At photographer Harvey Douillard’s very first exhibition, a curious Japanese visitor – obviously a fellow photographer, as he was draped in cameras – carefully examined every one of the 55 black and white pieces on display. “This is really, really good,” he said. “How did you make it look like there’s really nude people there?”
Replied Drouillard: “I put nude people there.”
His work is not photoshopped or otherwise manipulated. Drouillard, a Michigan native who relocated to St. Petersburg in 2018, is a veteran of the art of guerilla photography. He scouts out local landmarks, then returns with one, two, three – his record is 19 people – who drop their clothes at a prearranged signal and stroll into the scene.
Drouillard’s volunteers are pretrained to disrobe in 10 seconds, get the shot done and get their clothes back on. The entire guerilla process takes maybe half a minute.
His catalog of casually naked men and women includes pictures made at more than 100 outdoor St. Pete locations, including the new pier, its “inverted pyramid” predecessor (shot during a visit in 2014), the Dali Museum, 400 Beach, Cerviche, Sunken Gardens, the Museum of Fine Arts, Fresco, the Palladium Theater, Kraft Café, Tryst and more.
Many of them are fearless full frontals.
Drouillard says it all happens so fast, the customers and passers-by often don’t even notice.
“I’ve never robbed a bank,” he smiles, “but I tell everyone who’s doing it for the first time that I imagine it’s like that. First of all, we’re the only ones that know what we know. What is about to happen. And we don’t have to do it until the time’s right.”
He’s never run afoul of the law in St. Petersburg. “I don’t shoot in front of kids, number one rule,” Drouillard says. “I try not to shoot in front of cops. If they’re around, I will distract them. I don’t care if they’re there, as long as they’re not looking at us.”
He and his subjects get the job done accompanied by a small security staff, who communicate with photographer and models via hand signals (looking out for approaching children, or police, or giving the “all clear”).
Several shots in his Michigan collection feature police cars – with nudes in the foreground.
Nude photography is, of course, an art form as old as the medium itself. Drouillard has added not only a daring, kamikaze touch, but a genuine element of humor.
“My motto is very simple,” he explains. “The more you smile, the longer you live. And one of the reasons why, I think, people gravitate towards my work is that it has something you’re familiar with – the pier, or a building that you’ve been to 100 times, or driven by. And it’s got something that you’re not familiar with. Something you’re not expecting.
“Those two things combined in a fun atmosphere are really hard to come up with.”
He was a commodities broker in his hometown, Ann Arbor, living in a large second-floor loft that he used as a coffee bar and artist hangout. He sometimes let photographers rent the spacious living room for shoots.
In 1994, during the city’s legendary Hash Bash celebration, someone was up there taking “artsy fartsy” nude shots of a trio of models. At one point, Drouillard walked over to the big picture widow. “I’m looking down, and I see these 30 people dressed as hippies, like they’re going to a Halloween party. I mean, it was so cliché – bell bottoms, tie-dye, the straight-brim leather hats with the roach clips with the feathers.
“I said ‘Wouldn’t it be hilarious if the last three people in that line were nude? Everybody’s looking forward. No one would know!’ It was literally a flash of inspiration.”
The models agreed. Drouillard grabbed his own camera and everybody went down to the street. He took the shot, and in another flash of inspiration walked over to the neighboring Michigan Theatre, where a worker was 10 feet up a ladder, changing a lightbulb on the marquee.
He convinced the man to climb down and let the nude woman go up to put in the bulb (it didn’t really take a lot of convincing, he recalls).
Now, with more than 5,000 locations photographed in 36 American cities, the adrenaline rush has not abated. “Seriously, every single time it’s like the first time I did it,” he explains. “Because I really take everything in – it’s important to me that with every shoot I get better, better composition, hold the camera steadier … that’s nerve-wracking to me, that we’re going to go through all this and I might not have something good to show all these people that took their time out to do this.”
St. Petersburg has treated him well, he explains. The Dali included him in its “Dali Dozen” show in 2019 and 2020, and he now has a working studio and gallery in the Warehouse Arts District. He has begun a new phase of his artistic life – painting on large canvas prints of some of his works.
In the landmark 1973 decision Miller vs. California, the United States Supreme Court re-defined the difference between art and obscenity. There are three rules that apply to what Harvey Drouillard does: It cannot be in any way sexual, it cannot be “reckless” (in other words, without looking out for children, or lingering while nude, or being intoxicated and nude), and it must have some redeeming merit – aka make an artistic statement.
“Really, this is an adult town,” Drouillard says, “especially downtown. Only the pier, I would say, is designed for kids. And some of the parks, but there’s not really landmarks to shoot in parks. So it’s really easy to shoot a city like this. I really haven’t had any hassle in St. Pete.”
The 56-year-old artist still works as a commodities consultant, specializing in cryptocurrency. He sells prints and calendars of his photographic work.
Next on his city “wish list” is Boston, then it’ll be back to St. Pete to discover new landmarks, new nudes and new combinations of the two.
Volunteers are encouraged to contact him through his website. Race, sex, body type, none of that matters. “I tell everybody ‘own it. Whatever you are, whatever you have, whatever you do.’ I don’t judge anybody, if you’re of legal age and you have I.D. There’s no screening process.”