Postcards from a Wedding
I wrote this post over a year ago and totally forgot about it. Sorry. It WILL be the last post I ever do in regard to anything related to a wedding. Ever. I’ve been out of that game for a long, long while and won’t be going back anytime soon. I’m not even sure I could do it anymore. Anyone who has ever done a wedding knows it’s both a mental and physical game.
CLIFF NOTES: If you don’t want to read this opus the basis is MAKE YOUR OWN IMAGES.
I was asked to write about advice for wedding photographers, something I promised I would never do again. However, earlier in the year(2012) I photographed my last wedding ever and I thought it an opportune time to sign off on this industry and business. This post might seem hard hitting, which I hope it is, but the intention is simply to make people think. As photographers we are capable of so, so much, but in difficult economic times, or trying times for the industry, I am baffled by the level of conformity perhaps best illustrated by the portrait/wedding world. Yes, many weddings are comprised of the same format, preparation, ceremony, celebration, and there are similarities from shoot to shoot, so in some ways repetition, standardization and trends all contribute to an assembly line type situation. However, I spent ten years in the portrait/wedding world and was successful because I did NOT conform. There is power and there is value in unique imagery, just as there is in unique literature, poetry, art and sound. So the next time we find ourselves walking on the same well worn path, let’s turn around, step off or begin hacking a new trail.
I named this post “Postcards from a Wedding” as a tribute to Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas and her “Pictures from a Revolution” film. Yes, we are talking a major stretch between the Nicaraguan Civil War and a wedding in the Caribbean, but hear me out. In or around 1990, when I was first beginning my official photojournalism degree at the University of Texas, Susan Meiselas came and screened this film for the PJ students. My first “photojournalism” class had hundreds of people in it because “photojournalism 101” was an elective that any communication, art or journalism student could take. Consequently it was a packed house. I was hooked. Completely and utterly hooked. First, the film gave me a feel for who Susan was. Second it gave me a feel for what type of effort it required to do this work, and it also gave me a clear picture of the connection between a committed journalist and the people she was working with.
Susan’s Nicaragua work was also graphic, violent, beautiful and felt like the kind of work that I wanted to make. Years after meeting her, and years after graduation, when I finally had a portfolio I believed in-my first book-I sent her one, unannounced. This was before I had a computer, email, cellphone, etc, so it was mailed to her in a giant envelope. Several weeks later it came back, and it came back with a long, handwritten note. In a nutshell it said “You see the world in a unique way but you have to learn how to make YOUR images.”
Maybe, just MAYBE, there were two or three images in the entire book that would prompt someone to say I saw the world in a unique way, so I figured she was being polite, which she had already proven by writing me back! What I took from her advice was the last part. I had to learn to make MY images. This is easier said than done. I see so much work today, so much, and the overwhelming majority is work I’ve seen before. Finding vision, as I’ve said many times in the past, isn’t easy. And you can find it only to lose it just as quickly as you found it. I know, I’ve done it. Several times.
But let me break this down with the wedding thing in mind. It is a challenge to bring up weddings and Susan Meiselas in the same sentence, but it’s my blog and my soul died a long time ago so I’m gonna go ahead and do it. I’ve written about this for years and normally get crucified when I bring it up, which is reason enough to do it. The wedding photography industry is filled with photographers who aren’t really photographers in the traditional sense, but that’s okay(They approach from a different angle). If someone finds joy in working in an industry then more power to them. However, there is a downside to this little tale if you have wider plans. If you have “other plans” in photography it can be difficult to be associated with the wedding industry, fair or unfair that is the truth.(Just had this conversation again, last week, with another photographer who said he was not getting commercial work due to being known in his area as a wedding photographer.Much to the chagrin of another photographer who didn’t think this could be possible.) One of the ways this can go away is if wedding photographers learned more about not only photography but about themselves. You GOTTA study, work, toil and fight to figure out who you are with a camera in your hand, and frankly most people don’t do it and the industry doesn’t put ANY pressure on them to do so. There is also an unfair stigma associated with wedding photographers. “If you can’t do anything else, you do weddings.” This just isn’t true anymore, not by a long shot, but the IDEA remains and sometimes this can be a real issue requiring educational skills on the part of the photographer.
