The Nu Project explores the art of female nudity

Matt Blum's photographs of naked women have hit a nerve while granting peace of mind for their subjects

Take a look at more of Matt Blum's photos for The Nu Project...(NSFW)

Near dusk on a crisp March day, Matt Blum arrives at an apartment building in the Warehouse District and takes the elevator to the third floor.

He knocks on a wooden door, and Nasreen Sajady answers. She's just gotten home from work and is still wearing her office clothes: black pants, a thick gold bangle, and a printed silk top under a cardigan sweater. She shakes Blum's hand, hangs up his vest, offers him a ginger beer, and takes a seat across from him on the couch.

Her home decor has a clear motif. A ceramic bust of a naked female torso hangs on the wall between Sajady's fridge and the hallway. A sketch of another unclothed woman, this one lying down, hangs above the sink. Over the record player, a third painting shows a nude woman standing tall.

The afternoon light streams in through a wall of windows that open onto a porch with a dazzling view of the downtown skyline. Sajady explains that this one-bedroom is the first place she's called home since the painful end of her marriage about a year ago.

Blum hands Sajady his phone, and she signs a release.

"Okay!" she exclaims, and walks into her bedroom.

A minute later, she steps back out, changed into nothing but a short, sheer robe.

"Cool," says Blum, setting up a light and taking out his camera. "Why don't we start over here?"

Sajady sheds her robe on a chaise lounge near the window and reclines onto the couch. She crosses her arms over her stomach and shakes her thick, curly brown hair back from her face. A tattoo of a woman wraps around her left thigh.

"Good," Blum says, as he drops to the floor in search of an angle. "Beautiful."

To date, nearly 8,000 women have signed on to participate in Blum's nude photography initiative, The Nu Project. That's thousands of women from across the world willing to allow Blum to come to their homes, take naked pictures of them, and post those images to the internet.

Blum has spent weeks shooting in Brazil, and his upcoming book received Kickstarter support around the globe; a sex-toy shop in Spain was the first business to contribute $500. But since Blum started the project in 2005, about 90 percent of his participants have come from the Minneapolis area.

The first models arrived via Craigslist and modeling sites. As the project picked up momentum, Blum stopped recruiting the models and instead switched to a volunteer form. Blum started the project because he wanted to shoot nudes with character and diversity, two traits he found missing from most naked portraits he saw. But as more women signed on, Blum realized that something he hadn't expected was taking place.

"Almost everybody who participated said it contributed to some part of their mentality about themselves shifting," says Blum.

There was the woman who'd had gastric bypass surgery and invited Blum over to shoot her after she had lost about 175 pounds in a year, with her skin still hanging loose. There was the woman who struggled with body dysmorphic disorder who said Blum's photos helped her see herself clearly for the first time.

"I think most people are so used to seeing the airbrushed, photoshopped 'final product,' that their view of what they should look like standing in front of a mirror is completely distorted," that woman wrote Blum in an email.

These days, people's primary exposure to depictions of naked, or nearly naked, women comes mostly in the form of porn stars and supermodels, explains Mary Vavrus, a University of Minnesota professor who studies gender in the media.

"The very, very, impossible to achieve nudes are typically what we see," Vavrus says. "Only 1 percent of the human race is capable of achieving that standard naturally, and body image research over the years has shown that when women encounter the mainstream images of women using this beauty standard, they feel depressed and dissatisfied."

To Blum, the standard isn't just unsatisfying — it's boring.

"No one's saying supermodels aren't beautiful, but you don't have to be that way to be beautiful," he says. "How many more ads can we see with essentially the same person?"

Take a look at more of Matt Blum's photos for The Nu Project...(NSFW)

When Blum started the Nu Project in 2005, his full-time gig was as a Catholic youth minister. Eventually he figured he had to talk to his boss, the priest, about the work he was doing on the side.

"I was like, 'Uh, I need to tell you this, because someone's going to find out,'" Blum remembers. "So I pulled up some images, and he was like, 'I don't want to look.' I said, 'Trust me.'

"I showed him," Blum remembers. "And he said, 'I think it's fine. You're not doing anything disrespectful.'"

When Blum first decided to recruit models, he wasn't thinking it would be a major project that would require him to sit down with his boss. He just wanted to try nude photography.

Next Page »