MOORHEAD — Tonya Olson doesn’t believe boudoir photography should only be the domain of the perfectly fit, the naturally confident or the Kendall Jenner lookalikes.
Instead, she sees this intimate photography style as an expression of personal empowerment — a way in which people from all experiences, genders and stages of life celebrate their bodies and express their stories.
This all-inclusive approach seems to work. Olson has built a thriving business,
where she’s booking out appointments weeks in advance for sessions in her posh studio, incongruously located in a Moorhead industrial park.
She and friend/assistant, Erynn Levenhagen, also have used social media and smart marketing to build a devoted community of clients — they prefer the term “guests” — who seem to love how Olson’s camera captures them.
Their photos range from women wearing nothing racier than a lacy cami under a business jacket to photos you might not want Grandma to see. Yet a surprising 80% of their clients are so thrilled with their photos that they consent to Beauty Marks posting them on their
page or sharing them for marketing purposes.
Then again, the 33-year-old photographer has a small-town friendliness and a broad, dimpled grin that instantly puts people at ease. It’s one of the secrets to her success: Her guests feel like friends.
She wants everyone to feel welcome here. “We’ve had people ask: Do you shoot plus-size women? That is heartbreaking because I don’t think that should ever be a question,” Olson says. “I don’t want any type of person looking at our images and saying, ‘This person was pretty enough to do this shoot but I’m not.’”
Although boudoir photography has
it seems to have transitioned from a spicy gift for someone else to a subject’s statement of self-expression. “It means something different to everyone,” she says. “For some people, it’s a healing journey. For other people, it’s a self celebration … So it means a little bit of something different for everyone but a general, overall term for it is empowerment or self-celebration or body-positivity.”
A born photographer rediscovers her art
As a girl growing up in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, Olson was always the one with the camera. She usually had a point-and-shoot handy to capture memorable moments and candid shots of family and friends.
Upon graduating from high school in 2007, she dreamed of studying photography at the community college in Staples, Minn.
But then people told her that photography wasn’t something you go to school for. They advised her to go out and get a job.
So she did. She tucked her dream tidily away and worked at various jobs, which paid for rent and groceries but left her soul hungry.
By 2016, Olson, pregnant with her second child, had decided she wanted to book a maternity photo shoot for herself.
As she searched online for photo ideas, she felt her love for an old hobby flicker back to life. “It ignited something inside me,” she says.
She started researching cameras online and would walk into stores to hold different cameras, just to see which ones felt right. But as the mother of two small children, she knew she couldn’t afford such a luxury.
Then one of her favorite cameras went on clearance. When her dad and a friend realized how much she wanted it, they bought it for her.
Olson was flooded with “new mom guilt,” as she thought of all the ways the money could have been better spent.
But the guilt of neglecting a generous $400 gift was greater. She began teaching herself how to take pictures. “I put the camera on the hardest setting possible and started from there,” she says.
She started out taking family photographs for $25, eventually working her way up to $200.
As she gained more experience, she got the idea for a “vagabond-style” photo shoot, with two girls dressed in sundresses and toting suitcases on a dirt road.
Two friends, including Levenhagen, agreed to model. The three headed out to a remote area, where they swatted at bugs and giggled as the young women struggled to quickly change clothes in the middle of nowhere.
At one point, in between changes, Levenhagen was standing, clad only in her underwear, against the backdrop of the outdoors. “She was feeling so inspired and so beautiful that we took a picture of her just standing there, with the wind blowing in her hair,” Olson says. “We didn’t plan it or think of it, but it just showed how beautiful she felt, and how confident she felt and how great of an experience it was. The pictures were so beautiful.”
With that, Olson felt she’d found her niche. She wanted to take photos like this for others — images that made people feel confident and empowered and beautiful.
With that, her boudoir photography business was born.
On your Marks, get set, glow
Olson started leasing space in a studio owned by several photographers, but it was hard to not have her own space. When her guests came, they had to walk past other offices in their flimsy robes to get to the restroom. It wasn’t conducive to a private, comfortable photography session.
Meanwhile, Olson and Levenhagen’s friendship blossomed. Levenhagen would come by and hold lights or help out wherever she was needed. Before long, she was indispensable.