The wedding industry was the first industry where I listened to photographers tell me they learned the business by going online, in 2005, and copying who was hot. This isn’t good. That might get you a business but it doesn’t make you a photographer. There is one photographer in particular, someone I first heard about years ago, who has been cloned by an entire generation of wedding photographer, right down to his camera and lens. I see dozens and dozens of wedding snaps that all look EXACTLY like his…only not quite as good. But guess what, it’s good enough. The bar is low so people can get away with this. And also, a lot of wedding snappers base their work and credibility on their clients who are mostly people who DON’T look at imagery. They like most things. This doesn’t lend itself to developing a higher standard.
I’m not gonna show you the bulk of the work I did on this wedding(Private), which by the way was the final wedding I will ever do. It’s over Johnny. The vault has been sealed and dropped overboard. I did this wedding for several reasons, but most importantly I did it because I really like the people involved. That’s all I need. Yes, the location was great, I had freedom to do what I thought best, and even though I was the official photographer I was also part of the gang, which makes things far more civil and enjoyable. The images you see here, with the exception of two, were all made with a plastic, discontinued underwater point-and-shoot. The rest were taken with a 43-year-old rangefinder. Why did I use these old tools? Well, I like them, but they also give me the STYLE of image I was going for. And when I say this I mean for THIS particular shoot. I had a very concrete idea of what I wanted the final product to look like the DAY I accepted this job, which was months and months before the shoot. I didn’t just apply my “wedding photography” to this event like all the rest. I’ve done weddings where I shot a grand total of 20 images THE ENTIRE DAY(665 Polaroid), and I’ve done others where I shot digital and shot literally thousands of photographs. I’ve done weddings in black and white only. I’ve done 6×6 weddings, 6×7 weddings, 6×9 weddings, and even used a 4×5 once or twice. I’ve shot Lomo, Holga, Pentax, Fuji, Canon, Leica, Polaroid, Zeiss, Voigtlander, Contax and a homemade pinhole. I used this messy range of clunkers because I had a vision for what the job not only required but how I envisioned the final product. I had this vision because I had experimented enough to know what worked and what I could expect to walk away with, and I was fine tuning my approach and technique to fit each job individually. This is a doable thing when you are doing a total of ten shoots a year. It becomes REALLY difficult when you are shooting 20+ events per year and suddenly conformity becomes a part of the equation. If someone else can do your editing you might be on the path to assembly line.
The goal is to be able to see the final project, which in this case is a book, and say, “I know who did that.” Call it style, vision(overused) or point of view, doesn’t matter. What matters is HAVING ONE. Wedding photographers should demand more. They should rally around those who take chances and set a tone that borders on chaos and failure, not volume and year-end-sales. Could we possibly take anymore of the mystery and experience out of it?
To be fair, working as a photographer these days is not what it once was. There are different pressures and the value of photography, especially in the mind of the general public, has changed and not for the better. There is less appreciation for the process and also less concern with the longevity or impact of the images. But, this doesn’t mean you don’t fight the fight. If you are a wedding photographer you have to educate yourself and your clients to what it is you do, SPECIFICALLY, and why you do it that way. In the long run, it’s all you’ve got. And don’t go thinking this is a rant against wedding photographers because this level of operation is happening in almost all genres of photography. Having an online following or filling a workshop doesn’t make a good photographer. These aren’t bad things, not by any stretch, but what I see happening is people associating these abilities with photographic talent. In my opinion, the best photographers in the world aren’t on social media and they surely don’t teach a lot of workshops. Why? Because they are making their work instead.
