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

"It's an old story," he laughs. "If you're a photographer and you're a guy, at some point you're probably going to want to take a picture of somebody naked."

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

But Blum was also frustrated with what he saw as poorly done nude photography. Everything he encountered was either idealized or sexualized.

"We can watch someone get gunned down on primetime and thrown off a building and stabbed 15 times but god forbid we see a nipple."
Matt Blum
"We can watch someone get gunned down on primetime and thrown off a building and stabbed 15 times but god forbid we see a nipple."

"I was getting sick of it," Blum says.

His personal style was less about elaborate staging or lights, and more about capturing an expression. So he decided to apply the same approach to shooting nudes.

"Normally in a photograph of someone who's clothed you go straight to their eyes, but if someone's not wearing clothes you go straight to their body," says Blum. "My goal was to make photographs where, even if they're not wearing clothes, you would still go to their eyes."

In 2007, Blum quit the ministry to pursue photography full-time with his wife, Katy Kessler, who handled the photo editing and the business side. Kessler had dated Blum since high school, and was apprehensive at first about her husband's side project.

"I was like, 'Why does he need to look at other naked women?'" Kessler recalls.

Then in 2009, Blum asked Kessler to turn her editing eye to one of his sets from a recent shoot.

"The images she chose were the best," Blum remembers. "And there were some I would have thrown away."

Blum asked Kessler to go back through the archives and re-select images. The shots she gravitated toward were the joyous ones, the ones that might have, in other hands, been considered outtakes: A woman adjusting her bra, a movement between poses, a belly laugh.

"He wanted to be very respectful and honor the gravity of the women opening up, and I was like, it doesn't have to be so reverent," Kessler says. "I was looking for the familiarity or the vulnerability, when you feel like maybe you're seeing a side of a person that they didn't intend to show."

With this new aesthetic in mind, Blum and Kessler scrapped their old website and created the Nu Project's current home base.

"She helped me see that we want it to be approachable, and it just took on a new flavor," Blum says. "Instead of artful nudes it was seeing your wife, or your girlfriend, or your mother, or whoever, or you identifying with them, like, 'I always sit on my couch like that,' or, 'She's got a not-perfect body and so do I.'"

A year later, Blum and Kessler expanded the scope of the project with a trip to Brazil for their first "Women of South America" series, and in November 2012, they returned there for a second shoot.

"I was raised in a reasonably conservative family, and even now it's kind of weird to be like, 'Oh yeah, we're going to Brazil so I can take pictures of between 30 and 40 naked women,'" Blum says. "I'm comfortable with it of course, but there's a little bit of fear. We can watch someone get gunned down on primetime and thrown off a building and stabbed 15 times but god forbid we see a nipple."

Between 2009 and 2012, aside from the trips, Blum shot about one session for the Nu Project per month, whenever he had a free morning, mostly in Minneapolis. Word spread slowly, and for much of that time the number of volunteers signed up in his Google Doc hovered around 200.

But about a month ago, the project blew up on the popular online discussion forum Reddit. Blum and Kessler seized the surge in interest as an opportunity to move forward with a book plan they'd had on the back burner since they started shooting.

"I had started thinking about the book a couple years ago," Kessler says, "but I don't think we had the critical mass until now."

They got a printing quote and opened up a Kickstarter fundraiser to reach it. Blum hosted a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" session in which hundreds of users chimed in.

Two weeks after the Kickstarter campaign began, they exceeded their $30,000 goal by over $18,000. Now they're accepting pre-orders for the book, and plan to have it ready to ship by October.

"We're not the only people who have ever done a project with nudes," Kessler says. "But at the same time, I don't know of another project like this. For as long as we've been around, the other work has been models photographed for the purpose of being model-ly and angular, or non-models and they look ho-hum average. This takes women in a place where they're comfortable and makes them look like it's their best day."

About six weeks ago, Erin Busby logged in to her Facebook account and saw a message from a cousin who lives in Germany.

"What are the chances," the cousin asked, "that a photo of you would show up in my Facebook feed?"

The cousin went on to explain that a photography-enthusiast friend had posted a link, and after a double take, the cousin had realized that the woman in the thumbnail image, "happens to be you," she wrote to Busby. "And you're not wearing any clothes."

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