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Nude Model Lawsuit

$1.1 million for pictures of a topless model? That's what Empire State Building wants Houston photog to pay

Allen Henson topless model on Empire State Building January 2014
Allen Henson faces a $1.1 million suit for taking cell phone pictures of a topless model on the Empire State Building. Photo by Allen Henson/Allen Henson Photography/Facebook

A fashion photographer who got his start in Houston is causing international buzz thanks to a million-dollar lawsuit filed against him for taking cell phone pictures of a topless model atop the world-famous Empire State Building.

Allen Henson tells CultureMap that the images he shot of Houston model Shelby Carter in August were no more than a casual "social experiment" intended for social media followers.

But owners of the legendary skyscraper disagree, calling the 29-year-old photographer's efforts "objectionable and inappropriate" in an eye-catching $1.1 million lawsuit filed early this month in New York County Supreme Court.

"Visitors didn't even seem to notice we were taking pictures.  And when we left, no one from the building ever approached us."

The suit claims Henson never notified building management about what it labels a "commercial topless photo shoot." Plaintiffs contend that he and his model intentionally skirted the proper channels to create images that have damaged the tourist attraction's family-friendly reputation.

"Visitors didn't even seem to notice we were taking pictures," Henson says, adding that he and Carter made sure not to snap the photos around kids. "And when we left, no one from the building ever approached us."

After serving six years in the U.S. Army, Henson moved to Houston in 2010 to start a career in photography. Following work with area modeling agencies like Page Parkes and Neal Hamil, he eventually landed in New York, where he discovered it was legal for both men and women to be in public without a shirt.

"As a photographer, you want to push the envelop and see how far you can get away with something," Henson explains. "When I found out it wasn't illegal to be topless in New York, I knew I had to pursue that." 

In the past year, he and Carter had similar topless escapades at the tony Peninsula Hotel and on a lake in Central Park, where they were chased by police on a row boat.

Henson says he plans to fight the lawsuit, laughing that there's no way he could ever afford the $1.1 million payout. He notes that his photos were never part of a commercial production, a matter at the heart of the suit.

In the meantime, the photographer has mounted a Facebook campaign to help assemble a "platoon" of 50 topless women to accompany him at the courthouse.

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