For you newbie wedding photographers out there I’m going to cut you some slack. Keep learning, keep expanding your knowledge base. The people I want to direct this post at at the “pros” who have suddenly found themselves in the wedding world. This really started happening about fifteen years ago, based mostly on economic pressures. YOU folks have a responsibility. YOU have the knowledge and experience which makes it truly painful when I see YOU conforming to what the industry is subscribing. When you homogenize your photography to meet an industry with seemingly no quality bar it really has devastating effects and not only on the wedding market, which is some ways is impervious to impact. How many times have I see or heard a photographer from another genre land on the wedding market and make some bold proclamation about “doing things right” only to see the same person six months later churning out the same generic content under the fateful statement, “Well, the clients aren’t complaining.” Weddings offer certain photographers, very good photographers, their FIRST real chance to make decent money, and ultimately for some that becomes overpowering. I get it, but ultimately I don’t get it. It just makes me sad. These folks tend to stop making good imagery, and not just within the borders of their wedding work. They just stop creating or thinking or whatever it is that made them photographers in the first place. This in turn drags the industry down ever so slightly. And then someone else does, and it happens again and again and again, and suddenly the slight variant is a deluge of brain drain. The truth is these people don’t need to do this. Many of these folks came from genres where the photographer has lost all rights, all ability to work in a pure sense, and where they have had to conform, sign contracts and give up on working in the style they dreamed of working in, but in the wedding world you can do ANYTHING you want to do, so when someone gives up, conforms, caves in, it makes it that much more difficult to watch. So if by any strange change ANYONE actually reads this post, take this ONE thing away which is to find that inner photographic kid once again. Stop doing what you think you have to do and start doing what you WANT to do. I guarantee your work will improve and photography will be a lot more fun once again. Photographers have an inherent power I wish they would take more advantage of. Not everyone can do what we do. I’m a firm believer there are the SAME number of photographers there always has been. There are millions of people with cameras, but they aren’t photographers. When you make a unique style, or recognizable style of image, there is a power you can harness and your clients will know and respect this. Your images might not fit every job, but you don’t really want every job. You want the right job.
And stop talking about new equipment. It won’t help and has no bearing on your imagery. I’ve been having conversations with photographers who tell me they are worried about showing up at a job with a 5D Mark III because they are afraid the client has the same camera and won’t think of them as a professional. This is incredible. If your client can make the same image you are making they maybe you AREN’T a photographer? (Buy a 40-year-old camera and you won’t have to worry about this!) Your photographs should be about light, timing, composition and your visual history, but if these items started in 2005 by you copying someone online…you might have a problem.
If you are offended by this post just know….I’m by no means a perfect person or photographer(OBVIOUS), but what I am is a pretty decent witness to the times and to photography. I’ve made plenty of horrible images, some for myself and some for clients. I’ve had successes and failures and this post is simply my opinion. Take it or leave it. I walked away from working as a photographer so that I could work on purely my own work. I fought the downward slide of “professional” photography for the past ten years. It’s doable, but it’s all about education of the client. To do this you need the kind of work that educates. You don’t need a standardized test that EVERY OTHER photographer has.
My advice for wedding photographers? My advice to young photographers? It’s all the same, and I’ll go back to what Susan told me all those years ago….make YOUR photographs, whatever those may be. In the long run, it’s all you have. You have to get outside of the wedding world and look at the full range of photography being made. Perhaps your images will be more influenced by Sternfeld, Steber, Shore, Smith, Salgado, Seliger, Stanmeyer or Strand than someone in the wedding field. If you don’t know these names(Please, please, please don’t tell me if you don’t know.), start there, look them up and see how you feel.
I walk away from this industry with overwhelmingly positive thoughts because I walk with memories of the people and the true moments that happened far from the glitz and glitter of the reception, those moments when hearts beat fast and the honest decisions were made.I walk with the truth of knowing that I was chosen to be the witness.
PPS: The images you see are the images I printed for MY book of the wedding. A snapshot book. 6×9, 300-pages .