Leif Heilberg has been a leading naturist photographer for many decades and his work has appeared in almost every naturist magazine and publication in the world. If you have read a few naturist publications you have almost certainly seen his photography before. Leif has travelled widely around the world as a naturist photographer including many countries behind the former 'Iron Curtain'. He is also president of the International Esperanto Naturist Organisation.
We asked Leif a few questions to find out more about the man behind the camera.
Q: Where does the name Leif Heilberg originate?
Leif Heilberg in 1971.
Leif is a typical Scandinavian name, and my family is based in Denmark. My grandfather's name was Hansen, but 18 guys had that name where he worked, and when the boss called "Hansen!" half a dozen men came running, so getting tired of this, he changed his name to Heilberg, approximately a hundred years ago.
Q: How did you start in naturist photography?
I started naturist photography in California in 1960 when I joined a nudist club. I had done plenty of general photography in Africa and Europe before this, and becoming an organized nudist member automatically led into taking pictures also in this lifestyle.
In 1957 in Stockholm I did some nude photography, and read some naturist magazines, too. In 1958 I took a few shots of nudists at a beach in Bulgaria, and the same in 1959, and in that year also some nude shots of nudist acquaintances in Hungary. Those were the very early years.
Q: How do you approach people about a naturist photo shoot?
When I speak to fellow nudists/naturists at a club or nude beach, I also tell them about my photography, and then I may ask them about also posing for me. Then in most cases I prefer natural naturist action, but it differs according to the situation. When I became known as a professional naturist magazine photographer, many club owners/managers actively helped me secure members' cooperation in order to get the publicity value when illustrated articles appeared in the nudist press.
Q: How do you conduct a photo session?
In order not to get too many "posed" pictures by letting the "models" do natural things at the pool and elsewhere on the grounds was the best way to get normal pictures of club life.
Getting fun pictures with nudes in non-naturist locations, like at the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal, in front of the Victoria railway station in Melbourne, or before the city hall in San Francisco, or on street in front of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen (as well as in Tivoli); such ‘gag shots’ require the cooperation of one or more local naturist ladies not squeamish about trying to accomplish those shoots. Sometimes a guard catches you and you may lose your film, other times you get away with it, like taking nude pictures on top of the main pyramid in Chichen Itza in Mexico. I saw a couple of guards approaching, quickly changed the film that I had images on with a fresh film, and the guards thus only confiscated a blank film.
Q: What was your worst moment as a naturist photographer?
The worst moment was when on Kauai (Hawaii) some fanatic idiot (dressed, of course) saw my wife and I photographing a family on Donkey beach and called the police on his cell phone, claiming it was pornography since children were also in the pictures, with their mother. Some of our equipment failed and we left just seconds before the cops arrived in two squad cars - it was a narrow escape from what could have been an ugly situation.
Q: You spent a lot of time behind the Iron Curtain as a photographer, was this ever viewed with suspicion by the US or Soviet authorities?
Behind the Iron Curtain, only once, in Moscow, did I ever have any problems being a photographer, but that didn't have any connection with naturist photography. That was in 1957, when I took pictures in Moscow stores, of buildings, both outside, in the courtyards, inside staircases, etc., as well as sights over the city from Lenin Heights, and when on an excursion on a hydrofoil on the Moscow River. On a second visit to the Soviet Union, in 1959, only at Lenin Heights (where the university is situated) did an Intourist guide tell me to stop taking pictures of the city below. I know, the pictures would be excellent to guide low level bombing commandos, but they also showed a picturesque sight of Moscow.
Bulgaria is the only other communist place I had any big problem, and that was not with taking pictures. I was arrested by the secret police, brought before a militia court, and accused of being an agent provocateur, speaking in public against the government, against the regime, against the communist party, and even against the Soviet Union as well. Trumped-up charges, of course. I had merely answered peoples' questions about life in the West, in particular about Canada where at the time I lived in Montreal: what did I earn, what did many items cost, etc., etc. All innocent - except to communist dictators who closed their people off from all information about the West.
They had no foreign newspapers (except red trash like The Daily Worker, l"Humanite, etc., all communist propaganda organs), no foreign television, no foreign radio, no foreign magazines, no foreign books except especially sanctioned authors who extolled the lower masses. Factual news and general info about life in the West was prohibited. So, I was convicted (on the trumped-up charges) and deported. There is more to the story (about my escaping the secret police surveillance while waiting for the other train in Sofia), but that would require a lot more space, and it doesn't concern naturist photography, so we'll leave it alone.
