More than a boudie call

New Minneapolis boudoir photography company &HELEN doesn’t ask women to shed their clothes — just their self-doubt.

Sophia Vilensky

Woman. Mother. Proud. 

Intelligent. Talented. Local photographers Athena Pelton and Nicole Feest are more than one adjective; they are more than even a few. Recently, however, even the most body-positive of campaigns have been leaving a sour taste in their mouths.

One Friday night over wine, the two creatives were discussing shooting boudoir, and how brave it is for women to step in front of a camera and disrobe. With independent photography businesses under their belts — Pelton is the owner of Athena Pelton Photography and Feest owns Nylon Saddle Photography — the women decided to band together and create &HELEN, a photography business specializing in an alternative approach to boudoir. The business launched a few weeks ago.

“Why can’t I be intelligent and strong or inquisitive and daring? Typical boudoir is two adjectives: beauty and sex. That’s not what we are,” Pelton said. “I get to say I’m beautiful, but I also get to say that I’m intelligent.”

To get a sense of how their subjects feel, the women decided to venture to the other side of the camera and photograph each other in the &HELEN style. It was awkward at first, but the vibe soon switched from “forgot to wear pants dream” to “8th grade slumber party.”

“[&HELEN] really came from both [Feest] and I enjoying shooting boudoir for very non-boudoir reasons. People typically think of pinup, overtly sexual images, and that’s not what we do,” Pelton said.

They ask women to wear whatever makes them feel most like themselves, whether it’s lingerie or a velour tracksuit.

“Any outfit can look boudoir. It’s not about being naked — it’s about being powerful. Nothing says who you are more than just being who you are,” Pelton said.

&HELEN subjects are offered champagne or whiskey depending on their photographer — Feest is champagne and Pelton is whiskey. The women converse with their clients, forming friendships and allowing them to open up. Pelton tells fart jokes. That’s when the magic happens.

“I’ll never stop being nervous or having to get out of my head, but I know that by the middle of the session it’s always OK,” Feest said.

As business partners, Pelton and Feest complement each other. Having originally met on Instagram via direct messaging, the women developed a rapport over Groundswell coffee and good conversation. Both women are outgoing, but they often approach photography differently.

“I’m going into this with another person I trust and love. I know there are plenty of photographers and studios that do stuff like this, but I like that it’s just us two taking it on and trying to get women to look at boudoir in a different way,” Feest said.

Earlier this year, Jillian Wright became the subject of Pelton’s camera. There was champagne and macaroons and rock ‘n’ roll music; they had fun.

“It was slightly uncomfortable at first; I’m not going to lie. When you realize that the person on the other side of the camera isn’t expecting you to vamp up or look like Kate Moss, you relax,” Wright said. “It’s a vulnerable process, but the greatest thing is to feel like you have 100 percent trust and that the image is going to be beautiful and powerful and exciting — something you’re proud to keep forever. I can’t wait to do it again.”

Upon receiving the images, Wright said she saw sides of herself that she didn’t expect. Pelton had captured more than a carefully posed glamour shot. She caught Wright’s playfulness, sexuality and contemplative nature.

“Usually we get so much editing and filters everywhere that we get so far away from the actual focus of something. Our bodies tell a story … the way we carry them,” Wright said.

The images of &HELEN work to capture this story: not just showing  what you look like now, but who you are forever.

“Sometimes we think of boudoir as something for someone else, but it’s more for you. It’s for the person in the image to say, ‘This is my body. I’m going to own it and let it be loved and captured in a way that’s really beautiful and poignant,’” Wright said.

The brand’s tagline says it best: “Boudoir doesn’t need to be kinky, but it should definitely be kick-ass.”