Then, on cue from Harvey Drouillard--a 39-year-old photographer and the mastermind behind this stunt, who was looking down on the scene from the roof of an apartment building across the street--the four adults stepped out of their clothes. "The thing to remember is no one knows we're about to do this," the photographer had told his subjects an hour earlier, at Benham Gallery, where they had gathered to plan the shoot. "It's like a bank robbery. So don't do anything to show your hand--or your body. We don't want to blow the candidness of it." In the 10 seconds that his models stood there in the buff, Harvey--he doesn't use his last name professionally--snapped as many photos as he could. Then he gave the I-got-the-shot whistle. By the time the museumgoers and the crêpe eaters and the LaRouche supporters and the bicycle couriers and the tourists had registered what had happened, the four adults were crossing University Street, fully clothed again.
"I've done this like 400 times," Harvey said beforehand, deflecting all the worst-case scenarios I kept offering. "There's been a couple of things that have happened," he said, "but not much." (He didn't elaborate, but one condition of my being present at the shoot was that I had to help keep an eye out for cops.)
That the shoot outside Seattle Art Museum went so smoothly had nothing to do with luck. There were several run-throughs, serious venue considerations, a whole language of hand gestures (one signal for approaching cops, another for kids), and last-minute costume overhauls (one model went through four outfits before finding one she could get out of quickly enough). Given the random, unplanned look of Harvey's photographs, it's surprising to know the amount of work behind them. It's the candidness, as he kept telling his models, that makes the pieces work.
The four models were locals. The guy, Rob Clay, who could pass for a mid-40s Robert Redford, has known Harvey for 10 years, since appearing in several pictures Harvey took in 1995 in Seattle, some of which were published a year and a half ago in Harvey's book, The Spirit of Lady Godiva. (In one photo, Clay is walking naked, a cup of coffee in hand, outside Cafe Paradiso; this was back when long hair was still in and Cafe Paradiso still existed.) Harvey had never photographed any of the other models: S. S. Stansbury, a local actress, who said she met Harvey at a bar two nights earlier ("He caught me at a weak, drunken moment, and I'm true to my word," she said); Marita Holdaway, who owns Benham Gallery ("What a girl will do for art, I tell you"); and a third woman who just happened to walk into Benham Gallery as the three other models were rehearsing disrobing Thursday morning and agreed, on the spot, to join in. Harvey, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has been in town a few weeks, promoting The Spirit of Lady Godiva and, until last week, trying to find models for his Seattle Art Museum shoot. Several people who'd agreed to be there never showed, which didn't faze him: "I like shooting fewer people, actually. Makes for a better picture."
The photo taken outside Seattle Art Museum will be the centerpiece of a show of Harvey's work that goes up this week at Rosebud Restaurant and Bar. (One of the most crowded, if a bit staged, photographs in The Spirit of Lady Godiva takes place at Rosebud and features one of Rosebud's owners holding a strategically placed water pitcher; it also features naked drinkers holding an early issue of The Stranger.) The reception will commence with a naked woman riding down Pike Street on a horse (at least if all goes according to plan: Harvey still hasn't found a horse yet).
The great thing about Harvey's photographs--which he's taken in busy streets, buses, bars, restaurants, taxi cabs, and public plazas in every major city in America--is how oddly comfortable they are. The naked people, imposed into busy city settings, look completely comfortable, and the unsuspecting others, going about their business, look completely comfortable, too. The nudity appears at once both implausible (since no one else in the photo is naked) and natural-seeming (since no one else in the photo, in the second that the shutter snaps, has yet noticed the naked person in their presence). Somehow, the nakedness is both integral and completely de-emphasized. You can barely focus on the naked body. What's fascinating is what everyone else is doing.
"I'm trying to show people the humor of it, I'm trying to show them the ordinariness of it," said Harvey, and sure enough, all the tension I expected to see down in front of Seattle Art Museum was nowhere to be found. No one did anything, I said to Harvey after he got the shot, and Harvey said, "I know! No one even responds! That's what always happens!"
Not that no one was bothered by the photo shoot. Jared McCaskill, one of the LaRouche supporters standing within the frame of the shot, told me that what he had witnessed was "gross," "nasty," "totally immoral," "illegal," and "disgusting." He denied the artistic value of what he had seen ("It's not art, it's just to break rules") and likened it to "fascism" and "the degradation of our culture" and the decline of the Roman Empire.
Nevertheless, in the final photo, McCaskill will look as blasé and indifferent as the next guy. Along with Harvey's four naked models, McCaskill will be one in a sea of mostly bored faces--the LaRouche in 2004 people, people avoiding the LaRouche in 2004 people, tourists scowling at their maps, ladies in line for Van Gogh, and business people, in full business dress, munching crêpes.
The reception and unveiling of Harvey's Seattle Art Museum photo begins at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday, July 11, at Rosebud Restaurant and Bar, 719 East Pike Street, 323-6636. If you know anyone who has a horse, call them--they're desperate.