Photo by Gré BehanIn a cramped photography studio in Newport Beach, and in the smaller office attached to it and the hall outside that, hang dozens of soft black-and-white portraits. Some are of infants, but most of the portraits feature women. Some of the women in the portraits are wearing delicate tops and flowing skirts. Others are wearing just a skirt or are completely nude, and all of the women are pregnant.
Gré Behan shot the portraits. She has been making a living taking these photographs for the past five and a half years.
"I tell women that pregnancy is such an important time in your life," said Behan, a soft-spoken young mother of two. "I mean, you take pictures of your wedding or graduation, why not this? You can never do this again. This isn't like a wedding that can be shot again. Each pregnancy shapes a woman differently. You cannot re-create a pregnancy."
Behan has considerable photographic experience, which began at age 17 when she joined the National Guard. There she went to journalism school and learned photography. In 1991, as part of Operation Desert Storm, Behan deployed to Turkey, where she worked as a media escort, taking reporters into Kurdish refugee camps in northern Iraq.
But it was a college journalism class assignment she did on her own pregnancy that gave her the idea for her current portraits.
"When I was pregnant, I walked around in a little half-shirt, exposing my belly," she recalled. "People would look at me as if to ask what I was thinking. There's a lot of sexuality in our society, but that kind of thing is so overt. It can still be a shock, and many people still don't get it."
Some of those people are the pregnant women themselves who want to document their pregnancy but are afraid to expose their bellies.
"I pamper the women and compliment them constantly," said Behan. "A lot of the women are nervous. They feel fat, so I try to treat them special. I try to make them feel comfortable about their bodies and about themselves."
And she seems to be successful. Belinda Kiesecker, a Newport Beach resident and former nursing-home consultant, gushed about Behan's work.
"I got the portraits probably more for my son's sake," said Kiesecker. "I didn't feel like a beautiful pregnant woman. Gré makes pregnant women look beautiful even if they can't stand up by themselves."
That negativity—the inability to see themselves as beautiful—sometimes seems to be a common trait among women in Southern California, even ones who aren't pregnant. "I used to live in northern California, and up there, I think people aren't so body-conscious," Behan said. "When I moved here, women would tell me the portraits looked fine, but they looked like crap. Which was bad because my job is to make them look beautiful.
"Even the women who are in phenomenal shape still have trouble accepting their bodies," Behan said. "When you're pregnant, you feel like a beached whale. You get double chins, big arms and big thighs. You shouldn't try to hide it. But a lot of women, especially in Southern California, think they're still supposed to be a size five."
When doing research for her business, Behan pored over magazines on mothering and pregnancy and was astonished to find plenty of illustrations of pregnant women accompanying the articles, but precious few photos. Those pictures that did appear were of models dressed up to look pregnant.
When she started documenting pregnancies, Behan said, she was the sole photographer doing it. Today, there are perhaps five such studios in the Los Angeles area. Her photos are not yet mainstream, but clearly they are catching on.
"Demi Moore posed on the cover of Vanity Fair 10, 12 years ago," said Behan. "It was scandalous, but not really anymore. I didn't hear anyone making a big deal when Cindy Crawford posed a couple of years ago when she was pregnant."
After initial advertising, business snowballed. At baby expos and shows, Behan said, she repeatedly ran into grandmothers who wished she had been around in their day. Today she does about five portraits a week.
"In the studio, I only do black-and-white photography," Behan said. "It's more classic. Even the tint of color in blouses can date a portrait. So I take all the color out. After all, what you're supposed to be looking at is her body."