Here I was. Half naked in the Hotel Marlowe in Cambridge, MA, getting coaxed into sticking a hotel sliding closet door between my buttcheeks, thinking to myself that I should have had more wine before leaving my house. All I hear is: "“Eyes towards the camera, part your lips slightly, ohh yeah. That’s goooood.”
This whole thing is a covert operation. I self-tasked myself to book a boudoir photo shoot, costume up for the event in “negligees”, and put myself through an entire boudoir experience with a quantity-over-quality boudoir Boston photography company.
That’s right, the photographer becomes the photograph-ee.
Before you hate my sneakiness please know I did it out of love! Often, when I suggest boudoir photography to someone I get weird looks anywhere from a distorted face of disgust or a quick dismissal of the idea because “that’s not for me”. So, instead of trying to sell the experience from a photographers stand point (I get to stay cozy, warm and clothed during your boudoir shoots) I wanted to fully understand what my clients are going though. Plus, it may end up being a little fun.
Before the shoot the boudoir company emailed a PDF document highlighting all their “add-on services”, which I found out means retouching EVERYTHING, including many items I wasn't concerned about until reading their list: Cellulite - $45, acne - $25, hair flyaways - $30, scars - $50. The company introduced me to their services by listing a potential slew of “faults” making me insecure about NOT being insecure about these things. Let’s not forget about hair and makeup, which the company recommended “Wear extra makeup for the camera”. I’ve heard this before, and no. Just no. If you're into that type of thing and want to get your makeup done, awesome. Hell, I’ve helped my clients have fun with makeup during shoots because I’ve been a makeup artist for years and I respect it as an art form. But it should never conceal, just reveal. Don’t ask me to pack it on.
All of these things conflict with my personal beliefs. In my practice if you fully understand your lighting, retouching should be nothing or extremely limited. Don't ever set up anyone for failure or flaws.
At 7pm I walked in from the dark winter night to the hotel lobby carrying a plastic Market Basket bag of wadded lingerie. I didn’t go shopping for anything new, despite the boudoir’s spokesperson assuring me that “all women love the preparation part of their photoshoots”. Nah, I'll pass. My hair was clean, exactly the goal I was aiming for. I’ve got a busy schedule and a red poof of curls on my head doing what they want. This was me-ish: trying the bare minimum on the surface while maintaining my gusto-filled personality on the inside.
The Hotel Marlowe has a beautiful lobby with gold walls and jewel-toned accents. I clenched my plastic grocery bag as I over-relaxingly strolled by the front desk to the elevators wondering if anyone could see my wads of lace, quietly judging me as I passed. I texted my photographer and she answered, “Room 502, I’ll meet you at the room door.”
After ringing the bell to room 502 my photographer answered the door smiling. She was a blonde woman a bit shorter than me and wore a comfy sweater dress with knee high boots over teal tights. She invited me into the room and jokingly apologized for the bags under her eyes saying that it’s been a long day.
“How many clients have you had today?” I asked.
“Eight." She Huffed, "and you're the last one for the night!”
I looked around the room, two softbox lights were set up in the divided suite - one in the living room area and the other in the bedroom area. The rooms were divided by a sliding door. My thoughts started racing. How many buttcheeks have been on this door today? Or this chair? Or the bed? The answer was at least sixteen buttcheeks. Did she sanitize after each client? I wish I was doing this at my home where I know where everyone’s buttcheeks have been… Yeesh.
The photographer showed me to the bathroom and directed me to change into my first outfit out of the four allowed. I shut the door and thought about how weird it’s going to be when I stagger out uncomfortably in heels and underwear. For my own boudoir clients, we start with clothes on because my clients are participants the whole time: we work collaboratively from the beginning. I believe it’s about the journey and the comfortable stimulation happening during the process, not “TAKE IT OFF” right away.
Stepping out of the bathroom covering myself and shivering in front of this stranger the awkward session began instantly. Other than the small talk about how tired the photographer is we didn't say much to each other. I’m standing in my skivvies and wasn’t asked anything about myself. Not what the session objective was, not what I think is sexy, or what my partner thinks is sexy about me, or how I preferred to be called “Jackie” instead of “Jaclyn”. There was no music and the silence made me start to yawn and drift away...
I started thinking about my own boudoir shoots. As a photographer, I need to know the person intimately to give them any truth with their portrait. For example, to begin sometimes I'll ask about their favorite celebrity and how we can channel them together. Then we'll talk about their feelings and most sexy attribute (mine is my clavicle), perhaps what their partner thinks is their sexiest attribute and how to portray it tastefully. I always strive to offer people my coined phrase, “familiar sexy”: the look only you or your partner truly sees and celebrates in you. Personally, my favorite trait on anyone is their laugh. I like loud laughs and relaxing grins because they trump uncomfortable “sex kitten” expressions (whatever those are) any day.
The whole shoot lasted an hour. A cold, music-less, connection-less hour. The photographer kept telling me “to open my lips.” She recommended textbook poses like “point your toes”, and said the words “now let’s do a closeup of your boobs” (I KNOW!), and despite my complete discomfort on so many levels, “stick your booty out, Jaclyn”. I didn't know who’s gaze this was for but it certainly wasn’t for mine or my partner’s.
I couldn't stop yawning. She never fully bothered to understand my comfort level of my body and missed the opportunity to treat the photographs with thoughtful and creative respect. Posing needs to happen strategically and artistically, everything is for the individual and out of love. Boudoir shoots are a complete luxury and this felt like a desperate bootcamp. The distance between me and my boudoir photographer left me feeling embarrassed and frustrated I had spent an hour without a voice in a vulnerable position.
A week later, the photos were ready to view. Before my viewing session the spokesperson once again presented a price sheet with every retouching option, annoyingly priming me for insecurity. As my partner and I looked at the photographs I quickly realized this was not me. This was an open-lipped awkward woman photographed while being completely uncomfortable. The lighting was harsh and blasted. The poses didn't fit my body. I looked bored as I followed *her* idea of "sex kitten". This wasn’t my sexy.
I have to face the facts that this company's business philosophy is quantity over quality and not everyone shoots this way, but there are more out there with this model. If you’ve had a rough past boudoir experience like mine without ever processing why something felt “off”, it’s most likely because raunchiness and disconnection has been created and you do not need to be shot in this way. Different photographers have different takes on boudoir.
Don't be discouraged from reading all this because I’m proud of you for having an interest in boudoir photography! DO IT! Your curiosity in being photographed means you want to find a new side to yourself, possibly changing and metamorphosing, embracing your sexuality, and improving your ability to project yourself in the world. We are all allowed to be sexy, funny and attractive. What do we find attractive in ourselves? What does it mean to truly “feel natural”? Why are familiar moments in the present so damn sexy? To be in the moment is a gift in front of the camera. Your next steps are to find a photographer you trust, that makes you laugh, has the gift of putting you at ease, and whose imagery you love enough to take you on this journey. Talk with them before hand. See if they are listening to you because your sexuality and confidence is sacred. At the end of the day, YOU have to love the artwork and love HOW you want to be seen.