Column: Naked Comfort

Behind the scenes of a Harvey Drouillard photo shoot
Harvey and Pavlina

Standing outside Starbucks at the corner of East Liberty and South State, Harvey Drouillard and Pavlina Salzeider strategize about their photo shoot. (Photo by the writer.)

This is a story about feeling uncomfortable.

Nudity tends to do that – make people, especially Americans, feel uncomfortable – and public nudity even more so. Not for everybody, though. Not for Harvey Drouillard.

Harvey has achieved a certain notoriety for taking black-and-white photos of nude men and women in public settings – walking down the street, standing in front of movie theaters, mingling with crowds. He uses the photos to make postcards and greeting cards and calendars, and has published a book as well, titled “The Spirit of Lady Godiva.” The shots are taken in Seattle, Chicago and other cities, but mainly in Ann Arbor.

I’d heard of Harvey, of course, but when he called The Chronicle to see if we wanted to tag along while he did his thing at this year’s art fairs, my first thought, frankly, was “Ick.” But I learned long ago that some of the most memorable, transformative experiences are ones that start out in an uncomfortable place, so on Thursday evening I headed over to Harvey’s staging ground – Antelope Antiques on East Liberty.

Karl Lagler, owner of Antelope Antiques on East Liberty, holds a photo taken by Harvey outside the store when it was located on Fourth Avenue.

Karl Lagler, owner of Antelope Antiques on East Liberty, holds a photo taken by Harvey outside the store when it was located on Fourth Avenue. (Photo by the writer.)

Antelope reminds me of the basement of my childhood home, crammed with artifacts: An antique plumb bob, movie posters from the ’50s, bracelets made from old typewriter keys, the smell of well-read books. And on the wall behind the counter, a photo of a naked couple, standing outside Antelope’s former store on Fourth Avenue. In the photo, they’re unseen – or being ignored – by a pair of older women, who are walking past and looking the other way.

Karl Lagler, who owns the store with his wife Amy, is a friend of Harvey’s and has known him for years. When Harvey arrives a few minutes later, it’s clear that he’s at home in the shop. In fact, on this evening it seems like nearly half of the people who stop by know each other – it’s that kind of place. Comfortable.

Harvey introduces himself to me. He’s a gregarious, personable guy, very talkative. It occurs to me that I expected him to be creepy. He’s not. Self promotional? Well, that’s something else entirely.

Pavlina arrives with her children

Pavlina Salzeider arrives at Antelope Antiques with her children, Ivana and Frank. (Photo by the writer.)

The Early Days

By way of introduction, Harvey tells me a bit about the genesis of his photography, starting out by saying, “It’s just nudity – it’s no big deal.” The year was 1994, on the day of Hash Bash, and Harvey was living in a loft apartment on Washington Street, “in the building that the Dalai Lama bought,” Harvey explains, a building which now houses the Blue Tractor restaurant. On that particular day, Harvey was hosting a nude photography workshop in that loft – learning, not teaching.

During the workshop, at one point he looked out the window and saw a large group of hippies waiting to cross the street. For whatever reason, he thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if people at the end of the group were nude, just walking along?” And the corollary: Wouldn’t it be cool to take a photo of that?

He was using a borrowed camera for the workshop, shooting with 35mm black-and-white film. He had seven frames left on the roll, and decided to use those frames to act on his concept of shooting nudes in public. His first “model” was small – under 5 feet, he guesses – and simply wore a large men’s shirt, easy to shuck, easy to shoot.

Later, he took photos in front of Ann Arbor landmarks – Michigan Book & Supply, Harry’s Army Surplus (which closed in 2005), and the State and Michigan theaters. He made 4 8×10 prints and took them to Middle Earth, where he showed owner Cynthia Shevel. According to Harvey, she ordered greeting cards on the spot, 100 of each.

Since then, he’s taken almost 700 photographs. He’s made greeting cards, postcards, calendars and his book – but he hasn’t been able to make a living on that alone. To do that, he trained as a butcher and now works at Plum Market. They provide health insurance, he notes, which has become more important now that he’s in his 40s.

