A group of photography subjects brave bugs and breezes to celebrate nature in the buff
California: “OK, shoes off, watches off, jewelry off,” Jack Gescheidt calls out to a few dozen people milling around in a cluster of coast live oaks in a forest near Santa Cruz. “And watch out for poison oak!”
Squint and you can almost imagine you’re at one of the outdoor wedding ceremonies Gescheidt, 56, has photographed. He’s midway up a stepladder, his camera mounted on a tall tripod, speaking through a cardboard megaphone. “Closer together, everyone. You two, are you a couple? Be like a couple—don’t stand so far apart.”
This, however, is no wedding. There are no tuxes, gowns, or, well, any clothes at all on the people who have gathered for the latest TreeSpirit photo shoot, an ongoing art project that Gescheidt has pursued for the past 13 years. He has produced more than 100 shoots so far, aiming to raise environmental awareness via images of nude subjects “communing with trees”—draped over limbs, say, or lying across their roots.
“Place yourself randomly,” he instructs today’s participants. “And find a tree to hug!” The forest grows quiet but for the whine of an overjoyed mosquito.
Despite the discomfort involved, Gescheidt’s volunteers seem delighted to be here. “His work is amazing,” says one. “I just wanted to be a part of what he’s doing.”
One agile fellow climbs to a perch in the crook of a burnt-red madrone. “We’re going to try something a little different now,” Gescheidt announces. “I want you to flap your arms like butterflies.” He sets the camera for 3.5-second exposures, looking for a blurred effect. “Good! Keep flapping.”
Gescheidt’s images are moving, beautiful, tender, but not everyone appreciates the work. “I’ve been detained, ticketed, fined, and lectured,” he says, grinning. Today his subjects can relax, as they’re at a Santa Cruz Mountains naturist resort. Even the artist has stripped down for this one—after all, he says, “Being clothed at a naturist resort wouldn’t be appropriate.”