LIFE AND DEATH

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"Whisper of running streams, and winter
lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild
strawberry.
The laughter in the garden, echoed
ecstasy,
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the
agony
Of life and death."


-from Quartet 2, East Coker
T.S. Eliot

Why do we spend so much time preoccupied with the denial of death, while simultaneously the race to prevent and prepare for it?

If you'd asked me over the past month, "What's been new with you, Mitzi?" I'd have said (if I were being honest), "Oh just contemplating the reality of life and death in a new and visceral way. How about you?"

On June 6, I had four beautiful women in the studio for a 3 generations photo shoot. Carol, the oldest, got her hair and makeup finished first, so I started with her individual portraits. When I showed her the back of the camera she joked that the portrait I'd just taken of her would be the one displayed at her funeral. Her daughter and two granddaughters reacted as many of us do when our eighty-something loved ones make funeral comments: laughing it off and shifting the subject. Carol was spry, sharp, witty, and full of life. Her daughter and granddaughters lit up when I photographed them together, laughing and embracing and soaking it in. When we all talked Carol into trying on one of the blue gowns from my closet, she spun around and called herself a fairy godmother.

We scheduled their portrait reveal for an couple weeks later, but when the day came I got a text from Vicky: "I'm so sorry to cancel on you, but I found my mom at home having a significant stroke. Things are declining rapidly. Please know that now more than ever I would love to see these photos today, but I can't leave her just now."

Within a couple of days, Carol passed away at the hospital, surrounded by family and friends. I got a phone call from Vicky that morning requesting I send some of those portraits Carol had already requested be displayed at her funeral.

Now halt.

Stop reading for a second. Stop wondering how long this blog post is and if you can fit in the rest while you finish your coffee or move onto the next thing. Re-read the poem at the beginning of this piece. Stop dead in your tracks for a moment as I did on that day, the morning of my 29th birthday, when I once again was forced to snap out of the illusion that time is infinite and people are with us forever. There's a reason I haven't written about this for an entire month. It's taken that long to process.

In the spring of 2018, back home in snow-covered Canada, I photographed my grandfather. I gently took his big glasses off and smiled at him, waiting for him to look back at me with that predictable twinkle in his icy blue eye. He's nearly deaf so I used hand movements to direct his chin, with its droopy stubbled skin and that Adams apple I always used to poke at when he picked me up. And in that moment I knew it would be the last portrait I took of him. I was right, because in November his body had to give up so his lively spirit could move onto the next life.

And you know, even if I hadn't been right - even if he'd lived long enough to hug and dance with me again, I'm glad I treated that moment as though it could have been the last. Because it was. For me, I was lucky I got to say goodbye. I was lucky that his health declined over several years so I could prepare for what was to come. I am so thankful for that, because for so many people that isn't the case.

When Vicky received the portraits I sent of her mother, she texted me again: "Words cannot express. They are gorgeous. I just met with her [hospital] volunteer buddies and they absolutely loved them. I'm so happy with these and so glad I made the time to schedule!"

Vicky did MAKE the time. It didn't just happen. She booked the session in the early spring, planned the photo shoot a month later, and then scheduled it several weeks out to accommodate all four of their busy lives. But she did it. And I know she and her family are beyond thankful now.

I asked her last week if I could share this with you, and here's what she said, "I am okay with you writing about it now or at any time. It's a powerful message to women to take the time to pamper themselves and their loved ones while making memories that last a lifetime. Timing is everything!"

Thank you Vicky for sharing this journey with me, a time of immense grief embraced by desperate gratefulness. This is not only the reality of my career - it is the reality of all of our lives.

When I think back to my 29th birthday, I will remember waking up to that text from Vicky-- those words that stopped me dead in my tracks. I will pause and remember not only the significance of the career I chose, but the heart-wrenching preciousness of life. I will think of "the wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry," and the way everything, big and small, points "to the agony of life and death."

The reality of death is real and heavy, so the reality of life should be too. Every day is new, every opportunity is a chance for celebration. As one of my mentors says, "You're here and you're breathing and there's no reason not to grab life and run with it."