Part #1: The Prep

About this time in our conversation, Pavlina Salzeider – Harvey’s model for this shoot – arrives with her two toddlers and an au pair. She’s from Czechoslovakia, speaks fluent English and owns a salon in Farmington Hills. She’s beautiful. Friendly and relaxed, but serious too. Again, it occurs to me that Pavlina is nothing like I’d imagined – though I’m not entirely sure what kind of person I thought might be willing to go out in public and shed their clothes. She tells me that Harvey’s a friend of her salon manager, and that she lost a bet – that’s why she’s here, she says. She’s also seen Harvey’s book, and respects his work. Yes, she’s nervous. There’s also a sense that this is quite an adventure – and it is.

Harvey Drouillard looks on as Pavlina Salzeider signs a waiver allowing him to use his photos of her for commercial purposes.

Harvey Drouillard looks on as Pavlina Salzeider signs a waiver allowing him to use his photos of her for commercial purposes. (Photo by the writer.)

The next half hour or so is all business. Harvey first asks Pavlina to sign a waiver, giving him permission to use his photos of her for commercial purposes. She has brought a dress that’s easy to get out of, but she needs to practice, he says. There’s a technique to this.

She goes into the women’s bathroom and changes into the dress. When she emerges, they go to a back room in the shop, which is more the size of a small closet. There’s no door.

This is where Harvey’s helper – a retired physicist who asked that I don’t identify him by name – plays a role. He stands guard by the room, making sure customers can’t get through to gawk. He doesn’t look like security – he’s wearing a gray T-shirt with UM’s Saturday Morning Physics logo on it, white socks and sandals. On shoots like these he carries Harvey’s equipment, acts as lookout, and films the crowd reaction during the actual photo shoot. A tall, quiet man, he wears glasses and looks professorial and doesn’t seem like someone who has been on dozens of excursions of this type. But he has.

Harvey gives Pavlina a mini-tutorial on the process of disrobing quickly in public. “Ok, what you’re going to do is completely drop and take one step to be completely clear of the dress,” he says. Stand on top of your sandals until you’re ready to disrobe. Drop the dress so that it makes a donut on the ground – that way you can step into the center and quickly lift it up. Don’t bend over. “Do I keep my watch on?” Pavlina asks. “No!” Harvey says. “No watches – that looks tacky.”

Pavlina unties her halter dress in a trial run that Harvey times with a stopwatch.

Pavlina Salzeider unties her halter dress in a trial run that Harvey Drouillard times with a stopwatch. (Photo by the writer.)

They do a trial run. “Ready? Go!” Harvey says, clicking a stopwatch. She shimmies out of her dress, then immediately puts it back on. “That was only 11.38 seconds!” Harvey says. Good, but not quite fast enough. He asks her to try a different technique – leaving the ties of her halter dress undone, so she can simply pull it down. This drops the time to 9.5 seconds. A third attempt comes in a 8.71 seconds – close to the record of 8.2 seconds, Harvey says. Yes, apparently there’s a record.

Harvey teaches her the hand signs they’ll use once they’re outside. Putting your hand on your head means you spot the police. Making a slashing motion with your hand on your thigh means that kids are in the area. Putting your arm across your chest with your hand in a fist is the “all clear” sign. Harvey holds up his index finger to signal “Ready” – thumbs up means “Go!”

He also talks to her about her own state of mind. “Just think ultra smooth,” he says. “Try to keep it cool, take a deep breath, and try to have fun”

“People will see you and they’ll be dumbfounded,” he adds. “As soon as those clothes come off, you’re going to be so powerful.”

Pavlina and Harvey walking east on Liberty, toward State.

Pavlina and Harvey walking east on Liberty, toward State. (Photo by the writer.)

Part #2: The Shoot

So now it’s time to go. Pavlina’s au pair is staying behind at the store with one-year-old Ivana and four-year-old Frank. Pavlina asks Harvey if she should put on lipstick. No, he says, you look great.

The four of us, including The Physicist, head out into the art fair crowds, walking quickly down East Liberty toward South State. We’re going to the information booth at the corner of Liberty and State – Harvey wants to shoot Pavlina interacting with the booth volunteers. He gives her a task: Walk up, ask a question, walk away. “What should I say?” she asks. I’m thinking, “Does it really matter?”

