Elise Kutt is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and has spent years studying posing specific to the female body type. As stated on her photo studio website, her mission is “to create a safe and supportive environment for female self expression.” In her studio in downtown Grand Rapids, Kutt and her team work wonders in portrait and boudoir photography.
Why does portrait photography matter?
I believe that portrait photography is important for documentation purposes especially, so our studio takes more of an art therapy approach to our sessions and I’m driven by the idea that we need to exist in photos. I want to really push women especially, to get out from behind the camera and document themselves. The other thing is, documenting our bodies is very powerful for our body acceptance journey. I think we’re really disconnected from our bodies these days. So, we work with our clients to say that all bodies are good bodies.
What beneficial or harmful changes have you seen in the portrait photography industry?
I think the most harmful is this stigma we’ve put around selfies. I loathe anytime I see any negative statements about the selfie as we know it, because I truly believe that the more we see ourselves in that way, the more comfortable we get in our bodies. I really think we (societies) are doing a disservice in shaming the selfie, and I would like to see more conversation about embracing being photographed as a form of art therapy, and as an exercise in body neutrality.
As far as what good has come out of it, boudoir is becoming really big, and in the last five to seven years it’s really blown up. We are stripping down and documenting our bodies more.
Have you encountered people who invalidate the expertise it takes to be a portrait photographer and how do you deal with those people?
Hmm, I definitely think the digital age has brought more photographers, which means more ‘faux’ photographers, more people that are self-taught; I think because digital came along and made it so accessible, pricing yourself in a way where you can make a living…is something difficult for some people in the community to see your prices and not think that you’re overcharging. For me, I do a really good job in phone consultations, I do a good job explaining why I’m different from the competition, and I do think people are coming around to understanding the value behind photographers that are coaches.
How do you put people at ease to capture their personalities during a session?
So, I set up my studio intentionally with that all-inclusive vibe, and most clients spend an hour, to an hour and a half in hair and makeup, so they’re very chatty with my team, and I’m usually over there sitting with a cup of coffee asking them all about who they are and really how we put them at ease, is asking all the questions. I also leave them with a little bit of myself at all times, I’m super authentic, my core values are authenticity, connection, and inclusivity, those are what drive me as a human, so when I’m sharing things that relate to the stories they’re giving me, it’s like I’m leaving them with a vulnerable part of myself as well.
What relationship does body image have with portrait photography?
I think it’s soo important, I’m gonna speak to my specific experience. I started taking self-portraits in art school out of convenience. What I didn’t realize until years later, was that there was a big, transformational shift that I had experienced where I went from being in that super unhealthy, eating disorder territory, as a young woman, to coming through this experience of documenting my body in photos I actually really loved. Looking back, I knew I wanted to take photography and do it in a really safe way that felt a little bit more directed and intentional. Anybody can pull a camera out and take photos, but can you really coach someone into thinking differently about their body?
Do you, as a portrait photographer, feel a responsibility to make other viewers approve of your clients?
I actually feel no responsibility for that. I think it comes down to the client feeling powerful in that image and whether they decide to share that image with the world or not is totally up to them. The only responsibility that I feel is to get my client to feel comfortable enough to give me their soul out of their eyes. What makes our work different is that you feel these women when you connect with their gaze. So my responsibility is to make sure that whoever’s viewing that image feels their (the client’s) soul.
What differences do you see photographing men vs. photographing women?
I don’t get to photograph men so much, and for the most part, it’s headshots or occasionally a family session. Men are just as self-conscious as women, they show up just as nervous, just maybe quieter about sharing that. There isn’t that big of a difference, they (men) are just less vocal about their nerves.
Do you actively choose to photograph men and women differently? If so, why?
I guess the only difference is in posing, I also shoot a lot of wonderful non-binary individuals, and I really get clear from the beginning if we want to be more masculine or feminine or both. We have a conversation about that because the main difference is posing. There’s definite poses that I wouldn’t do with a man that’s going for masculine, because they’re very feminine poses. I find that there’s a lot more posing options for women. I photograph men in lingerie and we do a lot of the same poses that I do for women and some that aren’t. I like to try and break rules as much as possible. I would love to get into photographing men more in boudoir styles. I would love to show hetero-masculine men in these softer poses, because I just think that’s something that we need to start moving toward.
Do you ever shoot with your phone?
Umm, retreats. That’s pretty much the only time, or if I’m shooting content for TikToks and video etc. Or if I’m shooting for the store, because we need to turn work over so quickly for the store, because it’s a small boutique, the fact that the phones are getting so good and I don’t need anything more powerful than that for the store marketing purposes. When I’m just really documenting, and not needing to be as artistic.
What camera(s) do you use? And what lenses?
Canon EOS R6 with almost exclusively 50mm f/1.2 lens. Occasionally the Canon 70-200mm and 24-70mm (lenses) when on-location.
What would you say to someone who doesn’t value the work that you do?
In business not everyone can or should be your client, and everyone holds different values for different things/services. I have friends that spend hundreds of dollars on hand bags and I’m over here strutting out of Horrocks in my fav fanny pack after proudly buying an absurd number of house plants to slowly kill. Different things make different people happy. I’d probably simply remind myself, “They aren’t your client” and move on.
What is the mission that fuels your work?
Without a doubt, it’s creating a space and environment and a welcoming experience for people to try on things, personas, outfits, that they’re not sure about. I think this is the space to do that. It’s funny, because our mission actually doesn’t talk about photography, it talks about the vibe we’re trying to create and the idea that you can have an empowering experience in a container that allows you to step out and try something crazy.
What advice would you give your younger self regarding photography?
Never stop shooting. It’s the advice I give every photographer just starting out, every intern just graduating college and every tortured artist in the middle of a creative block. Whatever you do, don’t stop creating.