If you get those Living Social emails, you surely have received offers of discounted “boudoir photography” sessions. While I like a deal as much as the next underpaid editor, I’ve always viewed them as a spectacularly bad idea.
Take off your clothes for some stranger in a second-floor studio on Canal Street? Not sure I want to live that social.
Delete. (Come to think of it, this pretty much describes my Living Social bikini wax experience, but I’m almost positive there were no cameras involved.)
Another reason boudoir photography has held no appeal: Mine is not a body built for the boudoir. Not that I’ve ever, knowingly, visited a boudoir, but I’m pretty sure the ladies you’d find there would be womanly, curvy, Rubenesque. By contrast, I possess super-sturdy legs, broad shoulders, narrow hips and a not-narrow waist. I have what I call a Man Back which makes for a bra size that starts, alluringly, with the number 36, only to be followed by a demure “A.” Practically a Man Front, in other words, at least above the waist.
I know in describing my body I’m revealing my body image as well, but the truth is it’s a kind of a “move along people, there’s nothing to see here” situation. Which makes me an unlikely candidate for a nude portrait…
Or so I thought until I met Angelika Buettner at a party, a lovely German photographer who told me about the photos she takes of nude women. Angelika’s career involves shooting fashion and beauty photography of the world’s most beautiful women for both editorial and advertising. Her personal work is all about real women au naturel, in every sense of that phrase — naked but also without hair and makeup stylists, with available lighting only, in environments that are meaningful to them. When I perused her portfolio, I was amazed at the settings people chose. Riding bareback (and bare front) on a horse. Diving into a swimming pool. Floating, Ophelia-like, in a pond. They were all so beautiful! Maybe I, magically, would be beautiful through her lens as well.It was just me. Me feeling as “me” as I can ever remember feeling — even while doing something I had considered so decidedly not me.
With that thought, I booked a session, suggesting a friend’s penthouse for the setting. Beau has a balcony with sweeping views over Black Rock Harbor all the way to Long Island and, as an antiques dealer, rooms full of marble statuary — backdrops in case my figure doesn’t quite make an appealing-enough picture and also things to hide behind. I put the date in my Outlook calendar as if I were scheduling a status call with the ad-ops team. No big deal. But as the day approached, I’d glance at it with mounting dread: Nude Photo Sesh, 4 pm. Whaaaaat?
Somewhat helpfully, Google had information for me about nude/boudoir photography. First of all, I learned that the word boudoir comes from the French verb bouder — to sulk — which explains why the classic boudoir expression looks like a cross between “come hither” and “fuck off.” (Sulking, now that I can do.) A much-proffered tip for just prior to a nude shoot: Have a glass of wine. (Drinking — also within my skill set!) The word “tasteful” is overused in ads for boudoir photography, as if the underlining assumption is that the whole enterprise is not at all tasteful. Yew. (Worse still, I forgot to search in incognito mode, and now Google is following me around with ads for crotchless panties on my work computer.)
Unanswerable by Google was this question: Why was I doing this? Me, who’s never been the girl in the gym locker room who wanders around nude, not bothering to get dressed to blow dry her hair. Me, who has never been tempted to go nude sunbathing (so sandy) or skinny-dipping (seaweed freaks me out). Me, who maybe should have considered indulging this particular whim a decade or two or three before I turned 55.
Maybe. But there I was, standing in a patch of sunlight in Beau’s penthouse, tugging my dress up over my Man Back (never easy) in front of the cool gaze of Angelika’s lens.
And that was the hardest part. Like diving into the frigid Maine surf, the anticipation was anxiety producing. But once in, the water was fine.
Angelika’s way with me was easy. Truly, I forgot she was there as I sat on a velvet ottoman reading a book about the Italian illustrator Giovanni Piranese and then a paperback copy of “Harriet the Spy.” I had wanted my activity to be reading, as that’s what I tend to do in my spare time, having no horses, pool or pond as amusements. Angelika agreed to this, shooting a few cards full of Nude, Reading 1960s YA Novel. When I started to feel like a nutty librarian who forgot to wear her underpants to work, I walked outside to pose on the balcony with the view, the dazzling September sky and also quite a bit of boating activity (hey sailors!) as backdrop. Then we climbed up to the roof, where I practiced an old ballet combination I’d forgotten until that very moment: glissade, glissade, jeter. I did a goddess pose against a cinderblock wall, burnished to a fine gold by the day’s last light.
And at some point I figured out why I was doing this: It was freeing. I had stripped away everything that camouflages me during the day: my office-appropriate dress, my push-up bra, my tummy-taming Spanx, my reading glasses (once I set aside “Harriet”), my cellphone. It was just me. Me feeling as “me” as I can ever remember feeling — even while doing something I had considered so decidedly not me.
“Many women talk about how liberating it is,” says Angelika, who is preparing to publish her portfolio as a book. “We tell our stories with our bodies, don’t we?”
She’s right. I looked at the film she shot, and my story was written there — a version of it I have never told, even after decades of journal keeping. There were the choices I made: For one, that dive into a coral reef in the Dominican Republic, which resulted in a bloodied and now scarred thigh. There was evidence of the shape shifting that happened after having two babies. There was half-a-lifetime’s worth of worry embedded in my brow, laughter in the lines around my eyes. There were years of housework across the tops of my hands; the slightly over-developed right forearm I got from tennis; the damage inflicted by SPF-free summers under the blazing Iowa sun. There was that prominent vein cording my throat: I’ve kind of hated it but now I read it as, literally, a life line, pulsing blood to my brain to the beat of I am, I am, I am.
It’s not bad or good, what’s written there. It’s just my story, and the photographs tell it without using a single word.
But enough about me. If you have a story to tell — and I’m certain you do — consider this: Angelika is still looking for subjects.