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  • Photographer Mariah Carle, of Oakland, left, poses for a photograph in her studio along with one of her clients Jane Tivol Bowen, of Emeryville, in Oakland, California, March 29, 2012. Carle specializes in boudoir-photography. (Anda Chu/Oakland Tribune/MCT)
  • Photographer Mariah Carle, of Oakland, left, poses for a photograph in her studio along with one of her clients Jane Tivol Bowen, of Emeryville, in Oakland, California, March 29, 2012. Carle specializes in boudoir-photography. (Anda Chu/Oakland Tribune/MCT)
Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Boudoir photography goes mainstream

The downstairs closet in Joanne H. Lee’s San Jose, Calif., townhouse is bursting with the tools of her trade: bustiers, feather boas and 5-inch heels.

As one of a growing number of entrepreneurs bringing sassy, yet classy, boudoir photography to mainstream America, Lee has turned her 1,640-square-foot apartment into what she calls “a little Versailles in the middle of Silicon Valley.” And she offers her female clientele a fantasy world of plush white carpets and ornate chandeliers, a laundry room converted into a makeup salon and a tricked-out stage for women of all ages to express their inner divas where Lee used to park her car.

“A lot of great things have started in garages in Silicon Valley,” Lee says. “So I figured I’d use mine to set up a boudoir photography studio.”

From San Francisco’s Mission District to gentrified pockets of industrial Oakland and secret salons in suburban South Bay, boudoir is back. Once the domain of mostly male photographers and often cheesy or even sleazy setups, women have taken over the cameras, bringing a lighter touch to the business. And the brides-to-be, divorcees, social-media executives and even their grandmothers are loving it.

“The minute I walked into Joanne’s studio, I felt sexy,” said Minh, a 27-year-old third-grade teacher from Milpitas, Calif., who didn’t want her full name used for fear of shocking her colleagues. “I was in the mood immediately; the studio was so pinkish, so Victoria Secretish. I didn’t want to do the completely nude thing, because I’m a teacher. But I thought this would make a unique gift for my fiance before we got married, and this was not too naughty, but naughty enough. He loved it.”

It’s difficult to precisely measure the trend.

But boudoir photographers like Lee, who worked at the San Jose Mercury News before becoming a professional wedding photographer in 2008, say business is booming. After two San Diego women calling themselves the Boudoir Divas jump-started things in 2007 with their goal to “bring boudoir back,” others jumped in. Soon, daily-deal sites like Groupon started offering discounted boudoir sessions, making the once-edgy industry feel far more mainstream.

“There used to be a stigma around boudoir photography in the ’80s and ’90s when it was men taking the pictures and it felt a little sleazy,” said Lily Yip, who started Boudoir by Lily in San Francisco a year ago and still does part-time wedding photography with her software-programming husband. “Now, the majority of photographers are women, and the clients feel a lot more comfortable. It makes me feel good that I can make my clients feel good about themselves. It’s a huge self-esteem boost for them.”

That’s precisely what drew Rachel Schiff, a single Bay Area professional who does public-interest legal work, to Shameless Photography, the San Francisco studio that 30-year-old Sophie Spinelle started in 2009 and has now grown to two photographers. Schiff said Spinelle’s “mission is not just to present someone in beautiful light, but to actually inspire a feeling of beauty from the client.”

When Schiff opened the envelope containing her glamorous pinup photos, “I was reminded of that fairy tale you always read as a little girl. You’re a princess, but you’re also a warrior … a sexy warrior.”

The Bay Area, along with Southern California and New York City, has become a bastion of boudoir fantasy, say its practitioners. The women paying anywhere from $400 to $2,500 to step scantily clad into some softly lit makeshift studio come for all sorts of reasons. Often it’s a desire for a partner-pleasing, discreetly touched-up postcard from Dreamsville. Other times it’s an attempt to freeze-frame one’s corset-clad posterior for posterity.

“My oldest client was 75,” said Mariah Carle, who started Bay Area Boudoir five years ago in a live-work artist’s loft in Oakland’s Jingletown neighborhood near Interstate 880. “She wanted to preserve her good looks, just like younger women who say, ‘I want nice pictures of myself before I’m old and wrinkly.’ Others, of course, are just exhibitionists and want to do it in a safe place.”

The trend speaks to a larger societal message, said Beth VanderYacht, a 35-year-old freelance writer who attended one of Carle’s Halloween pinup parties and ended up buying five $50 prints of herself, including a striking shot in devil horns and a red tutu. Her husband proudly displays one of them on his desk at work.

“I never would have done this five years ago,” said VanderYacht, who wanted photos to celebrate her weight loss and boost her self-esteem in advance of an impending layoff. “They had those glamour-shot, bathtub-of-foam places in the mall, but I thought that was cheesy. This is more glamorous. Besides, the world is getting more comfortable with counterculture.”

As the owner of Alloria Winter Studios in San Francisco, Rhiannon Panopoulos specializes in photographing a top-drawer cross-section of women. “I’ve shot doctors and lawyers and some of the top people at Facebook,” she says. “With such stressful jobs, this gives them a chance to take time off for themselves.

“They say it’s a gift for their husbands,” Panopoulos said. “But it’s really a gift for themselves.”