thing. I’ve had a bunch of ideas come and go where I do a basketball shot, or play pool. I was just trying to find New York spots. For the most part, too, it’s been like, ‘Who do I know who has a cool, visually interesting place I can use?’ So I just shot a bunch of those ideas.”
How did you get into photography?
“I grew up in Paris and moved to New York when I was almost 17. I went to FIT, but I went to FIT for marketing, and a couple years in, I realized I really didn’t want to do sales and business because I’m not that kind of girl. I was always into making things, and I was always artistic. I basically picked up a camera one day and fell in love.”
When was your first break with photography?
“The first year I started shooting, Mcgraw-Hill [an educational book company] contacted my mom, asking her if she had any stock images of Paris. She didn’t have any but referred them to me. She said, ‘My daughter is getting into photography and she might be interested in doing this project.’ So I was in Paris for the summer and they basically wanted me to shoot a bunch of stock images of Paris for their textbook. Now that I think about it, it was kind of a big job for a 17-year-old who had no idea what she was doing. But they trusted me and it worked out.”
And now you’re about to complete your first photography book. What compelled you to create it?
“The idea came to me when I was shooting at Fashion Week in 2007. I was shooting the show and shooting the people and I was amazed at how important fashion was. I remember looking at people and thinking, ‘There’s so much importance put onto fashion. What is fashion?’ I analyzed it and wondered what life would be like if we didn’t have fashion as a way of expressing ourselves. How would our interactions be if we didn’t have a way of communicating where we came from or our social status, or if we’re conservative or liberal; all of these things that fashion does for us in terms of expressing our personalities in society. I was just kind of imagining that.
And you know how they say, ‘When you get up in front of an audience, imagine them naked’? Well, I just kind of imagined everyone naked, going ‘What would life be like if we didn’t have clothes and were walking around naked all the time?’ It was that visual thought that stimulated the idea for the project. I thought it would be really cool to shoot people doing really mundane things. I juggled that idea in my head. I was gonna hire people to do it, then the idea popped in my mind that I should do it myself as a self-portrait project, for many reasons. One, it’s a bit more challenging and interesting from an artistic perspective. And two, it was actually easier because I didn’t have to hire anyone; I didn’t have to track people down to do this. I can actually just pick up my things and do it when I want, whenever I want, and not be constricted by everybody else’s time slots.”
If people walked around naked all the time, do you think there would be less judgment?
“That’s kind of what the project is about: raising these kinds of questions. I’m not trying to answer them, I’m poking at them because I think it’s interesting to think about. Would we be more judgemental, less judgemental? Would it be all about beauty? Would people just start to click because of the way they look physically? How would attraction work into the mix? There are so many elements of what happens when we remove that layer of expression.”
What were some of the reactions like when people saw you naked?
“Everywhere I’ve shot has been different. Some of the times, people didn’t even notice. I’m so quick and discreet about it for the most part. But when they do notice, they usually laugh or they’re mildly shocked, or they say ‘Only in New York.’ I got that a lot. I haven’t had any bad responses. I mean, I almost got chased down by a bunch of thugs that were playing basketball, but I ran away.”
What was the process like taking the shots?
“I got myself a tripod, and for the first year, I had a shutter release. I just had the camera in my hand and controlled shots that way. Then I bought a fancy piece of equipment that allowed me to release the shutter every second. So I just set everything up and then I’d go in.”
Did being naked in public come naturally to you?
“The first time I did it, which was about five years ago, was more funny and exhilarating. Obviously, we have our own issues with our body, or whatever, but I’m kind of detached from that—it’s just a body. I don’t have that super insecure thing about it.”
