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Buffing Up Pittsburgh's Image

The Pittsburgh Nude Project looks close to home for its inspiration

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An image from the Pittsburgh Nude Project
  • An image from the Pittsburgh Nude Project

A woman reclines nude, her surroundings and much of her body obscured by deep shadows, her almost-abstract limbs looking more like high-contrast graphic elements than actual flesh. Superimposed over this black-and-white photo is the Barbara Krueger-esque text: "Beauty is in the eye of the media shareholder."

The same could be said of the media consumer. As Kim Rullo can attest, and as the brouhaha over this year's Three Rivers Arts Festival shows, society's comfort level with the human body is in constant flux.

"We were starting to make great strides with sexuality and dealing with that, and there's a little bit of regression," says Rullo, co-founder of the Pittsburgh Nude Project. "That will change, as everything does, but I feel that people are still not OK with themselves in that sense."

The Project was formed in 2003 by Rullo and photographer Brent Isaac, two Point Park University grads looking for a new way to visually portray Pittsburgh -- something more incisive than Mount Washington picture postcards. "We just happened upon nudes," Rullo says. "We thought it would be interesting to take regular people from Pittsburgh and show the beauty that this area has."

Easier said than done. "Regular people" don't typically expose themselves to the public gaze, and by Rullo's account, the first shoot was nerve-wracking. "We all have hang-ups," she says, citing her own Catholic upbringing. But such personal histories are part of the project: Each subject is interviewed extensively before being photographed. "We've had [models] who've said the nude part was the easiest part; it's talking about themselves that made it harder for them."

Since 2003, Pittsburgh Nude Project has mounted shows at galleries including the now-online-only Blue Ruin gallery. It also hosts a Web site (www.brentisaac.com/pghproject.html) that includes photographs, a short film, essays by local writers on identity and personality, and interviews with the Project's models. Currently, Isaac and Rullo are gathering materials for a new spring show; Rullo says some galleries in New York have expressed interest. "We're going into deeper personality traits and focusing on questions based on that, like 'What are you afraid of?' 'What do you like?' 'What makes you happy?'"

But the biggest challenge facing the Project may be lack of manpower -- or rather, of men. The Project's models are overwhelmingly female. "We've had one male do it, but some of the other men ..." Rullo sighs. "They weren't in it for the right reasons.

"It's difficult to find people of any gender that are really into this for the art, but we have found a lot of people who really want to be a part of this and really want to make it something special and unique. And we're starting to find more males that are into it for the art."

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