Photo by Jon Fravel
I just finished reading One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding by Rebecca Mead, and I highly recommend it. The cover of my copy has a quote which compares the book to Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death (one of my favourite non-fiction books, and one which I re-read regularly) and the comparison is just. Like Mitford, who investigated not death itself but the way that the funeral industry shaped practices and attitudes to death in order to maximise profits, Mead investigates not so much weddings and brides but the wedding industry and how it has shaped the way we celebrate marriage. Her prose style also reminds me of Mitford's: sharp, dry and often hilarious. My only complaint about the book is that it wasn't longer; I wish I could have read it for twice as long.
Photo by Modomatic
One of Mead's targets is wedding photography. I have been thinking about this recently. Our budget has no room for a photographer; instead, we will ask a couple of artistic friends to bring their cameras and get a few nice shots. Sara, the author of one my my favourite wedding blogs $2000 Wedding, recently wrote about their decision not to hire a photographer and made an exceedingly sensible point:
We have never hired a professional photographer for other important events in our lives and never plan to. College graduation, birthday parties, the birth of our first child--we are fine with all of these things being captured by an amateur's click. Our wedding didn't seem any different. In fact, we were afraid that hiring a professional photographer might make our wedding feel like a show.
Robert and I feel the same way; neither of us particularly enjoy being photographed, and we're not the sort of people who will take out a wedding album and coo over it. (Are there any such people?) In One Perfect Day, Mead argues that the purpose of the professional photographer, like so many other elements of the modern wedding, is in fact to create the experience of faux celebrity and record an image of perfection, rather than to record reality.
Formal portraits are still a standard part of a wedding photo album, but the purpose of wedding photography today is not to preserve for posterity a documentary image of the individuals who are getting married... Rather, wedding photos today capture a couple's specific incarnation as bride and groom, and their arrival at the apogee of romance.
Photo by Brian and Mimi Tsai of Life Mosaics
I have never been interested in being professionally photographed. However, when I started looking at wedding sites on the internet, I noticed something new. Wedding photographers now take pictures of what is known in wedding-speak as "details". The bride's shoes; the centrepieces on the table; the groom's hand-made cufflinks; the bridesmaids' vintage parasols. Here is an excellent example; the wedding photos include the invitations, the 'gift pails' for the guests, the matching white umbrellas available in case of rain, the colour-matched drinks, the votive candle holders in a fabric that matched the bride's dress. These are things that I doubt many guests will remember; in fact, most of them wouldn't even notice. But luckily, the photographer was there to record them. Mead writes that the wedding album functions
as a means of capturing images of the material production upon which so much thought, time, and money have been expended. The wedding album serves as a riposte to the disquieted murmurings a wedding can generate amongst family, friends, and the couple themselves-- all this, just for one day?-- by ensuring that the sugar-spun flowers on the wedding cake and the silk grosgrain ribbons wrapped around the bouquets' stems are preserved not just in memory, but upon archival-grade photographic paper.
A good set of wedding photographs can be called upon to justify all the expense that preceded them; and the anticipation of acquiring a good set of photographs can also encourage that expense in the first place.
This sums up my discomfort with wedding photography. Weddings are ephemeral; they will leave behind some good memories, but in all honesty those memories will not be enhanced by buying matching pale pink candles instead of cheap white ones. The insistence on "details" in both wedding photography and in wedding blogs and sites (even those that claim to be "alternative" or "indie") insists that the ephemeral can and should be made concrete, and that the more beautiful and perfect your decorations, shoes and cake, the more wonderful your memories will be.