They came in their thousands, some walking, some leaning on crutches, others in wheelchairs – but all naked.
Before dawn broke on Saturday, 3,200 people gathered in Hull city centre, shed their shoes and clothes and painted themselves blue in the name of art. The spectacle was arranged by American photographer Spencer Tunick, famous for his ambitious installations featuring crowds of nudes, and was commissioned by the city’s Ferens Art Gallery for Hull’s UK City of Culture celebrations next year.
Roads in the city centre were closed between midnight and 10am as the participants, who came in all shapes and sizes, posed in locations that reflected Hull’s maritime history. The New York-based artist had body paints made in four shades of blue taken from the Ferens gallery’s collection.
Tunick, who has just finished working on an installation in Bogotá, said that Hull’s had been one of the best turnouts for a photoshoot and the best in the UK, beating Gateshead in 2005 and Salford in 2010. “I needed around 2,500 to 3,000 [volunteers] to do this work and 3,200 came. I was incredibly lucky to be able to fill up streets into the distance,” he said.
Volunteers, who were unpaid, arrived at a meeting point in the city centre at 3am, where they stripped off and helped to paint each other. The crowds were then ordered into position by megaphone by Tunick’s assistants, who he calls “nude wranglers”, during the three-hour photoshoot.
Sarah Hossack, 30, a trainee teacher, says she had second thoughts when her alarm went off at 1.30am, but that it didn’t take long for her to get into the swing of things. “Everybody just got involved, so we didn’t feel like it was that weird,” she said. “When you see people with clothes on you’re like, ‘These people need to get naked’.”
Danielle Robilliard, 38, a social worker, said the mass naked gathering was like being part of a special club. “I knew the experience itself was going to be great, but the point when you had to get naked in front of lots of people was terrifying. Actually, within minutes it felt normal.”
Tunick said there was something about the human body and how it was juxtaposed with public space that had inspired his work. “The natural, soft vulnerable body that’s up against the concrete world – it creates a dynamic that interests me,” he said.
The crowds of blue people were also a representation of the rising sea levels caused by climate change, Tunick said. “It’s the idea that the bodies and humanity is flooding the streets,” he added.
“I was very surprised to see so many older people take part and so many people who had problems walking – wheelchairs, crutches, leg braces,” the photographer said. “They were resilient and we had young and old and I am so thankful to them.”
The crowd included 80-year-old art collector Stéphane Janssen from the US, who has posed 20 previous times, first at the age of 64. He said the lengthy photoshoot had been a little chilly, but that it was nothing in comparison with Tunick’s installation in Dublin on an even colder summer morning in 2008. He added: “My children are very conservative. They don’t think it’s totally proper to have their father’s butt on a museum wall, but I love it.”
Kirsten Simister, curator of art at Ferens, said the gallery was thrilled by the turnout. “It took off like a rocket from day one, with an overwhelming number of people signing up and we are delighted to see how Spencer has brought them together today to create some remarkable new images and unforgettable memories for themselves.”
Janssen says it will be the last time he takes part in one of Tunick’s works but has positive words for anyone thinking of taking part in a Tunick project. “I always say that it’s the least sexual thing that I’ve ever seen in my life. We are naked, but it is not important. We are equal. Big people, small people, all colours, all walks of life.”
Tunick’s photographs will be exhibited in the newly refurbished gallery in 2017, when Hull is host to the UK City of Culture and will be bought for the Ferens permanent collection.
• This article was amended on 11 July 2016. An earlier version referred to people “wheelchair-bound” in contravention of the style guide.