Caution: Contains explicit content
Model Penny Wren lies seductively on a double bed and strikes a pose.
Her hair hangs over the edges until she suddenly flicks her head forward and arches her back.
New York-based photographer Ellen Stagg, 41, tells her she looks beautiful bathed in the sunlight shining through the bedroom window.
"Want to start peeling some clothes off?' Stagg asks.
Wren obliges, stripping off her lingerie and twirling it in the air, as the camera's shutter clicks in quick succession.
It's a perfectly executed performance by both a seasoned burlesque dancer who also dabbles in pornographic modelling, and Stagg – a celebrated erotic artist who shoots sexually explicit content for a living. She's shot for Maxim, Penthouse, Playgirl, Flaunt and other trade magazines but has found her groove in creating X-rated photo books, with her latest offering, Dirty Girls Having Fun, released this month. Wren is one of the many female models featured naked or having sex in the new publication.
But the reality of what goes into taking pornographic photographs is somewhat different from what many people might imagine, according to Stagg.
"I have been asked by many people if I have slept with my models, but I'm a straight woman who has had a boyfriend for 8.5 years so I'm like, 'no'," Stagg tells news.com.au.
"A lot of my models are like, 'it just feels like we're hanging out and having fun'."
On a cool autumn day, Wren and Stagg meet in a Brooklyn apartment – owned by a friend of the photographer's who has lent it to her for the shoot – to create a series of images in a trade-for content exchange. The best picture will likely end up in Stagg's third book, she says. They waste no time getting straight down to business, with Wren choosing from a selection of jewellery and lingerie, to create her racy look within the first few minutes of arriving.
"I just love performing," Wren tells news.com.au.
"And I've always been kind of a pervert."
The banter between the pair flows seamlessly from the moment Wren is fully clothed and continues as she strips down until she's completely naked.
The conversation touches on everything from an upcoming thanksgiving dinner, to the most affordable local places to see bands, and unusual sex fetishes – "cake sitting" is apparently a thing. For Stagg, it's just another day in the office.
"It's totally second-nature," she says, of photographing sexually explicit content.
"The camera in front of your face almost has this kind of weird wall … I'm thinking about the exposure and composition while taking the picture … I'm trying so hard to make good work that later on I look at the pictures and go 'oh that's hot'.
"I look at naked women the same way as I look at women with clothing on when photographing advertising and fashion. The thing I do love about photographing naked women is it's just me and the model, sometimes an intern, and not having 20 people looking over your shoulder saying 'change this or that'."
That casual vibe is part of the laid-back environment Stagg intentionally tries to create when shooting porn stars and other nude models. She wants the models to be comfortable so she can get the best out of them and so typically instructs them to think about whatever makes them happy.
"If you make it stress-free then the photos just happen," she says.
Although that's not to say things don't get awkward at times, even if fleetingly.
While Stagg doesn't use the word "porn" when describing her work, she works closely with many industry stars and publications, and isn't averse to others using it. To her, it's erotic art. And creating a visual masterpiece is what she strives to achieve.
"People come up to me and say: 'how's the porn going?' but that's just the easy way to describe it.
"I'm not going to say that there aren't models having sex in my pictures.
"But I think the difference between porn and erotic art is porn is made to titillate an audience member where erotic art is made for the artist to communicate their work and collaborate with the model."
HOW IT STARTED
In 2005, Stagg, then a commercial photographer, was hired to shoot sexually explicit content for adult star Justine Joli.
"When I started photographing naked women I started meeting these women who I bonded with a lot more," Stagg says. She'd dabbled in erotic photography as early as high school but it wasn't until Stagg worked with Joli who was "uninhibited and uncompromising in front of a camera" that she discovered her niche.
From that point on, she's mostly photographed porn stars – including Charlotte Stokely, Jelena Jensen, Kendra James, Eliza Allure, Mia Presley, Kayla Paige, Lily LaBeau, and Madison Young.
Her only rule is that she won't photograph anyone who is "wasted or smoking".
Inspired by the likes of Madonna and her Erotica album, Stagg says her work "comes from a feminist point of view".
"It's a beautiful celebration of sexuality in its purest form," she says.
"I'm all about, if you're willing to get naked for me, let's take some pictures.
"I'm living vicariously through these professional naked people."
At times, it's even proved educational for Stagg, with the photographer saying she personally considers porn stars to be "the best people to talk to about female health".
"I've learned more from them than my gynaecologist."
Stagg strongly rejects accusations from critics that commercial nude photography is exploitative even for those of a legal age.
"There's a difference between exploitation and objectification," she says.
"When you turn anything into a two-dimensional image, you objectify the object.
"We as humans objectify people all the time.
"I don't think it's a bad thing."