It's long been a sweet but hushed tradition for a bride to gift her husband with an intimate photograph of herself on or before their wedding day. Unlike other forms of erotic art, the nudity in boudoir photography is often implied, as opposed to being the central focus of the image. The best boudoir, according to local photographers who practice the craft, portrays something beyond sex and beauty. It captures — not just the allure of the female form, but the potent and personal attraction of the individual.
But if the idea still gives you pause, a good thing to remember, according to photographer Desiree Dugan of North Kingstown, R.I., is that "it's not porn — by any stretch of the imagination."
Another great thing? The genre has evolved considerably from the pouty-lipped, puffy-haired fashion photos that were popular in the 1980s and early 90s. The goal of modern mainstream boudoir photography is markedly artistic, and it's not just for brides anymore.
"You don't need matchy-matchy lingerie; it doesn't even have to be shot in a bedroom," photographer Carrie Roseman of New London explained. "It never needs to be that contrived."
As photography has evolved from a technical and stylistic standpoint, modern women have access to a caliber of photo-processing once reserved for the well-to-do.
"There's no gaussian blur," Dugan added, laughing. "There's no high hair."
"THEY ALL COME IN NERVOUS"
Dugan pre-games with her clients to get a sense of what they're hoping to create, and the kinds of props or looks they want to incorporate in their session. Sometimes it's particular lingerie, sometimes it's a symbolic item, like a souvenir from a honeymoon or vacation. But sometimes the items reflect more specialized interests.
"I had one client who brought in a rifle, and a jersey and a hockey stick. Another had a husband who has, like, this love for Nike shoes so she brought in a bunch of his sneakers. It really runs the gamut," she said.
The only essential accessory, both photographers said, is a client who is happy and comfortable. Emotion matters more than all the trappings, Roseman explained.
"Laughter is one of the sexiest things on the planet," she said. And "it's a very connected moment" for the person later viewing the photos, she said. "You feel like you're there even if you're looking at an image."
To that end, both photographers take a very hands-on approach to positioning their clients in the best light.
"Hey, I'm not scared to get in and show them how to pose." Roseman said, smiling. "It's a good time."
But before the good times roll, there is usually an emotional hurdle to cross — a feeling of insecurity many women carry from a lifetime of being compared against airbrushed ideals of beauty, size and shape. Dugan said she has learned two things from this line of work. One, that every woman has uniquely beautiful qualities. And two, that "every woman, no matter how confident she appears, has a body image issue. They all come in nervous," she said.
She can relate. Dugan mulled having shots done prior to her own wedding, and now wishes she had.
"But I had so many reservations about my body," she explained. "So when people say to me, 'I want to do this but I really need to lose 10 or 15 pounds.' I say, 'Stop. You're beautiful the way you are. Your partner loves you the way you are, right now."
That was enough to convince Jessica Harvey of South Kingstown, R.I., (the client who brought the hockey stick) to give it a go. She was excited about the idea of giving an intimate gift to her fiance, Dan, and had loved the portraits she hired Dugan to take of her family. But she had a few reservations.
"I wasn't nervous about the quality of the photos, but I was very self-conscious about my body," she said.
Harvey, a self-described tomboy, said she had never seen herself as sexy.
"I don't find myself to be a really pretty girl," she said. "I really didn't know how I was going to look."
MAKING THE CONNECTION
A boudoir session usually begins with a bit of what both photographers called a "warm-up."
It's a convivial atmosphere, with music and light refreshments, sometimes hors d'oeuvres and tea or champagne. Most photographers work with professional makeup artists and hair stylists on-site. Clients may bring one particular outfit, or experiment with several different looks until one clicks.
"That's why it's really important to be in the moment" as a professional, Roseman explained. One woman might feel glorious in a soft nightgown, while for another, sexiness involves a fitted T-shirt and boxers.
Some women, Dugan said, are just really hard on themselves no matter what.
"When you have a kid, that changes you. You can work your tail off, and never feel like you go back to what you were before. This one woman brought in her husband's button-down shirt and wore a beautiful bra and panty set underneath. And she rocked that shirt the whole session," she recalled.
It's essential that clients feel comfortable enough to explore that territory in front of the photographer, Roseman said.
"A camera doesn't take good pictures any more than a typewriter writes good stories. A camera is simply a box that traps light, and it is the tool which I use to express my art. There's a personal connection when I photograph people. .. I feel really fortunate that people reveal themselves in an intimate way, and it allows me to see their beauty and show it back to them."
It's at that moment that things like size, height and shape cease to matter, she said.
And it's an experience that resonates with Harvey.
"When I got the photos, I honestly didn't feel like I was looking at myself — it was like I was looking at myself as Dan would see me."
Though she said she still feels like a tomboy, she laughed that it's hard to argue with tangible evidence of one's attractiveness. "It's different than when you look at yourself in the mirror — when you have this actual picture in front of you. I would absolutely recommend it. I was very, very happy."
BEHIND THE LENS
Carrie Roseman grew up in Ledyard, Conn. Her mom was an amateur photographer and an "amazing baker."
"I really wish I had a photo of me as a little girl standing on a chair at the counter watching her while she baked," she said.
She graduated from the University of New Haven with a bachelor's degree in business administration, but soon realized "the corporate world was not for me."
She enrolled in the fashion photography program at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, and describes her five years there as an intense period of self-discovery, and an awakening of herself as a woman and artist. "It was the brokest, richest time of my life," she said simply.
It was in New York, working in fashion and on model portfolios, that she learned to see her camera as an extension of herself, and how to use angle, light and shadow.
She describes her work now as equal parts art and expertise.
"Light is everything," she said. "It's important to know the technical aspects [of lighting] and you really only learn that from experience."
She strives for photos that celebrate the inherent strength and divine power of women, but that are also softly feminine and fashion-forward. Above all, she wants the women she works with to see themselves in a new way.
"A lot of women don't feel beautiful on a daily basis. So many of my clients say 'I thought I was doing this as a gift, but I'm so glad I did it for myself.'"
"I'm not interested in doing what's been done," she added. "I'm interesting in photographing moments of real, genuine happiness."
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Desiree Dugan described being a professional photographer as "the one thing I wanted to be since I was 11." When she left her full-time job to pursue another dream — motherhood — she realized she was facing a two-fold opportunity.
She began taking jobs photographing family portraits and various community events. Then a friend approached her about doing some boudoir portraits in advance of her wedding. Dugan was hooked.
"I studied the art of posing women, and now I just pay attention to everything. I watch how women are portrayed in magazines, I watch how a woman carries her body."
She, too, underscored the transformative aspect of this work.
"When my clients initially book, they're doing it for someone else, but then when they're in the process, and they're jumping over their fear for somebody else, they find something within themselves. ... It's really amazing.'"
Her clients aren't the only ones leaving their boudoir sessions with a sense of renewal.
"I set out to initially photograph brides who had contacted me, and I found this whole new excitement for my photography. It changed me, working with these women," she said