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Why make portraits at a wedding?

The role of today’s wedding photographer is a complex and focused one. Current expectations are of a documentary, observational approach, much different from the previous era’s tradition: an enforced, formulaic recording of arranged scenarios. Deliberate portraits at a wedding have become a vestigial concession, primarily made to appease the elders.

But given the overarching self-awareness that weddings bestow on any family, it is hard to imagine a better time to have a deliberate portrait made of these rare groupings. People assemble at weddings from all contexts of the couple’s life; from different generations, geographic distributions and social networks. They are brought together by this singular event, and may never all be together again in the same place, at the same time. A portrait made in this context, in a classic, enduring style, would be treasured for years and generations to come.

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Mother and son at a wedding, Kimball House, Roswell Georgia

At weddings, these people (who are, or will be extremely important to each other) are gathered in rare concentration. Happily, they tend to dress in the best clothes they have, their hair is “fixed” to the degree that it can be, and collectively they share a feeling of camaraderie, good will and optimism…

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Groom with groomsmen (he was fine), Kimball House, Roswell Georgia

In collaboration with the modern photo-journalist wedding photographer, a good portrait photographer can produce deliberate yet unscripted images that provide a valid and complimentary window into the family’s history and their experience of that day. In sudden, brief and almost spontaneous portrait sessions, surprisingly candid and insightful moments can be found that give tremendous insight into how these people came to be who they are, and how they arrived at this moment.

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Family at a wedding, Four Season’s Hotel, Atlanta Georgia

Such portraits provide a contrasting compliment to the artful spontaneity of a photo-journalist’s images.
They are more suitable to a wedding than those from the trendy photo booth. With their random timing, static compositions, feather boas and goofy hats, photo booth pictures too often mask the expression of close personal connection with clownish behavior. The photo booth has its place in a more casual context.
Plus, these more deliberate portraits endure, present in professional resolution and format within the archives and galleries of the primary photo-journalist, available for a printed album, and stored with the portrait photographer.

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8 friends, Decatur Georgia

The first wedding I ever photographed in this manner was that of an ex-girlfriend, in 1999. She knew what skills I had with a camera, light and people, and she asked me to make portraits of anyone who came to her wedding, without regard to any hierarchical order… to treat them all with the same attention she had seen me apply at other gatherings.

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Polaroid 600SE camera

At that time, I was using this Polaroid 600SE medium format camera and Polaroid’s Type 665 pack film that produced monochromatic images of great clarity, and a negative of substantial size (6x8cm).
I set up a small studio in the lobby of the reception hall, lighting people with soft light and a gentle fill, setting them against a deeply toned, understated backdrop.

I made portraits of the bride with her father and brother, with her 83 year old aunt, with her brother and his future wife. I photographed families who were unrelated to her… I photographed her ex-boyfriends with their new girlfriends. I photographed  anyone who even hesitated near me. I gave everyone small folios containing their 3×4 inch prints.

Several years later, I was contacted by one of the bride’s guests. His brother in-law had just died. His sister still had the Polaroid I had made of her family that day.
She showed it to him saying “this is the best picture we have of all of us together”.

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Family at a wedding, 1999 Huntsville Alabama

They called the bride of that wedding day, and asked for some way to contact me. I found the negative and sent them three 8x10s.

It was a lesson I have never forgotten; treat everyone with seriousness when they are in front of your camera. Never underestimate the value of a simple portrait.
Back up your work.

I’m still doing this, but the Polaroid 600SE is now a full frame dSLR, and the prints are 4×6 inches. It’s how I have fun with a camera. It’s art with meaning.

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To see more of my recent work in this fashion, visit btapb.com.
Better Than A Photo Booth, in so many ways.

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