-Mitzi

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It All Starts With...

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When I was young, I would pick up a purple marker to spell my name. “Anji,” that was my nickname at the time (it’s hard to spell Mitanjeli when you’re 3) and I usually wrote the J backwards. But I chose purple, and I chose it for years. I wore this color and painted with this color because for some reason it helped me express who I am. So I guess for me, it all started with a purple marker. 

And over the next few decades I cycled through many colors, clothing styles, glasses frames — I continue to do so. It’s because when I see something that helps me express who I am, I wear it. 

When Kristen filled out my Luxe Portrait contact form early this spring, I gave her and call and quickly learned that she had been inspired to do a photoshoot because of a dress. “I was at Saks in St Louis when, I saw it. The most beautiful gown, black with flowers and beading and I thought, well I have to have it!” So she bought it in honor of her 50th birthday and booked a photoshoot so she could express herself in her gown. I probably don’t need to say this but when she put it on and walked out of our studio dressing room, she came alive in a new way.

When Ashleigh scheduled a photoshoot for herself and her daughter, she asked me if Kaitlyn could bring her pet bird for a portrait. As you can imagine, this beautiful green bird lit Kaitlyn up and our portraits including him were breathtaking. She planned her outfit to coordinate with his bright feathers and I’m so, so glad she asked to bring him. 

When Bailey called me last year to do a photoshoot, she shared a personal part of her story with me. As she was coming out of a challenging time of counseling to address past and present issues with her body, she had come to a point where she was ready to celebrate it. She requested fine art nude portraits at the end of her shoot, and to this day they’re some of my favorite ones I’ve created. She truly was inspired by her new relationship with her body, and I was so honored to walk with her in that journey. 

It all starts with something... 

Maybe for you it’s a new career, a new outlook, or a new relationship. Maybe it’s a new pair of Louboutins or your late mother’s pearls. Whatever you’re celebrating and expressing at this point in life is worth it, and I can’t wait to hear about your journey and create something beautiful together. 

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An Open Letter to the Women Who Step in Front of my Camera

I know how you feel. You are nervous. Pictures from phones, glances in full length mirrors, and comments from others have made you painfully aware of every detail of your appearance. You feel insecure because you’ve been told that things are wrong with you. You feel ill-equipped because you can’t possibly keep up with every fashion and makeup and hair trend. You feel selfish at the thought of spending time and money on yourself. 

So when I look you in the eyes and tell you I’d love to photograph you, you have a hard time believing me. After all, you don’t look like Gisele and even if you used to, that was decades ago. You warn me that you aren’t photogenic and your face looks weird in photos. You apologize for the curves that helped you bear children and the lines that soaked up sun and expressed years of joy.  But eventually your eyes light up when I show you how I’ll help, and remove the barriers so you can feel beautiful - either again or maybe for the first time. 

Because when you walked into my studio, I saw your glittering eyes. I admired your jewelry and noticed the warmth of your smile. You see, you know yourself too well. You know yourself so well that you focus only on the flawed parts and completely forget the good. But the reality is, the rest of us see the good. The ones who love you think of the good. They hear your laugh and they smile, they look at your eyes and feel as though you’re close. And I know that when you come back to the studio and look at the portraits we create, you will see the good again too. You’ll see the good and it will overpower everything else. 

So thank you. Thank you for stepping in front of my camera. I honor your trust. I do not take my role lightly. Stepping in front of a camera is like stepping on a stage - both terrifying and exhilarating. But after you do so, you’ll tell me you’re so glad you did.

“I saw myself for the first time.” 

“I’ve never felt so beautiful.”

“These photos make me focus on what I AM, when I tend to focus on what I am not.”


Trust can be hard. Changing the way you see yourself can be even harder. But every day is new, and you’re never too old, young, thin, thick, busy, lonely, worried, or unworthy to be empowered. Because friend, you are worthy of the love you so eagerly bestow upon others. You are worthy. 

