"I get invited into strangers' bedrooms to photograph real sex," shouted the headline. A few days ago, I encountered the work of Roxy Hervé, a London and Paris-based artist/photographer who had been interviewed by Vice. The headline wasn't accurate (and has since been changed), but as I found out from speaking to a few other photographers, it did lead me to discover how easily boudoir photography can turn into something else.
Hervé, a graduate of one of London's highly respected art schools, has recently started a new photographic project entitled "Lovers," in which she portrays real couples naked, in their bed, being physically intimate with one another. As Roxy was keen to point out when I spoke to her, the couples aren't actually having sex while she is present: "I just want to underline the fact that I’m not photographing them having 'REAL SEX' as Vice falsely stated in the article," she explained. "I'm sure there's sex right after I leave, but not while I'm [t]here."
Hervé finds her subjects real couples — "straight, gays, lesbians, trans, polys" — through social media and her own personal networks, differing from boudoir in that she is producing artwork rather than receiving a commission from a couple and sharing the work publicly rather than being just for the couple themselves. And, despite the lack of intercourse during her shoot, it might be easy to label this as pornographic, but as Hervé says, the images actually feel more intimate and have a reportage feel to the style as opposed to being erotic. "I don’t think that there’s anything pornographic about them," she notes, deliberately choosing to convey a mesh of limbs and torsos rather than genitals. Through her tight cropping, for her, "it's more about the positions and merging of whole bodies rather than specific parts." In her artwork, she seeks to decontextualize the body parts, to "make the human shape disappear and reappear again" and shift our perception of the body through this mixture of styles and genres.
Hervé hadn't considered this type of photography until she was randomly contacted by a couple who knew her work, and this was the same for the two other photographers that I spoke to about this "beyond boudoir" sub-genre. It seems that it's not unusual to slip into this line of work as a result of being contacted by a couple who want to document — artistically and professionally — the intimate side of their relationship. The same thing happened to my Fstoppers colleague and established Wedding, Lifestyle, Boudoir, and Social Documentary Photographer Anete Lusina, also approached by a client who was a fan of her boudoir portfolio. After discussing it with the client in depth, Lusina was confident that the shoot wouldn't feel crude or crass, but would instead feel more like a natural extension of a boudoir photoshoot.
For both Lusina and Hervé, building the relationship and establishing trust is absolutely essential. Hervé spends time visiting each couple, getting comfortable, and asking them about their relationship and how it felt the first moment that they each realized that they were attracted to the other person. She explained:
It is such a personal and evocative question that they usually tell each other intimate confessions that they've never told one another.
Recalling her first shoot, Lusina told me that she was careful to ensure that everyone's expectations were the same and clearly communicated. She arranged for the three of them to take a walk through a local park to get the couple comfortable with her presence and that of the camera. Then, rather than shooting at the couple's home, which might have had too much of a family atmosphere, she suggested booking a hotel room. The couple had a glass of wine and Lusina gave only occasional directions. She explains:
I was more concerned with the images, and shooting it felt like any other job. I was trying to make sure I did it well. I thought it was quite sweet. It didn't feel vulgar. It was just a husband and wife making love and I happened to be there.
London-based photographer Gyokko told me about his first experience. While out shooting with some friends, both admirers of his fashion and boudoir work, he was asked, "Have you ever shot couples before?" Completely misunderstanding the question, he suggested that they go for a walk together where he could shoot the couple holding hands and kissing. This prompted much laughter. "That's not really what I mean," the friend replied. "I'm talking about two people getting together and having sex." Gyokko now receives occasional commissions to shoot with couples, with all of his work coming through word of mouth. He told me:
This isn't how I make a living so I tend to be picky. The way that it's happened so far is that people I shot told their friends, and they then approached me to ask what I can do for them.
Gyokko is very technical in his approach. His focus is very much on the sensual aspects rather than the sexual. For him, the images must have feeling, "not just two people banging away." The work does have its tedious side, however, as photographing more athletic couples can be a very drawn-out process. For Gyokko, many of the interesting moments are in "the preamble" where people start to get comfortable and relaxed. Once sex begins, unlike porn, the body positions tend to keep quite closed and relatively inaccessible. Also, once sex begins, it can become monotonous to the point of boredom:
A couple once asked me, 'Did we see you go out to make a cup of tea?' 'I made three, actually,' I replied. Two hours is a long time to watch people shagging.
This is part of the reason that Gyokko isn't interested in pursuing more work. "Make sure you've got some reading material," he advises.
As with Hervé and Lusina, communication is absolutely critical. From speaking to all three photographers, just like any shoot, the client and the photographer should be absolutely clear about what will happen and what the outcome will be. As Lusina pointed out to me, it's important that everyone knows what is happening, and not just in terms of the photographs:
If the couple are quite open-minded, you never know, they might expect you to join in.
If you would like to take part in Hervé's project, you can contact her at here.
All images are used with permission. Lead image by Andy Day.