When I photographed my first wedding ever (in 1997 – holy crap!) I did not have the slightest clue about what was expected from a wedding photographer. I had never been to a wedding where an honest to goodness professional photographer was present. I had never seen someone do the job I was preforming. I was a girl with a camera and an almost anthropologic interest in why these two crazy kids (and seriously, there were 19 and 21 – KIDS!!) were getting married. I followed them around like a detective searching out clues. Each click of the camera perhaps opening up my mind (and heart) to the comprehension of this whole marriage thing. Photographing that wedding was like photographing a tribe in a remote village. I had no idea what their customs meant or how profound the weight of the words they were saying. But it was beautiful and I was memorized. I was completely swept up in the single day that so markedly changes a person’s life. Even though I was clueless, I never stopped shooting. How could I? It was a sight to behold.As the years passed, and weddings became a part of my monthly and weekly schedule I learned the ins and outs of the American wedding. No matter the religious or cultural tradition, I learned to hear and see they rhythm of a wedding day. I also started to stretch my creative legs and make images I found so daring and exciting. I would (and still do!) make wildly romantic images of my couples. Or edgy photos with a bride in a place a bride just didn’t seem to belong. I made humorous photos, serious photos; stoic and silly, you name it; I made it. But as time wore on, and I logged thousands of hours behind a camera photographing hundreds of weddings there was always one consistent photo I seemed to make. A straight on portrait of the couple looking at the camera and smiling.
This wasn’t the kind of picture I had always been driven to make. In fact, it usually was the image I found the least interesting. Sometimes, deep in my heart, I would be so irritated when a couple ordered a large print of this image. Of ALL the stunning, artfully executed images we had made together THIS was the image they were choosing to immortalize the beginning of their marriage. I often found myself wondering what was the point of even MAKING those high concept images if my clients weren’t going to hang them in their homes? Was I just doing that for me? Were clients who would ooohh’d and ahhhh’d over such images in the consultations and said “THIS is the kind of image we want on our wedding day!” lying to me? To themselves? I wasn’t sure, but I carried on. Because no matter what, THIS image was the one that people seemed to want the most. So this was the images I was going to give them.
Over time, the making of the straight forward wedding portrait turned into a joke of sorts. I would line the couple up in beautiful light. Direct them into the simple pose and position myself directly in front of them. I would take my camera off the wide open settings I prefer and give the image a deeper focal plane. I would smile big at them as I lifted the camera to my left eye and said, “Okay you guys! Big smiles and look right at the camera! This one’s for your mothers!” Usually it would evoke a laugh or a wider grin and I would snap off a few shots of my clients looking right at me through a piece of glass. I had made the image that would be the talisman of their wedding day for generations. And I felt kind of meh about it.
It wasn’t until a crisp November night in 2011 when my heart changed about this picture. Our beautiful couple, Jillian and Dustin, had just been married at The Citizen Hotel in Sacramento, California. The sun had set while they were saying “I do”, and since they had decided not to see each other prior to the ceremony we were doing their wedding day couple pictures in the dark. Their wedding planner, Kate Whelan, had set us up with enough time to go up to their suite on the 14th floor so we could make some beautiful balcony shots with the twinkling city lights behind them. My Dustin (as he is called at weddings where the groom has the same name) steadied a video lights and I worked my way around the couple as they laughed and snuggled in the chilly night air. They were still deep in the post-ceremony euphoria that tends to swallow most couples up. I was guiding them into beautiful, artistic poses; pushing the limits of my camera and lenses. I was making images I was SO proud of! The time was winding down, and I knew I only had a few moments to make the least exciting image of the night. I posed and lit them and then delivered my almost famous, “This one’s for your mothers” line. The couple smiled, and then the groom said something that made my heart burst. “No,” he said. “This is for our daughters.”
Of course my mind went to my own daughter, five years old at the time and completely obsessed with her parents wedding. She would spend hours poring over our wedding album, asking about people in the pictures, what events were taking place and critiquing my style. I thought of the framed photo of my mom’s parents on their wedding day in 1934 that sits on my piano. I have stared at that photo since I was a little girl, memorizing the young faces of a grandmother I never met and a grandfather I hardly knew. It was then, in that moment on a chilly winter balcony that the true gravity of my job struck me – my job is, above all else, to create an image that will stand the test of time. An image that will be cherished for generations. Not just for daughters, but granddaughters, and great-grandchildren and beyond. So when I put you in that boring prom pose, and tell you to smile at the camera know that I am taking one of the most important images of the day. The one for your mother, your daughters and sons and their daughters and sons. The one that will be forever.