Bondi becomes nude beach as thousands take part in Spencer Tunick’s Sydney installation

<span>Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

For the first time in its history, Bondi has been declared a nude beach.

On Saturday, thousands of bodies huddled together in the early morning light to model in artist Spencer Tunick’s latest Australian installation – and his first in the name of skin cancer.

Related: Beach bums: Bondi bares all for Spencer Tunick’s art installation – in pictures

Legislation had to be changed to permit public nudity on the beach – Sydneysiders had until 10am to bare all on Bondi before risking a fine.

The 2,500-strong crowd represented the approximate number of people who die of skin cancer nationally each year. Tunick hoped the installation would encourage Australians, who top the world for mortalities to the cancer, to get regular skin checks.

By 5.30am the beach was awash with light, and Spencer Tunick assembled his mass of bodies into predetermined poses. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

“Skin unites us and protects us,” he said. “I use the amazing array of body types and skin tones to create my work, so it feels perfectly appropriate to take part in this effort in that my medium is the nude human form.”

At 4am, Tunick stood on a small orange crane in the shadows, calling out demands from a megaphone. The crowd chuckled in the darkness, sheltering each other from the blistering sea wind.

“Put your arms out when you’re posing and make sure you have the space of finger to finger,” he called. “Don’t get naked yet.”

Some wrapped towels around their bodies for warmth, others photographed the sunrise. Then, on the count of three, the crowd flung off their clothes – shirts and jumpers flying into the air in a sea of colour. They clapped and held hands and walked out to the sea, leaving discarded outfits and bags on the sand.

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By 5.30am the beach was awash with light, and Tunick assembled his mass of bodies into predetermined poses.

“Those people that are wearing clothes, get out of the frame,” he yelled. “Don’t smile. Hands by your side. You’re too much in a line.”

With a chorus of cheers, a final, rogue naked man ran to meet his group. As the crowd moved to another pose, some frolicked in the sea. One man raised a woman into the air who balanced, poised like an ancient Greek statue.

Thousands of bodies at sunrise for photographic artist Spencer Tunick’s Bondi Beach installation.
Thousands of bodies at sunrise for photographic artist Spencer Tunick’s Bondi Beach installation. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Tunick’s last visit to the city was in 2010, when he photographed thousands of naked people on the steps of the Sydney Opera House for Mardi Gras.

Kate Brown took part in the installation, and has admired Tunick since the mid-90s.

“The Opera House was a really amazing, amazing experience,” she said. “I always said, ‘if you’re in Sydney, I’m doing it again’.

“It was liberating … it was ecstatic, it was pleasurable just to be without clothing … cathartic.”

On Saturday morning, Brown met Trisha Cladera and a string of others for the first time, who were huddled on the beach at 3am.

“I haven’t done it before … but I thought it was a prime spot to get your kit off,” Cladera said.

“We’d never met each other before, and after our first couple of hours we took our clothes off … You’ve only got one body, so why not celebrate it?”

For Sarah Bowen, the cause was closer to home. Both her sister and father have survived melanoma.

Related: Skin in the game: is live artistic nudity more than titillation?

“It was freezing, but also empowering to be with so many people supporting the cause and also just being like naked and seeing so many different people and shapes and sizes,” she said. “Everyone just being comfortable being naked. It was wonderful.”

Duncan Mathers said he was “more nervous about driving here and not getting a park”.

“When everyone gets naked, it just becomes very normal. Coming back is when it gets weird.”

By 7am, the shoot had wrapped up, but some lingered – some swam in the ocean, while others stretched out on towels.

A group of diehards put on rave music and danced in a circle, their arms outstretched to the sun. Three hours were left before reality bit.