Like everyone else…
“Some people are really big and overweight and are complete nudists, and they love it. They love their body, as they should. They’re super comfortable in their own skin. Whereas, some people I know are gorgeous and have amazing bodies and they’re so insecure about themselves. There’s no consistency between being attractive and being insecure or not insecure. Being a photographer, I’ve noticed the most insecure people are the most attractive people. It’s really bizarre. That’s what all of these things bring up. I read a lot of comments that people write [about the book], and they’ll be like, ‘She wouldn’t do if she weren’t attractive.’ And for the most part, it’s women who have that outlook. It’s like, what does that have to do with anything?
Everyone has their opinion and their thing, and that’s cool. Maybe they don’t feel comfortable in their own skin, or maybe they feel comfortable but they’ve never ran around naked. I totally get that. That’s basically 99 percent of the population.”
Did you encounter any trouble from the police?
“No, I didn’t. I’m pretty quick. I don’t do this for the performance aspect of it; I’m not trying to piss people off or get into trouble, or try to make a crazy statement as I’m doing it. I’m really just trying to go in, get the best shot, and then get out. I’m very careful and cautious, and I’ll wait in places for 20 or 30 minutes before doing anything just to get the shot. I took the entire subway line to the Bronx from downtown and then back because the shot wasn’t right and it wasn’t coming together like I wanted it to. Then it finally did.”
How difficult was it to maneuver around all the people on the subway?
“I was really just waiting for the right composition to happen because people get on and get off. The process was pretty quick.”
What do you think people can take away from this book?
“A lot of the project touches on being free to be yourself; to steer away from the confinements of fashion in terms of what’s trendy and having to look like the latest celebrity. It’s about being cool with who you are. If you have a weird style, roll with your weird style. Be yourself and don’t be so concerned with what you think the media wants of us, or how skinny we think we should be. Be yourself, be free, and run around naked and do what the fuck you want.
That’s another thing that drives me crazy in all this. It’s like, I get that we don’t want a bunch of dudes hanging out naked in, like, a kiddie park, and for the most part, that’s what the laws are for. The anti-nudity laws are there for our own safety. They’re there to prevent weird stuff from happening. But when you think about it, we’re born naked. That is the most primitive state ever. How is it against the law to be nude? To me, that’s just completely crazy.”
Well, we tend to criminalize the human body more than we accept it.
“And that’s such a mind-boggling thing. If there’s one thing I want people to take away from this book, it’s to hopefully change the law [of criminalizing public nudity] because just from a moral point of view, it’s crazy. I get that we don’t want people running around naked, doing weird things, and for the most part, noone’s going to want to do that anyway. People don’t really want to be naked in the streets. But for it to be criminalized is just crazy.”
It’s funny. As I was researching your project, a few articles with pictures of you naked were censored.
“That’s what they [the media] does. Cosmopolitan Magazine tweeted a picture of a man who was really overweight and then lost a lot of weight. He had a lot of excess flesh, and it was a torso picture of him, basically, with man boobs. That flies. Cosmo posting a picture on social media, that flies because he’s a man—but he’s a man with breasts. So where do we draw the line? Is this a male/female thing where men are allowed to run around on social media with their nipples hanging out, and women can’t? This now becomes a sexist thing. Who are we protecting from censoring nipples? We’re not protecting men because clearly, men don’t not want to see nipples. Are we protecting women? I don’t think so, because women have breasts—they don’t give a shit if nipples are running around free on social media.
I also think it’s a puritanical thing. I think people just need to chill out. I mean, I don’t know where it comes from. Is it older people? Who are the people who are so upset with all of this? I don’t understand who’s so mad at a woman half-naked on social media. If it’s popping up all day on your feeds, and it bothers you because you’re insecure with your body, I get it. But it’s not happening all day long and it’s not going to happen all day long on social media because people simply aren’t going to be posting naked photos all day. And if you’re upset with them, stop following them. Take responsibility for yourself.”
What do you feel you’ve gained from this project?
“I’m way less shy. I’ve gone out like 50 times, at least, on the street naked. At this point, I don’t even flinch. But the human race is funny, and New York is a funny place, and to me, all of it is interesting. It’s a playground.”