Love,

Mitzi Starkweather

Today we celebrate 6 years of Mitzi Starkweather Photography, and 1 year of our amazing Downtown Joplin studio. We’d love if you’d stop by to celebrate this evening, Thursday May 16 5:30-8:30 during Third Thursday. We are humbled by your support and excited for the year ahead!

Note about the beautiful subject in these portraits: Christina first contacted me a year ago for a photo shoot, and since then she’s become a dear friend. We did her second shoot a couple weeks ago, featuring Lifted Lashes and makeup by Natalie DeMint. What a joy!

The Middle

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"Dancing is creating a sculpture that is only visible for a moment." -Erol Ozan

Creative expression can be really difficult sometimes. If you dance or act or play music or make visual art or CREATE, you've probably dealt with the process vs. product problem. You've probably sat down to make your thing and been so focused on the end result that you forgot to trust the process. For me, I don't just forget to trust the process, I refuse to trust it. Nope! Give me the illusion of control instead, says my anxiety. Give me the hundred ways it could go wrong so I can solve those potential problems ahead of time and avoid letting anyone down, says my fear. I've got this final product in my mind and if reality doesn't match up to it in the end, it'll mean I've failed, says my insecurity.

Woah. But experience tells me this isn't true! Especially with art. I love movies. But I certainly don't watch them for the sole purpose of learning how they end! The ending loses all significance if we don't see how the characters arrived there. I love how Brene Brown puts it: "The middle is messy but it's also where the magic happens." Ah yes, messy. That's a good word for it. But when I'm feeling insecure or afraid or exhausted, I don't want messy... and what I'm retraining my brain to think next is, "Well, then you don't want real."

But I do want real. I want relationships that can make it through the messy times. I want to NOT follow recipes some nights so I can discover something new. I want to mirror my client's vulnerability when she steps in front of my camera so she knows she is in a safe space. I want to dig deep into my heart when I create a self portrait, even when I get frustrated and realize what I need to create is not the sparkly ideal that will look good to the rest of the world.

The middle is messy: the middle of creations, the middle of relationships, the middle of conflict resolution, the middle of good movies, and the middle of life. But you know, 99% of everything is basically the middle -- the process. "Trust the process." One of my friends has it tattooed on her arm. I've seen and heard it a thousand times, and only in the last year have I come to understand the weight of it. The result isn't "it." The process is. And when I don't want to be honest with myself about something, I put blinders on and focus on the product. And that's the paradox! When we trust the process, the product really does end up the way it was meant to. But when we focus too much on the product, we can overlook important parts of the process and risk creating a bad product.

When Bailie shared her dance and story with me, I was inspired. When most of us think of dance, we think of the 3 minutes on stage with the perfect hair and makeup and impeccable costume. What's easy to forget is the hours and hours of practice and struggle, the bruised feet and sore muscles, and the mental stress of expectation and insecurity. But these things are what make dance what it is.

The struggle to express is what produces art. And I think we could all use encouragement to push through that messy struggle in order to grow. Trusting the process makes us give up the illusion of control, and in my experience, that really is where the magic happens.

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Extraordinarily Normal

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When we photographed Aaron and Shelby's engagement on New Year's Day in London, every detail worked out beautifully. And the night before, when he proposed underneath an umbrella of NYE fireworks, those details fell into place too.

Since we've returned and shared some of their portraits, I've gotten some comments (both on social media and in person) that I would like to address. They're all positive and complimentary of course, but people keep assuming Aaron and Shelby always look and act this way - several even assumed the two are actual models. But they aren't! Like all of our clients, these are "normal people." (I say that with quotes because I believe the most profound beauty is found in the normal, the everyday, the ordinary.)

The reason I am writing on this today is the same reason I post before and after photos. If I didn't, people would assume that everyone I photograph feels naturally confident in front of the camera, knows how to style themselves and an entire photoshoot, and is excellent at hair and makeup. The thing is, I specialize in photographing everyday people who want to have an amazing experience. I do styling consultations, have helpful guides, provide hair and makeup artists, and then give complete posing direction.

