Charleston, be proud. After dozens of photo shoots of commanding trees dramatically draped with nude models, photographer Jack Gescheidt says his shoot earlier this month at the historic Angel Oak broke a record.
"I think that was the largest number of police to answer the call," Gescheidt says of the six officers on the scene. "Maybe there was a little curiosity."
The call came from an attendant at the public park who was concerned when the photographer, a documentary film crew, and more than 20 models started trying out poses around the centuries-old tree. When the models took their clothes off, the attendant acted.
Within minutes, the officers arrived on the scene. Gescheidt told the officers he was photographing naked people at the tree. The officers detained everyone for two hours as the details of the nude photo shoot were radioed up the chain of command. Ultimately, no charges were filed and Gescheidt got the shot he wanted.
"Am I aware I'm breaking a rule and might offend people? Yep," he says. "Is that my intention? Nope. My intention is to do something to call attention to the plight of the Angel Oak."
Since 2004, Gescheidt's TreeSpirit Project has been drawing attention to threatened trees and forests with his pictures. He came to the Angel Oak because of proposed development near the tree, a plan that has been heavily criticized by environmentalists because of the impact it could have on the ancient oak. "I firmly believe that if you develop around that tree, the experience will change," Gescheidt says.
The photographer argues that the tree's fate is indicative of what's going on across the country. "We keep encroaching lot by lot by lot until half of the forests in this country are gone," he says. "And we'll just keep going, apparently, unless we change our perspective."
The end result of Gescheidt's day in the Lowcountry, "Angels," wasn't just a careless snapshot of a bunch of naked people hugging a tree trunk. "I agonize over it," he says. "Hours and hours over months with different possibilities."
The day before the shoot, Gescheidt scouted the scene, getting a few shots for reference. "But I never know how many people are going to show up. I never know what the weather is going to be," he says. "I never know exactly how much time we're going to have. Are we going to have two minutes or are we going to have 10 minutes? That changes what I can do with people."
Gescheidt's first idea involved placing models in pairs on opposing sides of the tree, one on the other's shoulders, reaching up to the tree's branches. "But I really wanted to have 40 or 50 people," he says. "The tree is so big, if you have two or three people on either side, they barely even register."
Gescheidt went to the side of the tree, finding a perfect collection of wide branches lit by just the right amount of afternoon sun. "It would work better for a group of 20 people and the woman at the gift shop wouldn't see us," he says, but there was a problem. "I could make this cool photo, but people wouldn't know it's the Angel Oak."
So he went back to the front of the tree, collecting most of the models at the trunk. And that's when the clothes came off.
The morning after the shoot, Gescheidt spoke with a Johns Island woman who had heard about the controversy and told him she agreed the tree needed to be protected, but she didn't think the shoot was appropriate. For her, Gescheidt says, "The nudity is going too far. It's just too big a deal."
But for Gescheidt, the nakedness is an important part of the TreeSpirit Project. The photographer argues that clothes are a distraction. "Look at the photographs and tell me they would be as moving, as aesthetic, and as beautiful if the people had clothes on," he says. "When everybody is naked, it's unified. They're just bodies."
Of course, there are additional reasons Gescheidt uses nude models, ones that are spiritual in nature. "In that moment, they are really with the tree, and it shows with the photographs," he says.
Critics of the nudity can take comfort in the fact that they're not alone. Some say the work isn't provocative enough.
"My stuff is so chaste," Gescheidt says. "I have artists saying, 'Jack, where are your penises?' "
We probably don't have to point out that one snuck into the "Angels" shot. "I'm kind of editing myself because I know if I go that far, that I'll then marginalize myself and no one will touch it," Gescheidt says. "The point is to have the photo published. That is why the people are here doing this peaceful thing. It's a peaceful — a.k.a. nonviolent — artistic, political, environmental demonstration. It's all those things."
Gescheidt notes he was lucky to get the photo at all. "I had only 90 seconds to work with the participants once they were naked before police arrived," he says. "I especially like the people on the ground on the right side of the trunk, and the 'angels' walking into frame, drawn to the beguiling Angel Oak."