Q&A by Brad Balfour
I got a press release about this film, Stripped: Greg Friedler's Naked Las Vegas, that was being released as a DVD and as part of Showtime's rotating schedule. I figured, "What a weird thing to do to yourself." Here is a film shot by a doc filmmaker about a photographer as he photographs people willing to be photographed naked for a book.
So when visual artist Greg Friedler decided to mine the making of his latest book as material for a documentary, what happened in Las Vegas didn't just stay in Vegas. The feature-length documentary chronicling this photog creating his latest book in his Naked series premiered on Showtime in March.
The shootist got a chance to have others step into his world when he enjoined director David Palmer to fashion this film. A New York native, Palmer has worked in Hollywood for over a decade as a director, photographer and editor on docs, features, commercials, branded content and music videos for such talent as Nelly, Toni Braxton, Lil Wayne, The Dandy Warhols, The Charlatans UK, and Tripping Daisy. Palmer has completed two half-hour TV docs for Rip Curl, and making an indie mocumentary, Brothers Justicewith Dax Shepard and Tom Arnold.
But this isn't 39-year-old Friedler's first nudity project -- he made three previous books before this one, set in New York, London and Los Angeles. Most photographers are lucky if they have one book in their lifetime; he has these four and more. And he has had two films made about his work already: Naked London shown on the BBC in 1999, and now Stripped: Greg Friedler's Naked Las Vegas.
Still garnering attention; Stripped will be featured at the Las Vegas Film Festival on June 6th, 2010, with the Colorado-based photographer attending. Currently shooting three new art projects, Friedler's teaching his workshops, writing a book about human suffering and is to shoot his first narrative short this summer in Denver. And he is launching a new website, www.friedlerthinking.com, that will be live this week alongside www.gregfriedler.com. Still, he found time to sit down and denude the core of his art.
Q: What's the fascination with getting people to expose themselves, of becoming naked in public?
GF: Spencer Tunick is [the photographer] who does [the public thing].
Q: By "in public," I mean you’re seeing them clothed, then seeing them naked. It’s in a book and a movie going out to the world. So it’s "public" in that sense.
GF: This deals with documenting people in a non-sexual, non-erotic way. This is not about sex; it’s about showing the entire person as they exist in society.
The clothed and unclothed, what they do for a living, their age -- all ties into my fascination with documenting society. Showing how someone looks if they’re a banker. How do look in their clothing? Then, how do they look when they’re naked?
When they’re naked they’re on [an equal] playing field because there are no demarcations of what they do for a living, their wealth or their poverty or whatever. It’s just the raw person. I saw the opportunity in Vegas because of what I did in London and the BBC documentary in London. I just had a vision for it and we did Stripped: Greg Friedler’s Naked Las Vegas.
Q: When you made the film, did people react differently than when you made it strictly as a book? You’re asking people to be in a movie about it, so it has a different layer or level of exposure, so to speak.
GF: I took photos of 170 people in Vegas, which is a huge number because only 75 people make it into the book. I think only one out of those people didn’t want to be in the movie, only one. So they went for it and it was great.
Q: There’s got to be a slightly different permutation to making a movie versus making a book.
GF: Well it’s a different paradigm; it’s a different starting place. The book is, “Okay, I’m going to shoot you clothed in three shots, three shots nude, ask what you do for a living and your age, and then, 'nice meeting you,' ” and moving on to the next person.
The film is just a different set of assumptions. But only one person out of 170 did not want to be in the film, so it worked out.
Q: In New York, you can walk up to people on the street and say, “You want to be naked in a book?”
GF: That’s not my style exactly.
Q: You obviously were trying to get different walks of life, so how did you find people when you got to individual cities?
GF: I found people through websites; I placed ads on places like Craigslist. You find people however you can find them. I talked to the bartender at the Stratosphere, where I was staying, and he did it. You just talk to people and you feel them out and see if you think it would be something they’d be interested in.
When you show them a published book like Naked New York or something, all they can do is say yes or no, and I would say I’m 50/50 -- 50% of the time they say yes.
Q: How different were each of the cities?
GF: Well, New York was the original city, so I did it as my thesis for grad school at the School of Visual Arts. I shot in a friend’s dingy, tiny loft in Chelsea on West 27th Street between 10th and 11th before it became nice.
