What does the average nude body look like? If you were to use pop culture --circa the mid-aughts, specifically -- as your barometer, your answer might look like the swath of thin, light-skinned women found on television, in film, or on the pages of magazines. If you were to use the 11-year-old Nu Project as your gauge, the answer would be somewhat different: In essence, there is no average nude body.
The Nu Project started with Matt Blum, a freelance photographer and web developer based in Minneapolis, Minn, who, in 2005, was seeking a way to subvert the typical image of a nude woman that dominated mainstream media. Instead of the "perfect," highly stylized bodies that filled screens and billboards, he wanted to showcase the very real and varied forms that female-identifying individuals outside of Hollywood were proud to have as their own. He wanted to showcase an "honest" nude.
His goal was simple: he eschewed professional models and glamour in favor of capturing a diverse array of nude volunteers in poses and makeup comfortable to their personalities. The project really took off in 2009, when Blum's wife, Katy Kessler, began editing the series. It was her idea to take the series into subjects' homes, photographing nude women in the intimate spaces they feel most secure.
In their resulting images, women of many sizes, ages, races and identities -- women who've undergone gastric bypass surgery, are pregnant, or live with scars from past illnesses -- bare their bodies for Blum and Kessler's lenses, boldly presenting a different kind of nude image for themselves, and the other women and men who lay eyes on the series. Over a decade of work, Blum and Kessler have photographed over 250 women across North America, South America and Europe, and today, they continue to recruit volunteers on their website's participation page.
"I try not to talk anyone into participating because of the extremely personal nature of the photographs and I also realize it's not for everyone," Blum explained during an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit. "From what I've experienced, 99 percent of the women who've participated have told me that they saw themselves differently and that they felt more beautiful... There are so many women for whom seeing your image might bring peace and acceptance."
We checked in with the Nu Project's Blum to reflect on 10 years' worth of photography and talk about the future of his series:
What sparked the Nu Project?
There were actually an intersection of two things that led to the creation of The Nu Project. [My] experience with disordered eating in college and the lack of diverse body types and ages in nude photography. From the beginning our focus has always been the personal connection between the viewer and the subject. As a photographic team, the best compliments we can receive are things like, "Your subjects look so confident and happy" and "You show beauty in many diverse types of people."
How do you define an "honest nude"?
Our "honest nudes" still include post-productions and Photoshop, we just don't change the people themselves nor do any retouching of permanent features of their home or body. I have no problem photoshopping out a zit that someone got before the shoot, but I don't see any reason to slim someone's waist line, increase their breast size or remove the texture from their skin. Our hope is to make the portraits look like we caught someone on a great day.
Do you think there's a problem with the way women -- particularly nude women -- are portrayed in mainstream media? Was Nu Project an attempt to address this?
Sometimes. We think Lena Dunham has done a great job with "Girls"; showing the world that there is no single body type that can be nude in a very successful, mainstream show. We also notice that for most publications and shows, it's still the same as it ever was.
Tell me about Katy Kessler, how she became involved in the project and what she's added to the work.
Since she decided to start doing the editing in 2009, my work became our work. She selects all the images, writes the copy, co-curates the social media (when we have time, which is almost never) and without her there would be no project anymore. The project has completely transformed from what it was when I started it, and I give her full credit for the shape it has taken. She gave me permission to be a little weird and to take the images a little less seriously. There are more smiling, happy images and a little irreverence.
Do you speak to your subjects about body positivity or confidence during the shoots?
Typically they speak to me about it. Most everyone has their story: the time they were bullied because of their body, their weight, their look, etc. Or a struggle with an eating disorder. That said, I want to make sure I state that we don't think this project can prevent or cure eating disorders. That can only be done over lots of time and with assistance from professionals.
What kinds of conversations on body positivity has the project started for you personally?
In terms of my own body, I don't know that I have seen much change since I started shooting. Part of that is unfortunately due to the fact that I struggled with the same disordered eating that many other people do. I still wish I were thinner, more muscular and had smaller love handles, but it doesn't occupy every minute of my thinking nor control what I do (or eat) in life. What absolutely has changed is the way my brain perceives beauty and who I'm attracted to. Who I was drawn to at 18 or 24 is completely different than now, with the exception of Katy (we are married, with two kids and I am still drawn to her every day because of her confidence and strength).
Online, in your FAQ, you write (in response to people asking if you photograph men): "we understand there is a lot of pressure on men to look a certain way, we believe that women are judged more harshly by appearance." Can you elaborate on this?
Every person could suffer from body image issues, but for women, body objectification is ever-present. Part of this is the way [of] society, and part of it is media. They feed each other. Most men are judged on their jobs. If somebody wanted to do a photography collection about that, we would love to see it.
We would also absolutely love some celebrities to allow us to shoot them for The Nu Project so people can see the human in their celebrity body.
What's next for Nu Project?
We've started work on a new project, similar to what the Nu Project is to body positivity, but centered on sex positivity. It's a lot harder to find models due to how much more personal the shoots are, so we anticipate a lot of trips to New York City and Los Angeles in order to complete the work. The main idea is that no matter who you are or what you're into, be honest with yourself, your partner(s) and do what makes you happy.
In regards to The Nu Project, we hope to sell 200-300 more copies of The Nu Project Volume II in order to fund the next rounds of shoots which we're hoping will take place in Israel. Regardless of book sales, we'll keep shooting this project (maybe forever?) because it's just what we do ... We believe in it, so we keep doing it.