Behind Alias Josie
Boudoir Photographer Christina Wert Talks Shop
Though her studio is only a few months old, Christina Wert has been showing women how to express their beauty and sexuality for over a decade. She began studying cosmetology, and later had stints working as a massage therapist, personal trainer and pole dance instructor—a skill honed by her experience as an exotic dancer. Her stage name is where she drew the inspiration for the name of her latest endeavor, Alias Josie, a boudoir photography studio based in Walnut Creek, California. With her partner (both business and romantic) Jake Litke, Wert works with her clients from start to finish—through hair and makeup, wardrobe, set design, and posing—to create photographs expressing their most beautiful, sensual selves.
Your last job was assisting another boudoir photographer. Was there anything that really inspired you to want to start your own company instead of continuing to just work for someone else?
I wanted more creative control. I felt like, as a female, and also just spending the amount of time that I did with the girls and the models before they went out there, I was really able to get a good sense of what they liked and didn’t like about their body, things that they were comfortable with or uncomfortable with. It was kind of frustrating for me, as the person that they would have the most contact with, that I didn’t have the control of the shoot to be able to say, “Don’t shoot this” or “Don’t shoot that.” or “Let’s try to make this not as noticeable or this more…” I really felt like I wanted more creative control to make my clients happy.
Boudoir photography seems like something that’s become a lot more popular in the last few years. What do you think makes your company different than some of the other ones that are out there?
I’m on the client’s side. It’s kind of the opposite model. Most boudoir photography studios are photographers that have started doing boudoir. I do boudoir. I do hair and makeup. I do posing. I do all this stuff and then I brought a photographer in to capture the photos that I’m creating.
You started with your last boss as a client, actually right? Isn’t that how you got into the business?
I went in initially for one of his test shoots. I felt there were a lot of things at the studio that could be improved. As a model, I gave him a lot of feedback and was like this is what, as a model, we want and would be cool for us to have as far as props and sets and clothing and that kind of stuff. I still continue to have that attitude. That’s what I wanted to create for my studio, the things that I wanted when I went to a studio myself.
What would you say was one of the biggest challenges that you had to overcome?
I think the biggest challenge was just in the very beginning because we built the studio from the ground up. It was an empty office building. For me, the demolition and the rebuilding of the place; actually creating what I saw in my mind and making it a reality, was somewhat difficult. We actually had to do a lot of demolition and put new floors in and new sets in, etc.
Who you work with right now is Jake, who’s your boyfriend. What is it like working together?
It’s been really great. He is coming in as the photographer and is really good technically. He understands lighting and camera settings and stuff like that. I don’t have to worry about that. I worry about making the scene, creating the look and the scene that I want, and then he makes it happen with the lighting, the angles, and stuff with the camera. I’m able to give him some direction as far as angles, but he’s able to handle all of the technical stuff, which is really nice for me.
I initially did start learning all of the camera settings and all of the lighting stuff with him. I found out when I would go to narrow photos down later, I had a harder time. I was looking at them from a technical point of view instead of from a client/laymen view. I found myself worrying too much about the technical stuff when I started learning it, so I quit. I didn’t want to know any more. I wanted it to be his thing. He can know whether or not we’re going to have a usable photo.
Was starting a business together something that you imagined for a long time?
Yeah, it’s funny. We actually daydreamed about it when we first met. It was crazy. We even came up with a name kind of jokingly and just threw the idea around. This space came open that was close to our home, we were in a financial situation that we could do it at that moment and we just went for it. We were like, it’s now or we don’t know whenever. It kind of fell in our laps. It was pretty cool. We had talked about it for a while, really in a daydream kind of way; maybe years from now, maybe someday, maybe someday and then we just decided to go for it and make it happen.
Do you feel like it’s hard on your relationship at all to be working together?
No. It’s crazy that it’s actually better, I think. We’re both the kind of people that like to spend a lot of time with each other. For us to be able to spend the day at work together is pretty awesome. For most of our relationship, I’ve been working part-time and he works from home, so we’ve been able to spend a lot of time together. It actually is more of a strain when I have to leave for long periods of time or he has to go out of town for long periods of time; it’s more frustrating for us.