We get to the intersection, and of course it’s packed. People are ambling along, some pushing strollers, many looking at maps. There’s a woman in a baseball cap and “Jesus the Rock of Israel” T-shirt passing out flyers. The street corner smells like grilled sausage.

Behind the counter of the information booth are several women of varying ages, most of them wearing sunglasses and red T-shirts with an art fair logo. They have no idea what’s coming – why would they? It’s an odd sensation, knowing that something dramatic is about to happen, giving people a pretty good story to tell, at least.

Harvey tells Pavlina to watch him – he’s going to do a run-through so she can see what he wants her to do. He walks up next to the booth and stands, then pantomimes taking off a dress. Nobody seems to notice this somewhat bizarre motion. He then walks casually over to the information booth, talks briefly with one of the volunteers, turns and walks back to his original spot. I don’t have a stopwatch, but I’m sure it takes a lot longer than 8.71 seconds. The Physicist had told me earlier, “If it goes right, it goes very quickly.” No one has mentioned what it might mean to “go wrong.”

Pavlina and Harvey confer about their photo shoot.

Pavlina and Harvey confer about their photo shoot. (Photo by the writer.)

Harvey comes back over and asks Pavlina if she has any questions. She doesn’t. They both go back to the information booth, and she gets into position. Harvey decides that rather than dropping her dress to the ground, it would be faster if she draped it over a cardboard trash can that he has moved a few feet closer to the booth. She agrees.

There are two things that concern Harvey: 1) avoiding the police so as not to be arrested for indecent exposure, and 2) doing the shoot when there aren’t any kids around. This second requirement seems impossible – the crowds flow through like waves, with kids on every crest. Kids eating ice cream cones, kids riding on their parents’ shoulders, kids running, kids screaming. Harvey is making lots of slashing motions against his thigh.

The Physicist has pulled out a video cam to record the crowd reaction. Harvey keeps scanning the intersection, looking for the right moment. Pavlina is standing next to the booth, on her sandals, looking a little bored.

Pavlina waits for a sign.

Pavlina waits for kids to leave the intersection. (Photo by the writer.)

And then, something shifts. It’s hard to describe – like the feeling you have as a performer just before the curtain goes up. Pavlina looks over and nods. The Physicist nods. Harvey flexes his wrists, then puts up his index finger: Ready.

Thumbs up: Go.

In one fluid motion, Pavlina slips off her dress. She moves quickly, but doesn’t hurry. She is buck naked – and weirdly, no one seems to notice, or pay attention. I feel like shouting, “Hey, you nimrods – there’s a naked woman RIGHT HERE!”

She walks over to the information booth. I can’t hear what she says, but she has a brief conversation with one of the volunteers. Everyone else – the other volunteers, the people in line at the booth, the fair goers walking past – keep doing what they’d been doing. It’s truly surreal.

Harvey is snapping photos the entire time. After a few seconds, he yells “Got it!” At that, Pavlina turns and walks back over to her dress, pulls it up – then darts off down the sidewalk, with Harvey right behind her. They duck into Urban Outfitters.

It’s over.

Pavlina with her one-year-old daugher, Ivana.

Pavlina with her one-year-old daughter, Ivana, after the first photo shoot. (Photo by the writer.)

Part 3: The Aftermath

The main thing I’m curious about is this: What did Pavlina say to the information booth volunteer?

So I go over to the volunteers, who are now clustered together, laughing. I’m not sure you could find a more good-natured group of women. I tell them about Harvey – most had never heard of him, though one woman recalled his failed attempt to do a group shoot last year in the same location, an attempt derailed when the Ann Arbor News ran an article about his plan, and the police showed up in force.

The volunteers tell me that when Pavlina walked up, they at first thought she was wearing one of those fake-naked body suits. Until they realized she wasn’t. Here’s what she asked: “Where can I find an ice cream store?” The volunteer she approached, who asked that I not use her name, said, “Oh my god – what can I say? You’re pretty brave.” Here’s what the volunteer told me she wishes she’d said: “Would you like to work at the booth?” or “Can I sell you a T-shirt?”

By this point, Pavlina, Harvey and The Physicist have gone back to Antelope Antiques, so I head back there as well. Everyone’s pretty jazzed about the shoot. So jazzed, in fact, that Harvey asks whether Pavlina is up for another go, this time at Main and Liberty. Why not?

