The Nu Project explores the art of female nudity
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?"
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.
"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."
But Blum was also frustrated with what he saw as poorly done nude photography. Everything he encountered was either idealized or sexualized.
"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."
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.
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.
One woman wrote in to say that she liked the images on the site, but not the words. Describing the project's participants as "normal" and "real," she said, implied that women who did look like the beauty standard were somehow lesser beings. Blum and Kessler thought the comment was fair, and removed all the modifiers from their description.
Blum also hears from frustrated guys who say that men struggle with body image, too, and should be included.
"I don't think it's the defining thing for most men, though," Blum explains. "I don't think it is for most women either, but certainly there's a lot of pressure, and appearance can be the first thing that people evaluate."
Blum considers it for a moment.
"My vision of an equivalent project for men would be photographing men who are unemployed, or men that have shitty jobs," Blum says. "But as it is, there's so much stuff to do just with what we've already got going."
The biggest critique Blum and Kessler receive is one they agree with: that there's still not a wide enough range of women featured in the project. Part of the problem, Blum says, is that volunteers don't provide any photos or descriptions of themselves, so he doesn't know what they'll look like until he shows up at their door.
"I would love to see the whole spectrum, and it's been hard to find a disabled woman or a transgender woman or even enough women of color," Blum says. "We just have to reach more and more people, so eventually the law of averages says we will get those people."
Back in the Warehouse District, Sajady gets up off the couch to change the record from Deee-Lite to Al Green.
"It feels weird to be doing this naked," she laughs, as Blum's shutter snaps. "But I also do this all the time."
Over the next hour, Blum catches her in similar mundane moments: at the kitchen sink filling up a glass of water, in her bedroom building a fort of pillows on top of her red-printed quilt, perched on a stool in front of her window watching the sun set over the city.
He gives her direction occasionally, but never asks her to straighten up or smile brighter. Instead, all of Blum's instructions seek to get Sajady comfortable: Slouch, he says. Scrunch, fidget.
"Scooch over into that corner of the couch, fold into it," he says at one point. "Good. Now: happy!"
When the shoot wraps up, Sajady changes into jeans and settles back onto her couch. She was raised in Coon Rapids by Afghani parents, she explains, and as a kid struggled with being different from her light-skinned Scandinavian classmates.
"I stood out a lot, and I've been pretty insecure," she says. "And after a terrible divorce, I've been on this journey of finding confidence in myself again."
When she heard about the project a month ago, it seemed like the next step in reinventing herself.
"I saw these women just radiating joy and confidence, and it gave me strength," she says. "I thought, 'If I can help someone else feel this way, I want to do that.'"
Blum and Kessler plan to continue shooting, and hope that sales of the book will provide a more sustainable business model. The way the project works now, it makes up about 20 percent of what they do, and they fund it themselves through the rest of their more straitlaced photography work.
"The point of the book is not to make us a bunch of money," Blum says. "It's to allow us to keep shooting, so it's not just doing all of this work and paying for it with the money from our other work."
For now, the increased attention on the project has been exciting, but it's not going to pull them from their self-appointed path.
"It would be awesome if we could hold people's attention long enough to show them women all around the world," says Kessler. "But even if we can't, we're still going to make those images."
Blum nods. When he started the project it was playful, and it still is. But now he also sees it as part of a larger conversation.
"It does feel a little bit like we're throwing a rock at a mountain, but if there were more stuff like this in the media, then slowly people's ideas and perceptions and prejudices might start to erode," Blum says. "We would just have to show enough of it."
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