Has the nature of your business, being kind of sexual, has that caused any problems? I know you both have kids—in talking to them about what you do, has any of that come up in any uncomfortable ways?
It really hasn’t. Anything that I’m going to put online is going to be very clean and classy. My parents are religious, so I wouldn’t put anything online or out in public that I wouldn’t feel comfortable with them seeing. That’s kind of a way I gauge things; would I show this, would I allow my daughter to see this and would I allow my dad to see it before I put anything online? Of course, for the women themselves, I absolutely am willing to do full nude, get a little more risque with what they want. The way we approach it is much more conservative and then allow them to go as risque as they want and are willing to do. It really hasn’t been an issue as far as I’ve felt from anyone.
What do you feel like you really excel at or what do you love doing?
I think the most rewarding, really for me, is the customer service. When someone comes in, I love when I first meet someone and bring them in show them the studio, but then just doing the transformation of hair and makeup. The love when people at the very end see their photos. They’re like, “Oh my God, is that me?” I’m like “Yeah.” It’s cool because I feel like even in strangers now, and Jake’s starting to now too, it’s kind of funny; we’ll see someone walking down the street and I’m like I can totally see what their photos would look like. They can be completely Plain Jane; just mom, hair down, no makeup, in their jeans and t-shirt, but I can envision already. I know what this person could look like. I know what kind of poses would work well with their body type. It’s fun for me to be able to create that when they come in; have a vision before it happens and then actually make it happen. The most rewarding and the thing I think I excel at is actually having a vision and making it a reality.
Do you ever have challenges with customers either where you feel like you can’t get what you want out of them or they’re not getting what they want out of the final results?
Yeah, I do. I think that sometimes people have a hard time relaxing. To get something that the person shoulders are relaxed, they don’t look nervous; that can be the most challenging or having somebody that never wears makeup trusting that the makeup is going to look okay once it’s on camera. It feels like a lot, it’s stage makeup, and also they’re going boudoir. They are going a little bit more over the top than their daily, go out to pick the kids up from school makeup. When they see themselves at first, sometimes people are a little bit skeptical about it. It’s challenging sometimes to make them feel comfortable to trust you, that it’s going to be okay, and that they are going to like their photos, and they’re going to like the way that it looks on camera. I think the main thing is getting people to relax, but I think that’s one of my other little superpowers.
Tell me how you think you’re successful at that, if you can put it into words.
Well, it’s hard to put into words other than the sense that I can put myself in someone else’s shoes very easily. I’ve been often accused of being an empath. I struggled with body dysmorphia growing up and in my teens and twenties. I know what it feels like, regardless if it’s momentarily uncomfortable, with what you feel like and what things look like. I definitely know what it feels like to be very uncomfortable with yourself, with your body, with your situation, and I think that I’m able to express that. I’m not going to put myself above someone and make them feel like, oh it’s your issue that you’re not feeling comfortable. I’m very understanding that people are uncomfortable and I’m only going to let them only do what’s going to be okay for them.
Could you walk me through a typical day of work?
Usually, about an hour before a shoot, Jake and I will go in and just make sure that the studio is in order. When a client comes in, typically we both greet them. They get to know who he is as a photographer so they’re not just surprised that some random guy is all of a sudden shooting them; they’ve already met him and are hopefully comfortable with him and his personality. I’ll show them around the studio and decide which sets they’re going to do and look at their clothes. Usually at that point I’ll take them into the dressing room. Jake finds something else to do either on the computer or goes and gets coffee or something.
Then we have about an hour for hair, makeup, and wardrobe. I spend that time with them; getting to know them, getting to know what photos they want out of the shoot, deciding what clothes they’re going to wear, helping them get their hair and makeup in order, and then we’ll come out. We’ll start with one set and do a couple different angles on that set, a few different props, and then switch sets. Depending on the shoot we’ll go through three or four different sets, so a lot of different lighting switches and clothing wardrobe changes.