The US never gave me any trouble about my visiting those communist countries. None at all
Q: Why did you decide to go there?
Curiosity. I also visited Poland, German "Democratic" Republic, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, for various reasons. Before naturist photography, I visited Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia as a tourist, but in the latter three I already then started taking nude shots while visiting, Hungary with esperantist acquaintances, Bulgaria on a foreign-nudist sanctioned beach on the Black Sea coast, and Yugoslavia (Krk). In 1958 another visit to Bulgaria, for an Esperanto congress in Varna where Olga, the wife of a communist party leader (Violin Oljanov) showed me beach enclosures where women and men, separately, could undress and sunbathe in walled compounds.
Q: Did you have any problems communicating with people?
Having learned English four years at school, German three years, Swedish two years, then later French one year, and Russian one year, I didn't have too much trouble communicating with people, but Esperanto also helped a lot. I met esperantists in Moscow, in 1959 also participated in the Universal Congress of Esperanto in Warsaw, in 1958 naturally met many Bulgarian esperantists at the national Esperanto congress in Varna, and got in contact with other esperantists in several countries through the Universal Esperanto Association, so through that I met various people in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and East Germany (Die Ostzone, drueben, etc.).
After 1960 when I became member of INFE (Internacia Naturista Fakgrupo Esperantista) now INOE (Internacia Naturista Organizo Esperantista) and started editing the small membership bulletin Naturista Vivo, I naturally got into contact with more naturist esperantists in various countries, this helping my contacts when travelling abroad. Besides, what normal Westerner with schooling in the West would understand such off-the-track languages as Hungarian, Croatian, Czech, Polish, etc.
Q: You left cameras with many photographers over there and then paid them for their photographs. How did you make contact with them?
Besides all the above ways of contacting people abroad, many heard of me from others and wrote me. When I visited some of those countries, again other individuals got in contact with me, and that is how I got a small group of amateur photographers here and there, some better than others. I sent them all kinds of equipment, films, and paid them for their work.
Q: Do you notice any differences in the naturist movements in different parts of the world?
In the West the naturists had freedom to organize, while in the communist countries the regimes were scared of any kind of non-governmental clubs and associations, equating them as uncontrolled groupings - - probably against the regime. But on a nude beach the people were about the same, whether in the free West or in the totalitarian states behind the Iron Curtain. Most people on the nude beaches were friendly, whichever country I visited. To them, I was a fellow naturist, period.
Q: What advice can you give to budding naturist photographers?
Budding naturist photographers should simply enjoy the naturist life in clubs and nude beaches, then make contacts with others there, and then broach the subjects of photography a bit later. Once fellow naturists have confidence in you as a normal human, they may very well pose for you for some pictures. Some will, others not, and you always respect their wishes. As the time goes by, you will accumulate a quantity of naturist pictures.
If you then want to present them to naturist publications, you will need to re-contact those people who posed, and get signed model releases. That is not always easy, as you may not find all the people again. On the other hand, if you don't already have a track-record of being a conscientious professional naturist photographer, it can be hard to get anyone to sign a release for you.
However, you could always try the straight forward approach, having small, simple model releases printed up at first, and saying at the time of picture taking, that you would like to present the best pictures to a naturist publication, and that for this you need a release - so would they please….. Again, it is either go or no-go. You are asking, and they can say yes or no.
Q: How do you think that naturism has changed over the years?
Naturism has changed a lot here and there. Some places it is now more organized, while in others the novelty has worn off and sometimes antagonistic forces have won out. It may be religious groups who stupidly try to counteract naturism, or it may be commercial interests who want to take over naturist beaches for lucrative hotel complexes right there. In Poland during communism the catholic church was not strong enough to openly oppose nudity on the Baltic beaches. Now the catholics try to assert their newfound freedom to battle against naturism on some of those beaches. It is crazy, but the world is ever changing, depending on locality.
Q: How has your approach to naturist photography changed since you started?
View Leif's photos in the Gallery
My approach to naturist photography has not changed much, except for acknowledging that people's time is worth compensating. If some naturists can earn a salary doing work in the morning, why should they then meet you instead some place, pose exclusively for you on a nude beach for an hour or two, then return home, and not be compensated for their time and effort?