Morgan Day Cecil has learned that when taking boudoir photographs, you can't go wrong with a crisp, white men's shirt, a sleek high heel and a little attitude. The real challenge is getting women to feel sexy and comfortable in front of the camera.
She knows firsthand what it's like to feel in a rut and out of touch with your own sense of beauty.
The Lexington woman's boudoir-photography business grew out of her own self-portraits after her son, Lucca, 4, was born.
"I wanted a celebration of my body and the female form away from being a mom," Cecil, 30, said.
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It was a journey to get there. In 2006, Cecil, who was living in Oregon at the time, had graduated with a master's degree in philosophy in California. "I was done being in my head," she said.
She turned to doing something creative. She had always taken pictures but had never studied photography. She started taking classes, but early in her studies, she unexpectedly became pregnant. It took her off her life plan, and she headed to Portland, Ore., to be with family. She also stopped taking pictures.
Moving home because of the baby "was a plan-B situation," she said. Her family was supportive, but she was single and felt ashamed and drained, she said. She had always been the type of person who had a plan. Being a single mother wasn't part of it. It threw her off.
She didn't do any of the celebratory things expectant mothers do: She didn't have a baby shower, she didn't get a belly cast.
It wasn't until her seventh month of pregnancy that she decided to embrace her growing body. She started taking self-portraits. That grew into her own photography business, including boudoir photographs.
That might seem like a leap, but Cecil tends to do things in a big way. For instance, a love connection that spanned two continents with a former friend, now her husband, brought her to Lexington.
With the boudoir business, she found Central Kentucky to be a little more conservative than Portland. But, she said, boudoir photography isn't about showing skin as much as showing attitude.
The female form has been artistically rendered since paint met cave wall, but these modern-day pictures really have their roots in the pin-up pictures from World War II. Cecil's work is more PG-13 than R-rated. Women decide to have their pictures taken for a variety of reasons, sometimes for the man in their life, sometimes for themselves. One client had a sexy portrait made after getting divorced.
Both in Oregon and Lexington, Cecil found women who were in ruts because they were so overwhelmed by the media's images of what beauty is supposed to be.
"We get bombarded every day with images of beautiful people, and we think that is everybody but us," she said. "What it is is really great photography."
Client Ami Needham said it was some of Cecil's other photography work — work that she says reminds her of famed celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz — that caught her eye.
"I said, 'I want photos that look like that,'" Needham said.
Needham had her boudoir images shot as a Father's Day gift for her husband. But it also was a bit of a reawakening for herself. After staying at home for six years to take care of her two sons, ages 3 and 5, she recently started a personal concierge business. She said the photo shoot and pictures were an affirmation of her strength as a woman.
"It was more about me feeling less like a mom and more like a woman," she said.
Needham's photos were shot in her new office space in Winchester. She said it felt empowering to show her feminine side in the place where she will be doing business. (Plus, the large windows provided terrific natural light.)
Cecil said she likes to shoot where people are comfortable. That might be the bedroom or it might be out in nature. The model sets the tone, she said.
They also can pick the style, be it Marilyn Monroe sex kitten or full-on pin-up complete with serious make-up and hair. Or, if it's what makes the woman most comfortable, a picture might be shot in a football jersey with tousled, just-rolled-out-of-bed hair.
Although she is model-tall and blonde, Needham said it took her a little while to warm up to the camera while she was dressed in lingerie.
"It's a little intimidating any time you do something like that," she said. "It's not socially the norm. Even though it's what you wear when you go to the pool with your kids." Cecil, she said, "just made me laugh the whole time."
"She takes all the pretension out of the situation," Needham said. "I was saying, 'Oh, Morgan, my belly,' and she was saying 'No, it's feminine, it's beautiful.'"
The pictures were a gift for her husband. "He loved them," she said.
"The funny thing is that it is all underground," Needham said of boudoir photography. "I felt like I was going out on a limb, but now I know tons of people who have done it. I told my hairdresser, and she was like, 'I've done it twice.'"
Cecil said she is on a "guerilla mission" to help women see in themselves what she sees through her lens. She offers "scholarships" to people she really wants to shoot. "I want to capture that mystery that is a woman," she said.
Acting a little sexy, she said, "is a license to kind of act like an alter ego."
"It's a license to be playful."