“It’s okay. I’ve got warm hands.”


Behind the scenes of the boudoir …

Standing by the window of the beautiful Seaham Hall on Wednesday morning tucking a length of matte black chiffon into another woman’s lace G-string it seemed only fair to make sure that I wasn’t going to send a shiver of goosepimples down her naked thigh. I rubbed my hands together furiously before attempting to attach three metres of gauze fabric to a mere half centimetre of elasticated lace. Physics was never my strong point at school – would the damn stuff stay put?

‘Can you just hop up onto the window ledge?’ – easier said than done in a boned basque.

I have assisted on fashion shoots before. There was the one with four small children, a selection of expensive designer gear and a big bag of Kettle chips (nervewracking). One where I was trying to keep a mastectomy bra on a mannequin, complete with silicon prosthesis, on a swelteringly hot balcony in Singapore (challenging) and then this …

Before I go any further into this post I feel I should tell you that I am actually a rip roaring, Germaine Greer reading (she sent me a postcard once – receiving it was one of my proudest moments) feminist. Truly I am. I hate pornography (topical, that) and feel utterly infuriated with the way women are objectified in the media and the press. The recent scandal at Zoo magazine where the focus centred on who had written an advice column which suggested “cutting a woman’s face so no one would want her” rather than the fact that such a comment had been written in the first place sent me into an apoplectic fit. The idea of photographing a woman in her smalls or less wasn’t something that sat terribly comfortably with me. I was nervous. not about the job itself, but about what I would do if it all got a bit much. Only a few months ago I walked out of a presentation on ‘How to shoot fashion and boudoir’ as the shots on the screen got closer and closer to the fine line between celebrating the female form and objectifying it for the male or female gaze.

I remembered reading John Berger’s ‘Way of Seeing’ when I was a student where he wrote:

Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relationships between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

So what was it about Wednesday’s shoot, with its frilly knickers and high heels, that celebrated rather than objectified the model, Jill? In my role as assistant for the day, I was about to find out.

Working as an assistant usually means knocking the studio lights up or down a few stops, holding reflectors at strange angles until your arms feel as though they’re about to drop off, nipping out for sandwiches and putting the kettle on.

How was I to ‘assist’ in a boudoir?

I recognised Jill, the model, straight away. She was curled up on a velvet sofa in the bar area of the Hall, dressed in an enormous pink sweatshirt and jeans. ‘I’ve seen pictures of you – almost – naked’ I thought as I went across and introduced myself. John the photographer had taken to sending me selections of shots from his shoots so I could act as his ‘voice of reason’ (his words) and help him to make the call on the fine line between glamour and boudoir (previous candid comments had included ‘It’s lovely – but where’s her nipple?)

Up in the hotel suite Jill turned her bags upside down and the combined contents of La Senza, La Perla and Guess fell onto the carpeted floor. This is not a girl who buys her undies in five packs from Marks and Spencer. John and I sussed out the lighting in the room (cracking as the sun had come out and the sky was filled with galloping white clouds which cast beautiful shadows across the sofa he’d identified for the first pose) and Jill went to get changed. I pulled out some lengths of fabric that I use when I photograph pregnant women and discovered that my white chintz had become a ball of crumpled fuzz since its last airing and so I went in search of an ironing board. (The glamour! The glamour!)

The door from the bathroom opened and Jill walked into the room in a beautiful silk bra and knickers set in shades of deep red, gold and green. It felt slightly surreal to be talking to her in her undies as I stood in my jeans and shirt but I figured it was a bit like having a chat to someone by the pool in their bikini. John set up the pose, making sure that none of Jill’s limb was in danger of becoming numb from lack of circulation, and (once I’d moved the ironing board and a carrier bag out of shot and run through to the bedroom to get a few of the suede scatter cushions from the enormous double bed to add texture to the sofa) he set to work.

Now, as well as being a staunch feminist I’m a pretty down to earth Yorkshire lass. Emotions are quenched with cups of tea, slices of parkin and the obligatory stiff upper lip. I don’t do soppy and I certainly don’t do crying. So why was it when John asked Jill to raise her chin slightly towards the light streaming in through the tall windows of the room did I come over like a rhapsodic teenager? There were real life tears in my eyes as I saw how classically beautiful Jill looked – and how that beauty was not in her figure (which is gorgeous), nor in what she was wearing (also gorgeous) but in her face. The light caught her eyes and suddenly all attention was on them. She could have been wearing a black bin bag or wearing absolutely nothing. All our eyes were on hers.

The day progressed with me straightening corsets, choosing which knickers went with what and holding a giant reflector against Jill’s frame as she held on for dear life on one of the hotel room’s window frames. (A previous shoot, held in the evening, had apparently attracted the attention of the Hall’s gardeners who had watched John at work from the grounds with avid interest). All six feet plus of John leapt from table top to armchair to capture the optimum angles for his shots and he commented at one point that there were more straps around him (his camera is tethered to his laptop as he works) than there were around Jill. The shoot was hard physical work for him, something that you just don’t see in the calm, collected finished images.

One of the main struggles with any photoshoot is getting your models, no matter who they are, to stand in just the way that you want them to stand. With boudoir work there is the added element of a lack of clothing that makes physical contact, particularly between a man and a woman potentially fraught. Even the experts struggle in this area:

The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt. – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Photography Year 1980, LIFE Library of Photography

With boudoir photography you don’t even have the layer of the shirt to work with, its ‘lens on skin’ (or strip of lace), and so a demonstration (see below) of what is required can be an enormous help – and source of great amusement – on the job.

My experience behind the scenes of a boudoir photography shoot showed me that the relationship between the subject and the photographer has to be very strong. There is a huge element of trust involved and, as with children’s photography, any sign of nerves or discomfort will show immediately to the viewer. I think it shows that John had a career in hotel management. He quickly put everyone at ease and – most importantly – he listened to Jill and worked with her to achieve the images he took. There was a point where he looked at me and laughed as he worked out how to pull off a ‘reflection in the bedroom mirror shot’ without revealing anything and everything. As he worked out where the right angle was for the shot he said, ‘It may be boudoir, but it’s still all about the light!’

He’s right – It is all about the light but it’s also about a rapport which is what makes a good photograph great. As ever, Monsieur Cartier-Bresson said it best:

You are asking me what makes a good picture. For me, it is the harmony between subject and form that leads each one of those elements to its maximum of expression and vigor. – Cartier Bresson



4 Responses to ““It’s okay. I’ve got warm hands.””

  1. I so enjoyed reading this thoughtful piece that made new connections for me.

  2. Thank you so much for your feedback Wendy, I am working on another shoot tomorrow so will see what that brings! I’m looking forward to it very much.


  3. 3 Sarah

    It’s true she does have warm hands!
    Katherine, just a massive thanks once again for yesterday it went above and beyond our expectations!!! It’s was so nice not to be rushed and have two people who not only genuinely enjoy their work, but care so much about what the client wants – FANTASTIC. I have only just recovered. We were high as kites when you left and had to have a bottle of chamapagne to calm down!
    Ah well back to normal life… I am however still posing my way along the path while walking the dog. He is not very sure about the whole thing! Sarah xxxx

  1. 1 elmboudoir » Blog Archive » What makes a good boudoir image? - modern contemporary photography with a fashion feel

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