Photographer Daniel Ehrenworth reveals the impetus and process behind one of the more bizarre photo-art series we’ve seen in some time.
“Naked People Clinging For Their Lives” is just that: Photographs of fully nude men and women, clinging desperately for their lives—to the tops of buildings, to the sides of cars, to the big white blades of a wind turbine—as gravity works to undo their efforts. Toronto photographer Daniel Ehrenworth created the series of eight images this year, setting the near-disasters all around Toronto, from a white van screaming down the Don Valley Parkway to the west tower of 1011 Lansdowne. (You can see all eight of them in the gallery below.)
We caught up with Ehrenworth—who’s also shot several times for The Grid, including a few of our covers—to ask what, exactly, was wrong with him.
How does an idea like this even pop into your head?
It has actually been in my head for a few years now. And to be honest, I don’t know—but I have a few theories. A few years ago my old agent asked me if I had any ideas for new creative project. I never like to say “no,” so I said, “Of course I do!” She asked what they were and for no reason at all I said, “It’s this series I’m about to start working on called…ummm….Naked People…..ummm….uhhh…Clinging for their Lives! Yeah!”
I’m not being dramatic here. That’s exactly what happened.
Later on, the more I thought of that phrase, the harder I laughed. I thought the concept was just hilarious. It probably came from two particular interests: I have a lot of exhibitionistic friends who just so happen to look amazing naked, so those resources were on hand. And you know those scenes in disaster movies where people are running for their lives? You know, ones where the camera follows them from behind and cuts to close-ups of their faces turning around briefly to see the fast-approaching danger? It’s usually accompanied by dramatic music and someone in the background screaming “RUNN! DON’T LOOK BACK!!!! KEEP MOVING!!!!” Yeah. For some reason I find those scenes really funny.
With the series, it always feels a bit like spot news—like we’ve just missed something that happened just before the photo was taken that would explain how, say, someone’s come to be naked, holding onto the Exhibition Place wind turbine. Is coming up with a backstory part of the process of creating these?
I’m so glad you mentioned that, because that was definitely the goal. I was imagining this series almost like the opening of a zombie movie, where you see the beginnings of some kind of epidemic that eventually wreaks havoc. We didn’t imagine a backstory for each individual photograph, but we did imagine one for the whole series. We specifically only asked people who were really, really good-looking and had great bodies to pose for this series. Then we imagined that perhaps really, really good-looking people are privy to secret knowledge or information in the world that us normal-looking folk are not. Perhaps they all meet somewhere at night and have amazing orgies or know how to fly or have figured out how to surf black holes in space for fun. Something. But then there’s a glitch in the matrix, and one morning everyone wakes up to an epidemic of ridiculously hot naked people clinging on to something where, if there were to let go, there would be an 80 percent likelihood they’d be killed.
While us normal-looking people just gawk and point at them, as is happening in a few of the shots?
Well, it’s not supposed to be an us vs. them kind of thing. I would say the passersby are so flabbergasted by what they see that this is how they react. A great way to deal with something that makes absolutely no sense is to take a picture.
I’m guessing these are composites—with the models shot elsewhere ahead of time, then added to the shot after. How do you get a naked guy to look like he’s clinging for dear life on top of a 30-storey tower?
You guessed right. My assistant and I actually had a few conversations about the difference in body language between someone who is “holding on for their life” versus someone who is “clinging for their life.” They’re pretty similar but “clinging” has a lot more desperation in the body language.
And really it doesn’t take much. We had our models up on five-foot scaffolding and holding on to a bar where they were positioned roughly a foot off the ground—so there wasn’t any danger. But for the models who were going to be hanging off the sides of buildings, we asked them to act as though they were trying to pull themselves back up but couldn’t muster the strength. Lucky for us we had great performers. We also had them hold on for as long as they could and, for most, we used the shot of them right before they let go of the bar.
And these models were your friends, you said? How did you sell them on it?
Most of them are my friends; a couple are full-time models. A lot of my projects involve nudity and even some explicit sexuality on camera, too. And you would be amazed at the kind of things people will do for you if you just ask them politely and honestly. Seriously. That’s all it takes.
Is there something that makes a building especially well-suited to being clung to for dear life?
Nothing specific, really. We tried to avoid using cultural landmarks like the CN Tower or the TD building. Doing that would just be cheesy. We shot hundreds of background plates, but we ultimately picked images that had a kind of unremarkable quality to them. A building where the naked person would clearly be seen, but also a part of the building where it would amazingly difficult to find yourself suddenly holding on for dear life…especially in the buff.
Has this changed the way you look at Toronto?
It did while I was shooting the series. Everywhere I looked, I tried to imagine a naked person holding on to something for dear life. But not so much anymore. I absolutely love Toronto and, as fun as it may be, I would hate to imagine it being overrun by a naked people clinging for their lives epidemic. It might be fun at first but after a while we’d get tired of the cleanups and damage to public property. Wouldn’t you say?
Even if they were all really, really attractive?
Indeed. Because as attractive as they may be, that all ends after falling 30 storeys onto the hard cement. Even for the really, really, really attractive people like Ryan Seacrest and JWoww.
Limited-edition prints from “Naked People Clinging For Their Lives” are available in small (17″x22″), medium (24″x34″), and large (44″x64″) sizes by emailing Ehrenworth at email@example.com. Kudos to 1 Love T.O. for discovering the project first.