How to look good half-naked: the rise of boudoir photos
‘Boudoir photography’ aims to do for normal women what stylists do for celebrities, but critics say it’s just another way to objectify women
IN ONE softly-lit image, a young woman perches on a windowsill in nothing but a flimsy white negligee, a strap slipping suggestively down her arm. In another, a bride-to-be poses with little more than a pair of strategically positioned cupcakes and a cheeky glint in her eye.
A third shot shows a tattooed man wrapping his arms around his pregnant fiancee, cradling her naked breasts in his hands. Welcome to the world of boudoir photography, a rapidly growing offshoot of the wedding industry.
Originally intended as an intimate gift from bride to groom – still the reason that most clients get these photographs taken – boudoir photography is also increasingly popular as a hen party group activity (think ten women in their scanties frolicking on a velvet chaise longue), a post-divorce pick-me-up, or even as a personal celebration of surviving cancer.
With the photographer’s skill and the magic of photo editing software, clients receive a fabulously enhanced, glamorised image of themselves, recognisable yet transformed, with all bumps and blemishes erased.
It’s an experience and a result that many describe as empowering. As one satisfied customer of Galway photographer Clare O’Regan puts it, “it was such a treat to feel not only pretty but darn sexy too. The world would be a happier place if every doctor prescribed a shoot for every woman that has body issues.”
Dublin-based boudoir photographer Edel Kelly says that “a celebrity wouldn’t dream of appearing in a magazine without her image being retouched,” and that ordinary women merely want the same treatment.
“It does take a bit of nerve to come and do something like this,” admits boudoir photographer David Lester. But he says that the emphasis is on sensuality rather than salaciousness: “what I offer is not seedy – it’s tasteful. When it comes to nudity, less is more. I create images that I hope will be sensual, intimate, sexy. Classic studio images, with lovely shapes and lines. We’re not talking lads’ mags here.”
His studio is full of the props of his trade – a billowy duvet, a furry leopard-pattern drape. It’s up to the clients to bring their own lingerie, eye-catching costume jewellery, and several pairs of “killer heels” – the more, the better.
“I pick poses that work,” says Lester. “It needs to look elegant. You pose with the feet first, even if you’re doing a head shot. If you tip the head one way, that looks innocent. The other way signifies seduction.”
Lester says he has noticed a sudden rise in interest from women in a boudoir photo-shoot.
“It’s partly to do with the likes of Gok Wan and makeover-style television, where you get people of all different shapes, sizes and ages coming forward. And then in fashion circles there’s pressure to move away from the waif-like image. I show my boudoir albums at wedding fairs, and the one phrase I keep hearing from brides-to-be is ‘yes, why not?’”
Most boudoir artists tend to be female, and as a male photographer, Lester says it’s especially important that his customers feel safe and comfortable.
“You cannot do this as a man and leave any shred of doubt that you had an ulterior motive. Rapport with the client, and the ability to make sure she is relaxed, are vital. When they do a boudoir shot, people do come in feeling nervous, but it’s tinged with excitement, not anxiety.”
Lester works with a female make-up artist, who begins with a makeover for the client and then remains on the scene to perform small adjustments like lifting the model’s hair out of her eyes.
Elizabeth – a client of Lester’s who is getting married in February – says “it was nerve-racking to start with, but I felt more relaxed after the first couple of photographs. I forgot I was in my underwear and really started enjoying myself. As for the finished images, I can’t believe that’s me. I can’t wait to see my fiance’s face when I give the album to him.”
Yet critics say that posing in your pants and calling it liberation is just another instance of what American writer Ariel Levy calls “raunch culture” – sexually provocative behaviour masquerading as empowerment.
Feminist academic Debbie Ging wonders what message women are sending to their partners in presenting them with this airbrushed image. “What are they actually saying? I’m not perfect enough for you but here’s an illusion of the perfect me? It just goes to prove what a lie the ballsy rhetoric of post-feminist confidence is.
“Post-feminist culture, epitomised by this sort of ‘sexy’ transaction, is making women less, not more confident.”
Kellie Turtle, a feminist activist, is wary of judging other womens choices: “It would be seriously overstepping the mark to make a statement on what couples find sexy in their own relationships and if people have some fun with boudoir photography then that is great.”
But she thinks that real attraction “doesn’t need airbrushing and lacy knickers.” Rather, Turtle says that “it grows where there is intimacy and sexual equality, when you know each other so well that just one little familiar look or touch sends you racing each other up to the bedroom.”
But British boudoir photographer Lesley Rigg insists that such images do not objectify women; quite the reverse, in fact.
She believes that they are a celebration of real women of all ages and body shapes: “Boudoir photography emphasises the power and sensuality of ordinary individuals – primarily women – often at a cross-roads or at an extraordinary point in their lives. The pictures express their feeling about their own relationships and, done well, depict them at their most desirable and powerful.”
In the end, Lester thinks it’s all down to the individual herself. “If a woman wants to do this, that’s fine. If another thinks it’s degrading, I support her right to have that opinion. I’m not trying to portray women as objects. I’m trying to create something artistic to share with the person they love”.
What's involved in a boudoir session?
Boudoir photography packages start at around €300 and can rise to around €800, depending on the number and size of photographs chosen.
Prices usually include a full makeover with a make-up artist, and there’s often a glass of champagne on hand to add to the glamour of the occasion.
While many photographers offer a well-stocked dressing-up box of corsets and masks – or, for the more adventurous, PVC gear – the client is invited to bring along her own lingerie or nightwear, along with high heels, long silk or lace gloves, and perhaps even a man-size black leather jacket.
Photographer David Lester asks his female clients to bring an item that belongs to their partner, such as a musical instrument, so that it can be used as a prop that has personal significance for the couple.