Photographer Valerie Steinkoenig brings artistic elegance to motherhood, allowing mothers to feel like living works of art.
By Jess Bugg, Photos by Valerie Steinkoenig
Valerie Steinkoenig, a self-proclaimed renaissance enthusiast, has a flair for the dramatic. Her most intriguing images have old-world qualities yet remain undeniably modern. Best known for her ethereal fine art portraiture, her studio, Valerie Kay Photography, covers everything from maternity sessions to children’s milestones and each moment in between. Newborns are swathed in natural fabrics (most of which Steinkoenig knitted herself) and nestled in woven baskets atop plush textiles, or rest on half-moons that appear suspended in the starry night sky. The images would feel at home adorning the walls of a hollowed-out tree, tucked away in a magical forest.
Mothers in her images are often depicted as goddesses, draped in couture gowns and sometimes embellished with crowns formed from gold halos or leaves. Steinkoenig’s style ranges from celestial to understated elegance, many of the photographs relying primarily on lighting to create portraits with more stripped-down sophistication. Steinkoenig is incredibly hands-on, photographing, editing and printing her own work. “The time we spend in the studio is really the smallest part of the job. I have so much going on behind the scenes.”
Where It All Began
Suffering from chronic migraines made holding down a typical 9-to-5 job difficult for Steinkoenig. However, it forced her to find creative ways to work for herself. “I had a little side gig sewing children’s boutique outfits, something I picked up making cute things for my daughter.” Her love of sewing began as a child when she would play on her grandmother’s sewing machine, and it still plays a crucial role in her work today. “I started my studio wardrobe with three gowns I hand sewed,” she reveals. “Those first sessions funded the purchase of the more couture versions I have now.”
Though she always enjoyed taking photos, Steinkoenig first began her career as a photographer by attending classes at ACC. With two young children in school, she chose classes that centered around their schedules. “I spent five years taking classes not only for the education, but for the social aspect.” In her first couple of semesters, she used her children, husband and pets as models but soon practiced her skills on friends. “Being a stay-at-home mom can be very isolating, especially when you have a special needs child,” she admits. “It was the break I needed to find myself again.”
Once Steinkoenig started taking photography classes, photographing newborns became her focus. Growing up with several younger cousins, she loved being around babies from a young age. “When I realized that newborn photography was an option, it was my goal from that point on.” However, in the beginning of her career, she booked more maternity clients than newborns; combining the two was a natural evolution. She now has clients she photographs every year for her Magic of the Holidays Sessions that first began with maternity photos. “I love watching their families grow.”
Mother to Mother
As a mother of two herself, Steinkoenig is able to put her clients at ease. First-time mothers are often nervous, but Steinkoenig and her assistant, Sasha DeMaria Smith, create an encouraging environment by relaying their own stories of pregnancy and motherhood.
“We know it’s hard. We’ve been there.” Steinkoenig walks her clients through every step of the process. She knows how vulnerable a maternity photoshoot can be. “I find that direct eye contact with the camera makes it too intimate for them,” she says. “So, we direct the gaze away.” Clients will often say how unphotogenic they feel, but Steinkoenig assures them they will take her breath away. “It’s just something I feel when I look in the back of the camera and mom has that look. Maternity is more about feeling it. Lighting, posing, wardrobe, hair and makeup are all important, but some images are just magic, and I feel that when I see it.”
Sessions for newborns are usually the opposite. Babies are often unable to make eye contact, so Steinkoenig relies more on props and styling to create the perfect image. “A lot more thought goes into how I style each newborn to get variety. These are often much more creative than any of my other sessions.”
Steinkoenig is a member of the Professional Photographers of America, Texas Professional Photographers Association as well as the Austin Professional Photographers Association. This year she earned her Master Photographer designation from PPA. “Photography is so much more than having a fancy camera and pushing a button,” she says. “I went to school for years learning about lighting and how to use my camera.” Her devotion to her craft is apparent in each of her photographs. “My work is where it is because I push myself to learn something all the time. I am far from a perfectionist, but I always want to do better than the last time.”