One Minnesota photographer is working to dig beneath the pretty surface in an effort to show women the beauty they hold within. In the process, she is building a living legacy for her daughter, one that she only recently began to see in herself.
Starting at Home
When Rochester-area Portrait Photographer Nicole Mills picked up her first camera as a child, she had no idea that she'd someday be using one to build a business, and empower other women, with her portraits. "I’d always been a shutterbug, even growing up," Mills recalls. "As soon as a roll of film in my little point-and-shoot was finished, I’d run it down to the drugstore to get it developed."
After briefly studying film photography in college, her love for the craft got pushed aside for a few years. But Mills found her passion reignited when she bought her first DSLR to document the life of her then-newborn daughter. As her daughter developed, so did her desire to create amazing, engaging portraits.
Mills loved taking images of her daughter, now 7, that truly captured the essence of the child's personality. It was during that time that she began to take interest in portrait photography, and its ability to portray something deep within a person. "Catching those looks, those precise moments that someone’s inner guard is down, their personality shines through."
More Than Pretty Faces
Mills soon found herself more and more drawn to making portraits of women of all ages. She was intrigued by the things that drive women to be concerned with outward appearance, and how those things develop and compound over time.
"I think we all start out as young girls just 'being' what we are; who we are," says Mills. "We’re indifferent to whether or not we’re good, bad, beautiful, ugly, etc.; we just 'are.' But as we grow, the world at large creeps in, and we quickly learn there are standards for everything, and specifically, for beauty." Mills says that as we get older, we begin to seek validation and lose self-acceptance. She believes that in an attempt to conform, too many women try to bury the things that make them beautifully unique.
So she began to develop a passion not only for making these women look beautiful, but for showing them a beauty that shone deeper than what was on the surface. "With society seemingly cracking down on gender inequality and sexual predators, I think it’s super important for women to see themselves as the strong, fierce, confident people they should already be recognized as, not be ashamed, indifferent, or shy in regards to their own beauty."
A Passion for Connection
She now strives for this connection in every client she encounters, in hopes that her clients will see and appreciate their own unique beauty. And the beauty that she is seeking to show is much more than the external. It comes from the very strength that it sometimes takes to sit for a portrait. She wants to show women their own confidence, strength, compassion, and vulnerability. And Mills recognizes that it takes a certain amount of guts to sit down in front of the camera. "To open yourself up to the process of having portraits made shows a willingness to be vulnerable, which is something many people struggle to do. Having your portrait made is life affirming."
While some women who come to Mills seeking a portrait experience are quick to jump in front of the camera, she can usually determine the ones who she says "need" this experience the most, sometimes merely by reading their reluctance. Mills' job is to bridge that gap by reassuring her client that she is capable of being in beautiful portraits. "Taking that step to invest in portraits can be so liberating. And giving a woman that nudge, or that confirmation, that yes, she is worthy; it’s amazing."
It isn't always in a woman's nature to treat herself to her very own portrait session. Many times, women put their families first, or have their children photographed alone, but don't consider having photographs of themselves a priority. Mills reminisces about the time a friend, whom she had photographed with family many times, finally allowed herself to be photographed alone, in her own portrait session, just for her. "I don’t think she saw herself as either worthy, in need, or beautiful enough to have an entire portrait session centered around just her, but that’s exactly why I knew she needed it," recalls Mills.
As is typical for many women sitting for portraits, it took a while for the friend to relax at first, but, Mills says, "soon enough, this undeniable confidence started to appear, and she blossomed before my camera." The change was palpable; the eye contact was more intense, the posture improved, and the client was truly engaged with the camera. Mills says that she still has a portrait from that session, hanging in a gilded frame in a place of honor in her studio. "This portrait represents to me the power that lives within every woman."
And it represented something equally wonderful to her friend. After having received one of the framed portraits as a gift from her husband, the friend told Mills, “as she 'schlepped the vacuum cleaner and toilet bowl wand down the hallway' she would stop and gaze at this beautiful, confident woman she saw there, and would always be so thankful I 'made her' do this. This is why I do this. Sometimes, we all need a reminder of what we are, especially when lugging around the vacuum cleaner."
A Lasting Legacy
Mills wants this all to be a reminder for her daughter as she gets older, as well. "I want my daughter to grow up to be one kick ass woman," she declares. "And I want her grandchildren to see that in images." While her daughter doesn't meet many of the clients that she works to empower, their images are an ever-present feature of the Mills household. Mills' daughter has even memorized some of the names and faces over the years.
And this is something that resonates with Mills, and her idea of the legacy she is building for her daughter. Like most mothers, Mills wants her daughter to grow up knowing that beauty comes from being honest, kind, and grateful, and that there is beauty in being confident and believing in yourself. Says Mills: "It’s only been in recent years that I’ve started believing this of myself. It’s important to me that she know that from the get go. Life is too short to waste it by not believing in yourself."
Images use with permission of Nicole Mills Photography.