I photograph ordinary people, and that's what I love to do. Nothing inspires me more than a client who walks into my studio for her consultation, immediately apologizes for her lack of makeup/cute clothes, and warns me that she's going to be my least photogenic client yet. Why? Because while she's telling me this I'm noticing the life in her eyes. I'm noticing her beautiful smile and imagining how an olive green gown is going to make her eyes pop.

When Aaron first began planning this dream shoot in the fall, Shelby was a bit nervous. She's a middle school math teacher who normally isn't into makeup or fashion at all. "It doesn't mean I don't want to dress up or go out of my comfort zone," she told me during our first phone call, "It just means I need help." From Macy's dressing room "how about this one?" texts, to Pinterest inspiration boards, to LOTS of online shopping, Jordan and I helped Shelby and Aaron plan and style everything.

The results were stunning. The most important ingredient in this photoshoot was their joy, and it shines through every portrait. I'm so thankful for Aaron and Shelby, and for every insecure (normal) person who trusts me to photograph them. Thank you for letting me help you show the world who you are.

Love,

Mitzi

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I Am Woman. I Will Not Be Defined.

Dear woman, when was the day that someone decided you were ___________ *insert female stereotype here* _____________ ?

Maybe you remember the moment, or maybe it happened slowly. But my guess is, you've allowed others to define you.

Maybe you expressed who you were and someone in the crowd said, "No, actually you’re __________." And you believed them. Or maybe someone in the crowd said, "You are ____________" and you rejected that definition so you decided to be the opposite of it, even if the opposite wasn't completely true.

There’s something I’ve learned over the past few years. The opposite of the identity you reject won't necessarily be your authentic self.

Two years ago, I transitioned out of a definition I had subconsciously clung to for over half a decade and my entire marriage up to that point. It was "Pastor's Wife."

I never signed a contract that said I had to make this title my identity, but at the time I believed it was an expectation that my family and faith community had put on me. However, when that title was no longer mine (because my husband made a career change), I resented it. Bitterly. I looked hard at the expectations and the ways I'd made myself physically and mentally ill trying to meet them. I resented the crowd that I believed had crushed me beneath these impossible standards and when I woke up that first Sunday morning with no place to go, I realized that I'd clung to this definition like a safety blanket so I could hide beneath my insecurities and blame them on the impossible "standards" others had set for me.

I climbed onto that pendulum and swung as far to the other side as I could. I cussed, I used the F word (feminism), and posted photos with alcohol on social media. I felt like a badass because I read books by people I didn't previously agree with and started to speak my broadened mind. I wore crop tops! But do you know what happened? I started to make whatever-is-the-opposite-of-pastors-wife my new identity. But over time I began to realize that trying to be a perfectly strong and independent #bossbabe (ugh) is just as impossible as trying to be a perfect Pastor's Wife. I began to reexamine my faith, my work habits, and my beliefs around all of these pieces that make me who I am.

I finally stopped clinging to the pendulum - regardless of where it sat - and got brave enough to jump off completely.

Big sigh. I've never written those words before. But I smile as I share them with you, because that festering wound has become a scar that I acquired on this journey (strenuous hike) called life. Through this process I faced the fact that while our society has wrongfully stereotyped women, we are prone to accept those stereotypes so we don't have to change or grow.

I get it though. It can be easier to accept one tidy definition than to look in the mirror and drink in the multifaceted, complex, and overwhelmingly beautiful being you are.

So that leads me to this project - these portraits. I wanted to photograph Alexis first as a blank slate, and then as an undefinable woman. In my world, a vintage gold motorcycle jacket, bralette, and handmade tulle skirt do not "go" together. But in this portrait, they do. Because Alexis is a woman like any other, who is professional, creative, kind, whimsical, AND true to herself. She is independent but vulnerable and involved in her family and community. She does art therapy for children and also loves Crossfit. She enjoys cotton candy and salad bars. She is soft and fierce.