This next shoot has many of the same elements as the first one, except that now we’re accompanied by Pavlina’s two children and her au pair. Frank, the four year old, is a sweet little pistol, who screams “PLANE!” every time he sees one flying overhead. There’s some discussion about whether this time Pavlina should carry Ivana as part of the shoot, but Vava, as she’s called, is getting a little tired and fussy, so they drop that idea.

This family was performing on a corner of the intersection at Main and Liberty, where the second photo shoot occurred.

This group was performing on a corner of the intersection at Main and Liberty, where the second photo shoot occurred. (Photo by the writer.)

There’s another complication: Just after we arrive, a singing group with several children sets up on the northeast corner of the intersection, and starts performing. This seriously violates the “No kids” rule, so Harvey hopes a large enough crowd will gather to listen to them, blocking their view of Pavlina. Secondarily, he hopes for a short set.

Neither happens, so Harvey scraps his plan to have Pavlina walk into the middle of the intersection and talk to whomever happens to be there. Instead, he asks her to simply walk from one side of the street to the other, and back. She would start at the southwest corner of Main and Liberty, walking across Main. Like before, the place is packed.

This time, there was no “moment.” Vava wasn’t the only one getting tired. Dusk was falling – it was almost 9 p.m. by now – and Harvey was losing light. He gave the sign, and off she went.

Again, it was surreal how a naked woman could walk across the street and back, in the middle of a crowd, and attract so little attention. Though in this case, a few men – including one very agile guy in a wheelchair – proved to be quick on the draw with their camera phones.

Pavlina walked to the beat of the street singers, with casual confidence, but she wasted no time – her back and forth took less than 15 seconds, I’m guessing. Her two kids could not have cared less.

Final Thoughts

I haven’t included any photos of Pavlina during her state of undress. I didn’t take any. It was remarkable to me, in fact, how her nudity – while pivotal to the whole exercise, obviously – was in some ways incidental, and certainly asexual. It wasn’t her body so much as her lack of clothes that was noticeable, especially amid a swarm of people in all manner of attire. In some ways, her nakedness made the rest of us seem bizarre.

She pulled it off because she seems so comfortable in her own skin. Not an exhibitionist, by any means, but almost nonchalant about it. That trait comes through in most of Harvey’s photos, actually – people doing the mundane, walking down the street, just standing around. And oh, yeah – they’re naked.

Despite our sexually charged culture, we’re a prudish bunch, we Americans. And Harvey’s work won’t change that. But it does have the power to make us confront what makes us uncomfortable, and to perhaps see the world in a slightly different way.

And I’m comfortable with that.

Promotional poster for the film Ten Thousand Bedrooms, starring Dean Martin.

This promotional poster for the 1957 film "Ten Thousand Bedrooms" is on sale at Antelope Antiques and is more sexually provocative than Harvey's photo shoots. Question: Why does Dino appear to be wearing lipstick? (Photo by the writer.)


  1. By shannon riffe
    July 19, 2009 at 3:55 pm | permalink

    what a great article! you did a great job of building the tension for the initial “reveal.”

  2. July 19, 2009 at 11:34 pm | permalink

    Great article… I feel like I was there. :) Great descriptions.

  3. By Mark
    July 20, 2009 at 4:38 pm | permalink

    well done! It astounds me that so many people are concerned about nudity in our country. yet, it’s ok to show violence. One of the weird things about the US.

  4. By susan wineberg
    July 20, 2009 at 5:13 pm | permalink

    I saw him do one by the Federal Building as I was sitting on the wall at the corner. But I think it was another woman. It was amazing how fast it all happened. Not too many people seemed to notice either!

  5. By Tom
    July 20, 2009 at 7:57 pm | permalink

    Nice job on the article. Pretty sure that’s the only “Harvey” article anyone will ever need to read

  6. By Art
    July 22, 2009 at 1:16 am | permalink

    Unlike tom who obviously only needs to take a peep at things, I love every “Harvey” article I have ever read! Looking forward to more of this caliber in the future, great job!

  7. By Bear
    August 8, 2009 at 1:50 am | permalink

    harvey’s awesome! I have one of his photo’s featuring Shakey Jake and a nude blonde at the old location of the Bird of Paradise. It’s a treasure!