It’s kind of funny. The last few shoots we’ve done, we’ve ended up having dinner with the client afterwards just because … and that’s the kind of environment I like to create. I’m not expecting, of course, for anyone to come to dinner with us, but it’s the kind of environment that I like to create, where they’re so comfortable that we’re their friends at that point. They are welcome to speak their mind if they like or don’t like something, if something in the shoot that they want to do or don’t want to do. We finish up the shoot, the client usually gets dressed, goes home. We then will go home and narrow down the photos to get rid of all the ones where somebody is making a face or I’m in the photo helping them, fixing hair, or fixing things. We narrow down the photos and then edit them. That’s pretty much it.
We’ll upload them to a gallery for the client to see. Depending on their package, what they’ve decided they wanted either we get them ready for them to view and decide what package they want. If they’ve already decided they want a certain amount of photos or a certain thing then we work on getting that package together. We try to limit our shoots to one to two a day. I don’t want to feel rushed and I don’t want the client to feel rushed. That was one thing with the other studio that I was working at. We would try to get three clients in, have a time limit. It was very efficient but I also felt like it would be great to sometimes have an extra hour or extra half hour if they needed to relax or talk more or if we needed a little extra time to get the photos that we wanted on a certain set because they weren’t relaxed or want to just try something different and experiment with new lighting and new props that maybe they brought in, something different that we’re not used to working with.
Can you tell me where you see the business going?
I would love for this to be a sustainable thing. As far as the entire business, we do have a full studio that is functional. Like I said, I only want to do one or two shoots a day. Those need to be done when we have natural light outside, it’s much easier. We have created a way to falsify that outside light with lighting, but I do prefer to shoot when we have natural light.
I would like the business to have things that can be in the studio in the evenings and on our off days, just for extra income and to support the studio. I would like to see us also grow just as our own brand. For boudoir itself, it’s important to me that it is its own brand, which it is. The studio has a completely different name. The boudoir thing itself has its own brand. I want it to be known as a place that’s comfortable and a place that’s safe and a place that is going to give you the pictures you want. That’s important to me.
I’m not looking to franchise or have this big conglomerate thing that’s all over the country. I’ve thought about it, oh it’d be awesome. There’s a couple towns that I have lived in that I, just more selfishly, would love to go start one there so that I can go visit more often. I’ve thought about especially the military towns I’ve lived in, that it would be such a great thing for the military wives to be able to have that at their disposal. It’s not even an issue for me or a thing where I’m like, oh I need this to be this huge company that’s franchising or getting bigger. I just want something that’s here, that makes it to where I can live and work close to home and it’s a respectable business that people enjoy. When you look it up, I want it to be one of the first names that comes up. I want it to be something that has good reviews that brings people in. I definitely want to keep it a small personal business.
Do you see yourself hiring more people in the future?
I’ve thought about that. If I did, I would have a hard time. The main thing, like I’ve said, that makes it different, is as the hair and makeup artist, I’m creating the photos. I think I would have a really hard time giving up that creative control. If I found someone that was very like-minded, I guess, and that I saw their work and was really excited about what they did, then I could possibly see myself doing that in the future. At this point it’s really what I want is to be able to just have enough do a minimal amount of shoots that I can do them myself and be sure that the quality control is there, that I’m happy with what comes out. There’s a possibility, like I said, also maybe bringing in another photographer. If they know the technical parts, I’m creating the scene and I’m telling them what shots I want. It would be something that could be a possibility also. At this point, we’re definitely very happy with what we do and enjoy it. I don’t know how comfortable I would be putting someone else in that position and standing behind their work.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start a business?
It needs to be something that you enjoy. You are going to spend your nights, your evenings, your weekends, getting it going and working it, unless you have money coming out of your ears to hire someone right away to do all the work for you. It needs to be something that you love and enjoy. When I wake up it’s like, oh I have a shoot. It’s exciting to me. It’s not like, oh I have a shoot, I have to go to work today. It gets me up and gets me excited. It makes me want to go get ready and go do it. I think that that’s important for any kind of business that you’re going to start on your own. It needs to be something that you find exciting and that makes you want to spend your nights and your weekends and all of your free time putting your effort and energy into it. Otherwise, you might as well work for someone else continually because you’re not going to enjoy it the way that you would, working for yourself.
Catherine Plato is a writer and editor from Oakland, CA. She is the former editor of Curve magazine and $pread magazine.