You and I are so much more than the one little definition our society uses to pinpoint us for marketing strategies and advertising. We are more than the words we choose for our Instagram bios. We are women - We will not be defined.

Cheering you on,

Mitzi

Ready to celebrate the many pieces of who you are? Contact Mitzi here.

Your Juiciest Boudoir Questions Answered

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Since it’s part of my daily life, sometimes I forget that the world of boudoir photography still has details that make many women blush, giggle, or qualify their questions with, "I hope this doesn't sound weird but I was wondering if..."

I also recognize that for many women who would love to do a photoshoot like this, those questions hold them back because it's nerve-wracking to call up a stranger like me and ask them! I mean, most people who call me second-guess their ability to pronounce the word "boudoir" so it's not surprising that they're bashful to ask if I'll photograph them nude.

First things first: Some advice I give to every client at their boudoir consultation is: Wear whatever makes you feel sexy. We plan five different outfits so there's a variety, and I think many women are surprised at the amount of outfit options for boudoir. In fact, one of my favorites is just a white sheet. But since there are so many boudoir portraits I don’t share publicly, I can understand why most of our clients have very similar concerns! And that leads me to the first question:

1. WILL YOU POST MY BOUDOIR PHOTOS ONLINE?

That is completely up to you. 90% of my finished boudoir work is seen only by my client and myself. Your privacy is my number one priority. Some women believe these photos are for their/their partner's eyes only. Some would be comfortable with me sharing, but their career prohibits it. Others have told me they'd be honored to be featured on my Instagram, and one even said, "I'm fine either way, but since I'm curvy I want other curvy women to see my photos and be encouraged that they can do this too." So, like I said, it's entirely up to you. At your ordering session, you tell me WHICH images you'd be okay with me posting and on what platforms. After all, I'm here to serve you and give you a great experience.

2. DO I NEED TO SHAVE *EVERY*WHERE?

Once again, that is up to you. The majority of my clients choose to shave/wax before their shoot, but if you feel sexier NOT doing so, don't! If you're undecided, the only reason I'd advise you to is the same reason I retouch things like bruises and blemishes out of photos: To remove distractions. You should see YOU first when you look at the portrait, and I want you to feel sexy, powerful, and beautiful. So again, take this into consideration and decide what you're comfortable with.

3. IS IT OKAY IF I WEAR __________?

You fill in the blank however you want, and it’s fine by me. The thing I've learned in nearly decade of doing women's portraiture is that it's my job to create a safe and empowering environment for each woman no matter what makes her feel sexy, and every woman has her “thing.” Several years ago, a very straight-laced and shy client arrived to her shoot and proceeded to pull thigh-high leather boots and matching gloves out of her duffel bag. "My husband's request," she started to explain, but I smiled and reassured her “You don’t have to justify anything to me.” No matter how cozy or kinky your outfit looks, if it empowers you, you don’t have to ask my permission.

4. IS IT WEIRD TO DO THIS IF I DON'T HAVE A PARTNER?

If you'd asked me this question 7 or 8 years ago, I would have said yes. Because of my belief system at the time, I viewed a woman's boudoir photos and sexuality as something only for her husband... I've since come to see sexuality as so much more personal and something every woman (and human) has to own before they can fully share it with someone else. Whether you have a partner or not, your boudoir shoot is really for you. Earlier this year, I had a client fly in from across the country to do a half glam/ half boudoir photo shoot to celebrate her 21st birthday. She shared with me that she'd recently worked through the damage of years of sexual abuse, and that this shoot was to celebrate her body - her body that had for much of her adult life only brought her shame. As part of her healing process, she wanted to celebrate herself and when she saw her final portraits, we both cried.

If you happen to have a partner who enjoys looking at the portraits, that is definitely a bonus! Time and time again my past clients tell me things their partner told them when they saw their boudoir photos: "I'm so touched that you went out of your comfort zone to do this for me." "I can tell this experience made you feel beautiful, and that change in you is what I appreciate most!" "I'm so glad you did this boudoir shoot because you can finally see yourself the way I see you."

