Boudoir photographer Samantha Eppel’s shoot this past October was an intimate affair: just her client, her client’s friend, and a dozen North Shore triathletes.
The Logan Square-based photographer typically rents hotel rooms or Airbnb properties for her shoots, but like others in her field, she’s had to get creative during the pandemic. In this case, Eppel and her client decided to meet on a secluded stretch of beach in Wilmette early on a weekday morning. They had just started taking photos, using the sunrise as a backdrop, when a group of triathletes inadvertently photobombed the shoot.
Eppel says the athletes ran down the beach and jumped straight into the water to train. “It was definitely a moment,” she says. “That’s the risk you take. We were just kind of like, ‘OK whatever.’ We weren’t too fazed by it.”
Boudoir photos commonly feature a sensual or erotic aesthetic and are often given as gifts to romantic partners, or simply kept by clients themselves to commemorate an achievement or as a confidence booster. While demand has remained high, especially in the run-up to Valentine’s Day, the up-close-and-personal nature of boudoir photo sessions—which typically take several hours and include hair, make-up, and plenty of close-ups—can make them a challenge to shoot safely.
Ez Powers, a queer photographer who specializes in boudoir for all bodies, races, and genders, has also taken to staging shoots outdoors near their home and studio in McHenry County, although they had to curb the practice when hunting season began this fall.
“I live with someone who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; if she gets COVID it’s not going to end well,” Powers says. “I’m very cautious.”
Other safety measures photographers say they’ve taken include quarantining themselves between shoots, wearing masks and face shields, and using long-distance lenses so they can stay more than six feet away from their subjects. In most cases, they’ve also had to limit the number of clients they can accommodate.
Liz Hansen of Chicago Boudoir Photography, who operates a commercial studio in Winnetka, was forced to shut down last March when the state of Illinois issued its shelter-in-place order.
“I had to call people who had shoots scheduled two days, three days out . . . it was devastating for me,” Hansen says. “I get involved in these people’s stories.” She was forced to cancel on bridal and anniversary clients as well as forgo shoots with a cancer patient who was having a double mastectomy and a woman who wanted to celebrate five years sober.
While Hansen was ultimately able to secure a Paycheck Protection Program loan and has since reopened, she says she’s still only shooting one person per day to allow time for sanitizing and disinfecting.
It’s not enough to accommodate demand, which hasn’t been dampened by the pandemic and, if anything, seems only to have grown.
“Demand has been through the roof,” Hansen says. “I feel like a lot of people want to do something. They’ve been cooped up at home, they’ve been bored, they’re not traveling anywhere.”
While some people have stopped paying attention to how they eat during these stressful times, the photographers say just as many have used the pandemic to refocus on their fitness and are looking to celebrate weight loss goals. Others have extra money or extra time to burn.
The steady pipeline of bookings may also indicate that boudoir has become about more than just snapping a few sexy pictures for your valentine.
“Boudoir in general used to be something that was rather taboo,” Eppel says. That’s changed over the last five years as the industry has come to focus more on body positivity and self-empowerment, she says.
“I have so many types of women come in to do photoshoots,” Hansen says. She says her clients have included a rabbi, accountants, a psychic, emergency room nurses, a 69-year-old celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary, and more. “Last week I had an epidemiologist come into the studio,” she says. “Now that she’s fully vaccinated she’s like, ‘I can do whatever I want.’”
Powers was inspired to take up boudoir photography after their “I Woke Up Like This” project, which depicted 45 different people in their natural state without makeup or modification, just as they’d look after rolling out of bed. The photographer uses boudoir in part to highlight different types of bodies that aren’t typically as visible in media. They also like to include an interview in each session—a holdover from their initial project—to help people assess their self-esteem by asking questions such as “what is your favorite body part?” and “what type of body liberation do you practice in your daily life?”
For Powers, shooting outdoors this past year has been a safety precaution but also a creative choice.
“Every time you have a person in lingerie with a bed, you automatically go to sexualizing them,” Powers says. “What I love about doing outdoor sessions is it takes away that effect and just makes you focus on the body itself in nature. It’s so much more beautiful.”
Although there’s nothing wrong with more traditional boudoir shots too, Powers says, if it helps make people feel better about themselves. It’s a sentiment that others in the industry seem to share.
“I feel like what I do really empowers women,” Hansen says. “If this is something that’s going to help you celebrate after an awful year . . . I’m happy to provide that little piece of joy.” v