If boudoir photography, with its soft lighting and sensual poses, rates a PG-13, then full-on erotica approaches X-rated.
“The biggest difference is boudoir has a lot of implication and implied sexiness, whereas erotica is straight-on orgasm,” says Highline Boudoir & Erotica owner and principal photographer, Kelsa Blaine.
“We’re having sex.”
Walking into Highline Boudoir feels like walking into someone’s highly Instagrammable home. The South Side row house studio is stocked with alcoves and spaces for picture-perfect vignettes, including a bedroom set, vintage Playboys, and a closet full of lingerie to set the mood.
For solo boudoir shoots, most clients come in nervous and giggly, but Blaine sees them light up after a trip through hair and makeup with her professional team, and a visit to the wardrobe.
Boudoir requires a mindfulness towards creating the right setting, and promoting safety for everyone there. Many of the people visiting Blaine for shoots are working through some personal trauma, whether it be a divorce or simply the anxiety of trying something new.
Creating a comfortable setting is key, but it’s not just setting that makes the space feel safe. When clients feel emotionally comfortable, they’re more comfortable bearing it all.
In both experiences, couples’ erotica and solo boudoir shoots, Blaine hopes people leave with a deeper sense of self, intimacy, and empowerment.
“If a girl’s not crying by the end or seeing herself from a different perspective, I didn’t do my job well enough.”
If the thought of boudoir and erotic photography sounds taboo, or even scary, you’d have had something in common with Blaine, who founded her East Carson Street studio just a few years ago.
Growing up a fundamental conservative Baptist, sensuality and self-acceptance were some of the furthest things from her mind.
It wasn’t until she started shooting weddings in 2015 with her then-husband that boudoir photography almost fell into her lap. Blaine began moonlighting as a wedding photographer to help pay for law school, and by 2018, she’d logged over 100 weddings.
At the same time, brides-to-be started to approach Blaine not only to shoot their big day, but also for a boudoir shoot, often as a wedding gift to their husband.
Blaine was still deeply religious, but willing to make her clients happy.
“I was like, ‘Well, I’m only gonna do it for ladies who are gonna get married or already married.’” she says. “Mm-hmm. That lasted like a minute.”
Capturing women on their wedding day was exciting, but it was nothing compared to the transformation and sexual liberation she was generating in boudoir shoots.
“A large part of the boudoir process that I do is guiding them through these challenges, encouraging self-love,” Blaine explains. “Seeing the confidence they have coming out of it, and the reclamation they have, it’s really cool.”
Blaine’s professional transition from wedding to boudoir and erotic photography paralleled the growth in her personal life. As she started to help clients explore sexuality in their shoots, she also shifted away from the ideas of her upbringing and the church, and her marriage.
“In some ways, I’m really thankful for that kind of ignorance [around sex] until I was ready to explore it. Because then, in a matter of like two and a half years, I learned everything I could about sex,” says Blaine. “I gave myself permission to open up my life and find out who I am.”
She approaches it with compassion and understanding of her clients’ experience, aiming to create an atmosphere where guests feel safe and secure before they bare it all.
It starts with clear communication the moment someone books a service, and carries on through to the day of the session, where she tries to create an environment where people feel comfortable at their most vulnerable.
“It’s really simple things,” says Blaine, including asking permission to touch, keeping her studio well lit, secure, and cozy.
She describes her approach as trauma-informed. She recognizes that her shoots are often tied with transformative life events, and while not a mental health professional, she strives to provide resources outside of the boudoir for continued healing and growth, including local therapists and outreach services.
Blaine’s passion for helping those who identify as women unlock their sexuality is starting to expand past the lens. She’s started hosting pajama party-style events for women in the Highline studio, where guests are welcomed to “deep conversations and being bougie,” she jokes, which includes cocktails, astrology readings, and a safe space to discuss pleasure and purpose.
From PJ parties to photographing intimate moments, Blaine has found a calling.
“I’ve realized my life purpose is to figure out the tools that have helped me in my healing journey and then to share that with other people.”