I shot that over a year. I placed an ad to begin with in the Village Voice, and 11 people responded. I met with them at the School of Visual Arts in a studio and talked to them, then somewhere within those two weeks, I decided I didn’t want to shoot them naked in the studio. I wanted to shoot them clothed and naked in a loft, and did that.
I shot it over a year and it was an amazing project. LA was next and that was quite different because LA’s got a very different feel to it, a different energy and culture. LA was good but not great.
London was amazing. Not exactly with LA, but New York and London are very, very old cities with deep roots. Vegas isn’t like that. It’s a very new city. It’s a very specific, transient culture in Vegas.
Q: What was a common thread with the people that were willing to be naked?
GF: Well you have your nudist contingent. You have the everyday Joe Blow lawyer accountant who’s got kind of a wild streak to them who wants to be in it. You’re got your sex workers, which were a very huge population of Vegas. You have people that are dealing with entertainment and gambling.
But I knew going in I wasn’t going to get celebrities, or get people that are “Playboy” models; and I wasn’t going to get people that are hanging out at the Palms casino. I wasn’t going to get that demographic because they have no reason for doing it. It doesn’t promote their career at all.
Some of the people I shot were high on meth. The meth problem in Vegas is worse than anywhere else in the country; it’s insane. There were four people I tried to track down. I went through friends, and they were like, “Yeah, they’re dead. They moved.” Meth is a huge problem in Vegas.
Q: How did it feel to be the subject as opposed to being the documentarian?
GF: I don’t really love it, but I put up with it. I cringe when I see myself on screen.
Q: This film project was directed by David Palmer. Did you ever consider directing it yourself?
GF: I was thinking about it. The whole thing was my idea; I came up with the notion of doing Naked Las Vegas and documenting it. In 1999, I went to London for eight weeks and they did a documentary about me shooting Naked London, which aired on the BBC.
Q: What was it about this particular director that made you feel he was the right guy to do it?
GF: He was very excited about it. He had the right kind of energy and ideas, so we hooked up.
Q: Did you fight the urge to micromanage?
GF: I didn’t want to micromanage.
Q: Were you shooting the movie while taking the pictures?
GF: During the entire month of August 2007, I was shooting pictures and he was shooting the movie.
Q: How different was it having David shoot the movie while you’re doing the pictures?
GF: Not very different. I tried to keep it real and just let him do what he wanted to do. He would have me go and open a door or do certain things so that he could edit it back into the film later on.
Q: The difference between the book and the movie is that people are sharing directly into the camera. You’re getting their feedback. There’s something communicated by the wordlessness of the book, but by having the words heard here, what effect did that have for you and the viewer? Does it change or enhance the experience? You're the subject of the film, but you’re not; you’re the generator of it but you’re also the subject. Being videotaped doing the process makes for two different subjects.
GF: Sure. The real subject matter…
Q: There's documenting you doing it; it’s a layer upon a layer. It’s different from documenting something that’s just happening. It’s one thing to go into the whorehouse and go in to videotape it.
GF: It’s a documentary of me on my journey and Naked in Las Vegas. It’s a documentary that has its ebbs and flows of what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling, what I’m wanting.
During some of the film I’m really down. I’m not in a good mood because Vegas is an exceptionally crazy place to go for 30 days; it’ll hurt your soul big time.
I ran into a lot of problems with not being able to find people to shoot, and what I ended up doing, which was very wise, is Vegas, like Denver and some other cities, has First Fridays.
Usually I would shoot over a weekend and shoot 15, 20 people a day, if that. On First Friday in August of 2007 we put up a banner and I shot 55 people in the back of a gallery in three hours.
Q: What were the similarities and differences between people from New York, LA, London, Vegas?
GF: One good one is there was a gap from London, which is 1999, to eight years later in Vegas. One big thing is lack of pubic hair. A big lack of pubic hair, almost no pubic hair.
Lee, the guy in the film who’s the homeless man -- I fell in love with him -- is just amazing, he doesn’t have any pubic hair. The guy doesn’t know where he’s going to sleep every night, and he’s shaving his pubic hair. That befuddled me.
That's why I am into being an artist, to ask, "Why is this woman wearing fake nails and why is she wearing this type of fake nails and what does that mean about her and what does that say about her humanity?"