In 2020, Olson moved into her own studio — a light, modern space with gilt-embellished bed, posh furnishings, plush rugs, a claw-foot tub and all the trappings for a luxurious photo shoot. She added another important fixture: Levenhagen as full-time employee.
Now Olson does all the photography, editing and consultation calls. Levenhagen schedules wardrobe fittings, does hair and makeup, helps with social media and shoots video of each appointment.
“She was the model that launched the vision,” Olson says. “It’s been such a beautiful experience.”
By the time someone shows up for their photo shoot, they have already met the two women a couple of times to talk about what the guest expects from the shoot and what they’ll wear. They’ll invite guests to text photos of potential outfits just like someone might model an outfit at the store for a bestie’s feedback. This does much to make guests more comfortable in front of the camera, Olson says.
Guests can either bring favorite outfits from home or borrow pieces from Beauty Mark’s in-house selection of lace robes, sweaters, bodysuits and other pieces, ranging from XS to 6X.
The photo session itself carries an encouraging, fun, casual vibe. “We’re talking and laughing and the music is on and we jam the whole time,” Olson says.
But in the end, it is business. Olson charges $499 for the experience from wardrobe-fitting session to a “pampering portrait session day.” The day of the shoot kicks off with hair and makeup, a 1 ½-hour portrait session and a choice between massage or lunch.
While the client lunches or receives a massage, Olson edits photos for a same-day image reveal.
Olson says she does use a filter to slightly soften images and may correct glaring imperfections, such as large blemishes or bad sunburns. But she won’t make a 60-year-old look 25 or give someone a smaller waist.
Ultimately, she wants the photo to reveal the real person, wrinkles and all.
“ I don’t want people to say, ‘Now I love me’ (because of digital trickery). I want them to say, ‘That’s me. I love me so much,’” Olson says.
And her guests seem to prefer that.
“I think maybe once or twice in my entire two years in my studio have people asked me to alter their body,” she says.
Complete photo collections start at $1,150, according to Beauty Mark’s website. Olson says there are pre-payment plans and no one is locked in at a set price. They can always upgrade or scale down.
A picture’s worth a thousand words
For many of Beauty Marks’ subjects, the photos are moments captured from journeys of hope, loss or regained independence.
Olson points out one picture of a woman in a flowing green dress. During the shoot, she learned the woman had been in a controlling relationship in which she never got to buy what she wanted. When the relationship ended, the guest saw the dress and bought it — even though she had nowhere to wear it. The garment became the perfect statement of liberation for the woman.
Another woman was scheduled for a double mastectomy and wanted photos taken at every stage of her experience — from pre-surgery to post-reconstructive surgery.
Others shared that the photo sessions helped them turn a positive corner after an eating disorder or provided self-acceptance after relationships in which they were body-shamed or told no one else would ever love them.
Understandably, some subjects still struggle with the notion of revealing photos. Olson’s heart was touched by one woman who booked a session in her quest for body acceptance.
“She felt represented because we had other plus-size women in our portfolio, which she hadn’t seen in other portfolios,” Olson says.
The day before the shoot, the woman tried to back out. “I thought I was ready, but I’m not,” the woman said. “I’m not expecting a refund, but I can’t come. I’m so thankful for how you treated me and how much time you spent with me, but I need to cancel.”
Olson encouraged the woman to come in anyway. She reminded the guest that she could still pamper herself with hair, makeup and lunch, as she’d already paid for it. If she felt better after that, they could take a simple portrait of her. “I could tell this woman was hurting inside,” Olson says. “I could tell her soul needed it.”
The woman agreed. She brought just a sweater and jeans for the shoot and they took a few photos. Eventually, the guest felt comfortable enough for a brief, modest session in which she was mostly covered by sheets on Beauty Marks’ ornate bed.
In the end, the woman told Olson she was glad she did it and purchased a collection of photos. “I think it was just creating the space of, ‘You don’t have to do boudoir shots, but at least get your pampering and your moment and a portrait done.’”
Although the majority of their clientele is female, Olson says they want all to feel welcome here. They have photographed couples, same-sex couples and individual men. She has gone so far as to change all the language on their website and marketing materials to be gender-neutral.
“We’ve been working on making our business inclusive to men, women and everyone else,” Olson says. “We want to make sure we have a portfolio that is very open and representing, to make sure when you look at our portfolio, you can say, ‘I feel represented here, I feel celebrated here, I feel safe here.’”