In a storefront studio in Newport Beach, Calif., photographer Stuart Naideth circles his prey, Victoria Lucca, 25. She is reclining seductively on a Victorian couch, clad, more or less, in a burgundy silk negligee with matching dressing gown. "Turn your head this way a little," orders Naideth. "Part your lips a bit...hold it right there!" Click. Three days later Victoria, a men's clothing consultant, will pick up the proofs of her photos—some of which have been reprocessed to look like paintings. Lucca is not a professional model, but the pictures will cost her $500 to $2,000. She's doing this for her boyfriend. "He saw an ad in Orange Coast magazine," she explains, "and he asked if I would do it. I said 'yes' right away. For the man who has everything, it's perfect. I have a large version of one in a black negligee hanging in my dining room."

Well sure, that's crazy Southern California for you, but this sort of thing is going on in most large American cities. Boudoir photography, or the taking of pictures of discreetly unclothed women for their husbands or boyfriends, is the latest startling rage. In Chicago 51-year-old Gloria Marzullo, a mother of three children, had herself shot wearing only a fur coat and corset. "My husband and kids thought it was sort of ha-ha funny," she says. "But when I got the proofs my 15-year-old son said, 'Wow, you look great!' " Another Chicago woman insisted that photographer Mario Venticinque dress her up in leather. "My makeup artist put a small red mark on her behind," he recalls. "That's what she was into." In New York Marie-Claire Montanari specializes in classic nude photos of Everywoman, gets most of her clients from ads in the Village Voice and New York magazine and has had a 60-year-old as a client. "They're getting artwork," she says proudly.

What's going on here? Why are these women doing this? The answer seems to be a combination of fantasy-fulfillment and vanity, helped along by the pride-in-the-body craze and increased sexual openness. "It could be a little extra boost a marriage needs," says Venticinque. "They are tired of their men walking down the street looking at other women." (So far only a few men have taken to boudoir photography.) Says Joan Naideth, who works as her husband's assistant: "It's a blending of the new sexual freedom with tradition. Most of them identify with Playboy playmates. They usually don't think they look as good as the playmates, but they think they are capable of being just as sexy if they are photographed in the same way." San Francisco photographer Audrey Revell cites "the Joan Collins phenomenon," which has proved that older women can be sexy, too. Reputable photographers sign a contract guaranteeing that the pictures are for the clients' use only and may not be released without their written permission.

Naideth, a former wedding photographer, stumbled into the boudoir business when a new bride he had shot asked for some more "intimate" photos for her husband. Naideth complied. The woman later found out her husband was gay, but that didn't stop her from coming back for more photos for a new boyfriend. "I've bought myself a royal blue corset," the woman says eagerly, "and I'm going to wear it the next time. I felt like a celebrity for a day." In fact it sometimes seems that egos are actually being photographed. "I was Miss Costa Mesa back in 1968," says Pamela Wilcox, 35, now a housewife. "I think the pictures are 30 percent for my husband and 70 percent for me." In Chicago Denise Sheets, 20, admits that "it has been a fantasy of mine for the longest time. My husband even wanted to take the photos to work. 'Why not show them to the world?' he said. But I'm not sure I want people I don't know seeing them."

In fact, most women hesitate to disrobe at first. "Is this me taking my clothes off?" a 21-year-old Chicagoan recalls thinking. Naideth helps his clients over that hurdle with wine and a five-minute slide show of previous clients. "For the first few shots they are fully clothed," he says, "and that's when they feel the most nervous." Most bring their own lingerie, but Naideth has a closet full of costumes for the more daring. He also offers a variety of backgrounds: the Victorian "fainting couch," the Oriental look (a red ottoman), the French bedroom (complete with blue-and-peach wallpaper) and the wet look, which involves a shower and towel. "Two-thirds of the women have no intention of exposing their busts or behinds," he says. "But I put them through my whole routine and two-thirds of them end up doing it. They get in the mood and find it fun."

Still, "tasteful" is the one word most often used by boudoir subjects and photographers. "The pictures are more sensual than sexual," Joan Naideth insists. For most men that seems to be good enough. Beautiful Kristy Booth recently had her car stolen with her album in it. The thieves returned the car but kept the album.

  • Contributors:
  • Lisa Bagnatori,
  • Kristina Johnson,
  • Deborah Loeser,
  • Joe Pitcher.