Why were people naked on Beach Drive in St. Petersburg? For Harvey Drouillard's 'high art.'

The photographer has been shooting nudes in crowded public spaces for decades.
Published May 23

PETERSBURG — Here’s the right way to get naked on Beach Drive at lunchtime.

Control your breathing. Move quickly, but not in a hurry. No undergarments.

Always act natural, said photographer Harvey Drouillard, because it’s the nude people who exude power over their situation.

“Look interested, but not interesting, if that makes sense,” he told two models standing against a wall at the Nova 535 event space on a Thursday morning. “If you follow my instructions, your clothes are back on before anyone who does notice you can even nudge the person next to them.”

Also, you have to practice. Drouillard looked at the stopwatch on his phone. “Go.”

“Bravo” Johnny Vance, a 33-year-old model and personal assistant with a rugged beard and a man bun, dropped his shorts and stepped forward.

“Your shirt,” Drouillard said.

“Oh,” Vance said, flustered, before pulling his shirt off. “Right.”

Natalia Mustapich, the petite and smiley 42-year-old owner of a Gulfport skin care business, was trying to pull her dress over her head. She was stuck.

“That’s going to be faster to pull down and step out of,” Drouillard said. “I want you to be prepared for every possible permutation of what could happen when we get out there.”

Thirty seconds. Terrible. They tried again, and again and again. Drouillard, who has the mannerisms of a spritely film director, showed them how to make their garments into a neat little doughnut on the floor. He showed them how to stand on top of their shoes while awaiting his signal, which for some reason attracts less attention than standing barefoot on a sidewalk. Eventually they could disrobe, pose and dress again in just under 10 seconds.

Drouillard, 54, is full of tidbits of public nudity wisdom from his 25 years shooting guerrilla nudes. For a lot of that time, he had different day jobs — restaurant server, commodities broker, butcher. He “went full-time artist” five years ago, he said, and has photographed nude models in prominent public places thousands of times in various cities.

You may have seen his photos hanging at Ferg’s Sports Bar, Craft Kafé or Dog Bar. A 2019 calendar of his St. Petersburg work features Drouillard's black and white photos of naked men and women walking dogs, watering plants and lounging on benches in front of places like the Hollander Hotel, Sunken Gardens and Sundial shopping center. Often the clothed bystanders in the frame don’t even seem to notice what’s happening, which is exactly how Drouillard likes it.

He began shooting St. Petersburg in 2014, and moved here from his native Michigan a few months ago. He sold his minivan for a few hundred dollars when he arrived, a way of “burning the ships at port” to ensure he’d have to make it work, no possible retreat. He rides a bike and said all the money he has is what is in his pocket, save for the $12 he keeps in his bank account so he isn’t charged a monthly fee.

He gets by, selling his photos via shops such as Now & Then antique store on Central Avenue, where prints go for $300 and calendars cost $40. BBD Interiors has a couple of large, framed Drouillard photos for $1,200 and $1,500.

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Harvey Drouillard's black-and-white photos put the emphasis on the buildings and structures before the models, he said.  He only does one take, and never returns to the same spot. [Photo via harveyphotos.co]

He can stage and shoot his photos in such a way that the nudity lasts less than a minute. So fast that his models are clothed and back in the “getaway car” headed away from the scene before anyone really knows what happened, let alone can make a big deal about it.

Drouillard may be an even more prolific networker. He found the models through another photographer he had met on the street a few days earlier. He secured the practice space at Nova 535 after meeting the owner at a weekly mixer for local entrepreneurs. A local cafe donated the pastries on the table. His barber hooked him up with a mechanic at Albert Whitted Airport, to let him shoot next to a vintage plane on the tarmac there. He spotted a pug mix, Rowdy, at a downtown bar. He thought it would be perfect for photos. The owner said sure.

For security, Drouillard enlisted muralist Chris Baez. Before leaving Nova 535, Drouillard, Baez and another security volunteer went over the system. They were to be constantly scanning the area for “kids and cops, kids and cops, kids and cops.” A hand near the head meant cop. A hand near the leg signaled kids.

“I won’t even shoot if there’s an empty school bus around,” Drouillard said.

Then it was go time.

“Are you ready to make some history? Some high art?” Drouillard asked everyone. “That’s all we’re here to do today.” Nods all around.

“God, I love this city!” Drouillard yelled as the group walked out of Nova 535 into the blinding afternoon. “Everyone helps each other.”

A luxury car drove by on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N.

“That’s the other thing I love about this city,” Drouillard said. “Bentleys everywhere!”

En route to the first location, Drouillard explained he no longer pays models. Using volunteers ensures that everyone is dedicated to the project as a work of art. Pay a guy $50, he said, and he suddenly thinks he can pee on the street and take as many cigarette breaks as he wants. Drouillard does treat everyone to meals and cover travel expenses.

Vance, an aspiring actor who had never posed nude before, hesitated to pose for Drouillard at first.

“What if some day I book a role on a family show or something?”

Ultimately, he decided to go for it. For the “exposure.”

Mustapich said yes immediately. After moving to the United States from Argentina, she had had a boyfriend who asked her to stop posing nude. On her mother’s advice, she left him immediately.

“It’s nothing,” she said. “If we were meant to wear clothes all the time, we’d be born wearing them.”

They took the shots at the airport, pretending to board a vintage plane. The private location made it an easy warmup, but then it was on to the main event, shooting along a public sidewalk full of pedestrians.

Drouillard pointed out a no-parking, tow-away zone near Beach Drive and Central Avenue. Everyone hopped out.

“Don’t you feel like we’re about to rob a bank, and we’re the only ones who know it?” Drouillard said. “It’s like being able to see the future.”

Drouillard reminded the models not to get too close. Absolutely no arms around each other. Part of the way he’s able to skirt indecency laws, he explained later, is ensuring there’s nothing about the shoots that could come off as sexual.

The shoots don’t violate Florida’s lewdness and indecent exposure law, which prohibits being exposed in a “vulgar or indecent manner,” because there isn’t vulgar intent.

The shoots probably do, however, fall under a city ordinance prohibiting public nudity. In the St. Petersburg city codes, that nudity ordinance is listed right after the law prohibiting “expectoration,” or spitting on the sidewalk. It’s also about equally as easy to enforce, considering Drouillard’s hit-and-run speediness.

Security took their spots at opposite corners. They started scanning for kids and cops. The models stood on the sidewalk outside Ceviche restaurant. Vance started pacing. Drouillard set up his tripod right in the middle of the street.

He raised his hand to signal it was time. People ate their lunch on the restaurant’s terrace. The models dropped their clothes to the pavement and walked toward Central Avenue. Rowdy’s owner handed off the leash.. Drouillard snapped away. The nude couple pretended to peruse a menu posted outside.

Pedestrians kept walking, seemingly oblivious. No cars drove off the street and crashed.

Maybe it was like a glitch in the Matrix, so surreal it didn’t even register. Maybe it was just that nobody cared. Two guys and a woman crossed the street to avoid Drouillard after noticing he was taking photos, but they didn’t seem to look at what he was shooting. A few steps later, the woman spun her head around over her shoulder, wide-eyed, and then looked away again and kept walking.

Finally, from somewhere unseen, a man’s voice called out: “Wooooh!”

Seconds later the models were dressed again.

“God, I love this city!” Drouillard yelled.

Both models raised their arms, giddy with victory as they headed up the street to do it again.

Contact Christopher Spata at cspata@tampabay.com. Follow @SpataTimes.

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