Q: You are right. What amazes me is that even normal, ordinary people shaved in this thing.
GF: In the film, I talked about the lack of pubic hair and then -- Oscar Goodman’s the mayor of Vegas -- I say as a joke, “Yep, it’s almost like Oscar Goodman put out a mandate: 'No more pubic hair for females.' ” He’s in the film; it’s hilarious. I cannot believe he signed a release and went in the film, but it’s hilarious.
Q: But not naked...
GF: No. Are you kidding me? He’s with the book and says, “I’m going to have to look at this after 10 martinis."
Q: Do you think of the gap in terms of era? Or is it more about place?
GF: Something changed in society. I don’t think it has to do with London versus Vegas. And I wonder about these things. Where do they get the idea of shaving their pubic hair?
Q: You say there’s an obvious gap between New York, London and this book. New York was your first shoot.
GF: New York was in 1995.
Q: Would it be interesting to go back and do an addendum to New York and see if it was any different?
GF: It would be interesting to see if people look any different, if the people that came forth did anything different for a living.
Q: Or go back to the same people.
GF: Well that would be the only way to do it. I can’t do it because I don’t have contact with those people, but if I so choose, and I wouldn’t choose, but I would probably go back and do London if I could find those people. London was a very rich experience. It’s an amazing city; it’s a big city, and I got people from all walks of life. When I get my hands on Naked London, I’ll send it to you. You can watch that DVD.
Q: And how was LA versus New York?
GF: LA was very difficult. I succeeded, I did a good job, but it’s not as powerful a book.
Q: Who would have thought LA? Because they go to the beach and they’re virtually half naked.
GF: It’s hard to get in touch with people in LA. They’re so spread out and it’s a car culture. It’s very different. LA was not my favorite at all.
Q: I was in LA recently; I stayed in Venice part of the time.
GF: Venice is where I shot the LA book.
Q: I love Venice.
GF: I do too. I shot in a private outdoor courtyard.
Q: How did you find it?
GF: Through a friend who’s an artist who had a space next door. A guy that used to date Sandra Bullock who’s an artist found me the space; it was brilliant.
Q: Did you find a difference in the kind of jobs that people had in LA versus New York or any of the other places?
Q: What also interests me is the difference between the men and the women. Do you find that the women are more willing to be naked -- or the men?
GF: You know what? It’s even. There’s no way to really know it. People came forth, and they were very open, very loving, very nice, and they didn’t have a problem with it.
Q: Any differences in terms of age range?
GF: It’s always harder to get older people, always.
Q: I'd be hesitant just because I’m fatter than I used to be and it bothers me.
GF: Younger was not a problem. Middle-aged was not a problem. It’s just a little older and was a little bit harder. I got more people in New York and London that were older.
Q: You were saying that when you do a book like this, you’re also getting a sense of the character of the people.
GF: I do a book in a specific city because I’m interested in the culture; I’m interested in the people; I’m interested in the place. I get to know the people through the city and the city through the people. It’s all one.
It’s not about shooting naked people; it’s about educating yourself about what a place is about. What is the culture? What are the trends? What’s the energy?
And I did it in Vegas, and that’s why Tokyo would be exquisite. If I do another book, like in Tokyo, I’d want to do that a little bit more, but it will not be another Naked book. It will be a massive survey of Japanese culture which involves my photographs and the work of three writers. We’ll see what happens.
Q: That’s another reason why it was good documenting London or Vegas as a film… you’re learning about the people there. That isn’t easy to convey unless you have a camera there to share it.
GF: It’s conveyed in Stripped. It sheds light on a lot of things.
Q: The books offer one kind of aesthetic experience. Seeing images is one kind of experience. Seeing them in a film, it’s almost like an adventure story unfolding as opposed to just seeing the end result, a document.
GF: Of course; it’s a film versus a book, a film versus an art project. It’s seeing something on a printed page versus motion picture. It uncovers a lot more.
Q: Did you ever think about getting naked yourself and doing your own portrait?
GF: Not really in these books. I’m in a couple of books naked. There’s a book called Self Exposure where I do a self-portrait.
For now I’m over the naked thing and just moving on to other things. Things kind of ebb and flow as an artist, and you’ve just got to shoot what you want to shoot.
For more articles by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com