Sunday, October 12, 2008

wedding photography

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.


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Sara E. Cotner said...

Well said, Jessica!

I just picked up the book myself, so it looks like I'm in for a treat. Everything you quoted sounds exquisitely (and disgustingly) true.

I find that even the most practical, down-to-earth wedding blogs still focus on the cutesy little details. It drives me mad!

aaron said...

i don't completely agree... for one, i think the wedding pictures will be more important to you down the line than you think. i never look at old photos, from when i was a kid, graduation, my art show, whatever. but seeing our wedding photos is different somehow. i can't really explain it, but they are special. not that i ever sit down and go through a wedding album or anything, but like ones we have framed on the wall.
second, i think it's kinda ridiculous to compare wedding photography to getting a professional photographer for other life events. birthday parties happen every year. college graduation isn't personal, you're usually in a crowd of thousands (and the school does often hire a professional to photograph when you receive your diploma), and the birth of your child is TOO personal. obviously you don't want a professional photographer in the delivery room with you. a wedding is the right blend of personal and public to make it reasonable.
and i agree that details can get excessive, but we have some fun pictures of ashley's pink converse under her wedding dress, and a few other detail pics that we really like.
all that being said, i think artsy friends doing the photography is perfect. our photographer was young and artsy and got a bunch of great pictures, and while she did a better job than someone who doesn't normally do wedding photography would do (because she knew what kind of details to capture), i'm sure several friends taking pictures of whatever they think looks cool/ memorable/ whatever would work just as well. just make sure that if there's anything specific you want to make sure to get a picture of, someone is instructed to take it.
blah blah blah... i'm done.

aaron said...

ok, one more thing... on the anti-wedding photographer side, i know two couples who were screwed over by professional wedding photographers. one, the lighting was all messed up and he refused to give them a discount for it, and the other took like a year to finally give them their pictures. i think the pictures from that one weren't too great either...

Jessica McLeod said...

Ha, I find it so hilarious that the first comment was by wedding photographers using a spambot!

Aaron: I'm not against people using photographers, it's just not for me. I know that his is something that is very important to a lot of people, but I thought this was an interesting way of looking at it. As for looking at your wedding photos: I'm sure I will look at mine too! I just think I'll still look at them even if they've been taken by my friends instead of a professional. And I really don't want to be looking at photos of table centrepieces and candles! I want to see pictures of us and our friends and our family, just being happy and enjoying the moment.

Tristan said...

Hello Jessica. I only recently started checking out your Sensible Bride blog. I thought this was particularly insightful in terms of how the "special" nature of the process works with the nature of the business that is hawking all this "special" appeal like wedding photographs. The American Way of Death sounds like an intriguing read, particularly as I am re-watching Six Feet Under, which also comments on the idea about how these big moments in your life are provided for by what are essentially businesses. Anyway, I haven't thought about what I would prefer one way or the other, but yes, I think your choice is an appropriate one. Those staged photos of happy couples always feel hokey - like the stuff a film will cut to ten years down the road in the marriage when the "magic" has gone and they're screaming, "Why aren't we like this anymore?"!

Anonymous said...

I haven't been able to put my finger on just why the whole wedding photography thing bugs me, and I think you finally articulated it. I am constantly hearing this "don't skimp, it will ruin your life" stuff, especially about the photography. And if you express interest in a cheaper option, you get the "well, you get what you pay for". I understand that it's an art form, and I appreciate the time and effort it takes, but I could do without all the pressure & hyperbole.

Anonymous said...

I am late to the party on this post, but I could not agree with you more.

Mead's book sounds great - it's been on my to-read list since it came out.

I've always been bothered by the whole "dazzle your guests" aspect of wedding planning, but the celebrity angle is another really interesting and valid critique.