5. IS IT OKAY TO WEAR NOTHING AT ALL?

More often than not, I get a bashful request for fine art nude portraits. But I love it! I know this client is ready to get out of her comfort zone and how empowered she's going to feel. I think the female body is the most beautiful piece of artwork ever created and is therefore the most inspiring. Besides, some women just aren't into lingerie. They'd rather wear nothing but a strategically placed white sheet, a curtain, or high heels. I always ask ahead of time what words you'd use to describe your ideal portraits, so pair your artistic vision with my detailed posing direction, and I promise you'll feel confident.

Here's the bottom line: If you want this experience, all you have to do is reach out. There's no question I haven't been asked, no story I haven't heard. Friend, when you come into my studio to be photographed, I honor the vulnerability you dive into. I know it's scary but I also know how thrilled you're going to be with the results! "Losing ten pounds" won't necessarily make you more confident - but showing up for yourself will.

Love,

Mitzi

Ready to reach out and start talking details? Contact me here.

Right Now

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I usually write and talk about boudoir from, well, the photographer's perspective.

I talk about how it's normal to be nervous, how every woman has insecurities, how I offer outfit styling and give complete posing direction... and still, every couple years when I, Mitzi Starkweather, have boudoir photos taken of myself, I learn something brand new.

When I look at my boudoir photos from this past week, I feel beautiful.

Don't get me wrong - I love to write. But in this moment I wish you were sitting with me in my living room so the gravity of that sentence could sink in. I'd look right at you and as my eyes widened I’d say, "When I look at my boudoir photos... I feel BEAUTIFUL." I'd say it slowly and quietly, because the words surprise me. If only you knew the way I normally pick myself apart.

At times I've struggled with feeling like a hypocrite. At one point I sobbed in my bedroom and told Jordan I had no business telling women they were beautiful and valuable just the way they are, because every day I struggle to see my own worth. He reminded me that's what a person's "calling" is: the truth they're trying to believe for themselves.

Every day I struggle to believe I am worthy.

I love boudoir photography because it’s stripped down and intimate. A boudoir portrait says, "This is who I am in the most intimate parts of my life, and I celebrate it." I've done multiple boudoir photoshoots for myself over the years because as I grow and change, I want to continue to celebrate the person I am.

Women: Please resist the pressure to view your life as a steady slope downward toward wrinkles and saggy boobs. You are so much more than this! You are wisdom and strength and beauty and fierce love! You're world changers. You know who inspire me the most? My sixty, seventy, eighty, and ninety year old clients. These women are so incredibly confident, sexy, and brilliant. They have endured trials, raised children, overcome abusive relationships, survived cancer, conquered career goals, poured into their communities, and so much more. I can't wait to have glamour and boudoir portraits done when I'm that age!

Everything changed for me a couple years ago when I decided to focus on what I am rather than what I am not. I decided to speak confidently about what made my heart beat fast, and women who needed to hear it told me it inspired them. Yes, it usually happens while I'm photographing them in a glittery gown or lingerie. Portraiture is the method I use to show people their value, and it's the method I use to challenge my own beliefs about myself. I get it - the camera is scary because it's a mirror we can't hide from. But when we open ourselves up to celebrate our beauty, we set off on a journey and don't return from it the same.

It's easy to forget or over-complicate the sacred act of showing up for yourself. But friend, show up. Not next year or next month or when you lose ten pounds or when *whatever excuse you can think of* happens. Just show up. And if you'd like to feel beautiful again (or for the first time, or in an entirely new way), you can show up to my studio for a day that celebrates you, the beautiful you that you are right now.

I’ve found that my clients love to show off their photos to their girlfriends. So friend, I want to share my portraits with you. I want to show you so you can see that right now, I am proud of the woman I am. And trust me - If I can do this, so can you. View my boudoir gallery here. Click the image below if you’d like to book the experience for yourself! I can’t wait to hear from you.

Cheering you on,

Mitzi