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

Busby had participated in the Nu Project in March 2011, nearly two years ago. She still looked at the photos from the shoot occasionally, marveling at how short her hair had been, and how sun-bleached. But she had mostly forgotten that other people could see the photos on the web.

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

After her cousin's note, Busby figured it must have been a fluke, an "obscure thing that only photography people pick up on," she says.

But then, a few days later, a friend in California got in touch to say he had recognized her in the photos. Not long after, another cousin, this one living in Minneapolis, heard about Busby's participation and signed up herself.

At this point, Busby realized that the Nu Project was building an audience. And her image, it turned out, was on the home page.

First, she felt shy about it. Busby's a massage therapist, and she worried about whether the increased attention would impact her business. But then, she says, she embraced the photos' newfound exposure, and eventually even told her parents about the project.

Many of the project's participants go through a similar arc once they realize how visible the images are.

"There are a lot of different reasons why women do this," says Kessler. "There's empowerment, there's freedom from or freedom to. The consequence of participating, though, is that people will see you exposed."

A handful of women have contacted Blum about removing the photos if their circumstances change and, for instance, their workplace sees the site. In those cases, Blum offers the option to "buy out" the photos for the price he would charge for a similar session, between $1,500 and $2,000.

But, Blum says, very few participants have ended up going that route.

"Almost always, like a week later, they say, 'You know, I'm so glad we kept the images up,'" Blum explains. "The whole point is that it's this artistic exchange, so once we deliver the files and we've done the work, we can't not be able to use it. It's got to be this thing where we just agree that this is worth doing."

While most of the project's participants are new to modeling, Busby had started posing nude for art classes a few years earlier, after a boyfriend got her curious about the experience.

"I'm a curvy girl," Busby says. "Body shame has been part of my life for as long as I can remember."

Her experience modeling helped her overcome what she calls "that trained behavior."

Some of Busby's other modeling work has gotten her on the receiving end of critical feedback. But "really surprisingly," she says, "there has been none of that negativity" with the Nu Project.

"I think the biggest reason for that is the lack of sexualization in the photos," Busby says. "Some of them are somewhat sensual, but none of them are sexual. And the women look so happy."

The photos of Busby on the project site show her collapsing in laughter, or closing her eyes as she smiles between poses. But when Blum first sent her the images from her shoot, these weren't the ones she preferred.

"There were photos where I was like, 'Oh, that is awesome. I'm really glad I did this,'" Busby remembers. "But none of the ones I loved made it to the website. Because those were the ones where I looked more like the Western ideal aesthetic, and the ones he chose were the ones where I wasn't posed, and just being completely natural."

There's one series, Busby remembers, where she was in a bathtub.

"The one that's on the site is just a close-up of my face, and I'm smiling," she says. "The one that I loved, I look really sad."

Now, when Busby goes through the photos on the site, she's still critical of her own, but also appreciative — of herself and of the other models.

"The other women, they're soulful. You're not getting their sales pitch and you're not getting their shield," she explains. "I think the photos are at a point where you actually feel something for them rather than about them."

Blum and Kessler work out of a spacious studio on Washington Avenue. On a recent afternoon, Kessler was reviewing the 1,600 images Blum shot that morning.

"I'm looking for movement, for emotion, for a relationship" Kessler explains. "I cut anything where the model is trying to be sexy."

She narrows the images down to 60, and from there winnows the field even further. By the time she's done, she's labeled a handful of the shots with pink markings indicating that they're the ones to include in the portfolio. She also keeps a sprinkling of goofy images, like one frame of the model tossing her robe down the stairs in front of her, that she flags in blue to post on the project's blog.

The couple's tiny dog balances on Kessler's chair, and their 14-month-old son, Simon, rests on Blum's lap as he swipes through emails. Since the site went viral on Reddit, hundreds of messages have poured in, and not all the feedback has been positive. Blum fields angry emails that call the project porn, or that argue that photographing women naked is only perpetuating the standard that women have to be naked.

« Previous Page
Next Page »