In a world where it seems we’re always being told what to fix about ourselves, it’s hard to imagine a professional photography studio that actually celebrates diversity among women’s bodies. So when we came across Shameless Photography, a Bay Area and NYC-based studio specializing in pin-up and retro boudoir photography, we were more than a little surprised (in the best possible way).
Sophie Spinelle left her career in progressive policy to form Shameless in 2009. The studio is a perfect combination of her creative and political passions, comprised entirely of women photographers and stylists. We recently chatted with Spinelle about Shameless, launching a staunchly feminist company, how she inspires confidence in her models, and why empowering other women had to start with empowering herself.
Can you walk us through one of your shoots?
We kick things off with a pre-shoot model questionnaire that asks all sorts of questions about the model’s life, self-concept, and her secret dreams. When the model arrives on shoot day, we talk more and go deeper, then launch into wardrobe and hair and makeup. Our models play dress up in a walk-in closet chock-full of all manner of wardrobe from size XXS to size 5X; [we have everything] from a lion-tamer costume to a 1950s gingham playsuit to glamorous red carpet gowns to steel-boned corsets.
The shoot itself is really different depending on the theme of the shoot and the personality of the individual. We could be blasting salsa, with model, photographer, and assistants all dancing about and laughing while we shoot. Or we could be listening to Nina Simone and allowing a model to silently remember, honor, and embody her deceased grandmother, whose pearls she is wearing.
For me, there’s nothing more fulfilling than creating a portrait that helps a person see herself in a new way—for her to see how exquisite and layered and valuable she is.
What do you do in the environment of a shoot to make your models comfortable?
Everybody needs something a little different in order to build trust, but we always try to have the following in the studio: a lot of laughter, good conversation, delicious snacks, and presence in the moment. We want it to feel more like a girly sleepover with your best friends than an intimidating pro studio shoot.
What inspired you to create such a body-positive project?
My grandmother was anorexic, and strictly monitored both her own food intake and also my mother’s throughout her childhood and adolescence. My mom pledged to break the cycle with me. She always told me I was beautiful. And not just that I was beautiful now, at a certain moment, at a particular size and shape—but that I had always been, and would always be, beautiful. I didn’t believe her, of course. Our culture scrutinizes women’s bodies, and I scrutinized my own. But when I began to emerge from that self-hatred, I realized that I was longing to do a photo shoot—to model in one—in a safe and supportive space. I started Shameless because I wanted something like this to exist; I needed it just as much as it turned out other people did.
Has Shameless received any negative pushback?
The most negative pushback usually comes from people who think of these images as pornographic. Last year we paid a fair sum of money to advertise on a mainstream wedding blog, and at the last minute they pulled the plug, saying our images were too provocative. They had previously featured several boudoir advertisers whose models were more scantily clothed than ours, so it wasn’t about skin. I think more than anything, what’s threatening about our work is that we aren’t photographing women as sexual objects. We’re photographing them as sexual human subjects.
Did you find that your project had some large barriers to break though?
I have to admit, I was fearful when I first started, believing that if people knew I was body-positive and feminist, I wouldn’t get enough clients to survive as a working artist. I had potential clients hang up on me when I told them I didn’t Photoshop people’s bodies. At that time it was rare to see curvy women in a boudoir or pinup portfolios—much less women of color, trans women, women with different abilities, or older women. In 2012, the amazing Carey Lynne joined me as a Shameless photographer, and my conversations with her changed everything. We both wanted our politics to be more front and center, so we took the leap. When Maxine Nienow joined us in 2013, she was on exactly the same page.
What’s the difference between empowering pinup photography and exploitative pinup photography?
I think it’s all about how the model feels about the process. Did she feel safe during the shoot? Did she feel valued for more than just her surface? Did she feel engaged as a creative partner? Did she adore the images that were created? Did she *want* the public to see them? We don’t share images unless we are given explicit and enthusiastic consent. Every person should get to decide whether their images are for their eyes only, or whether it would be empowering for the world to see and admire them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.