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The Wedding Photographer Tells All

“The Camera Is My Crystal Ball.”

I shoot weddings for a living. Most of my art photographer friends “moved on” to do commercial, editorial, or fashion photography. But I purposely stayed with weddings. Give me the poetry of the sentimental moment over the selling of unnecessary products any day. To me, the “news” of two people joining together is the most compelling story in the world. I marvel at marital vows because they are the only milestone declared willy-nilly before it happens. I cannot count all the wedding photos in a book I have helped made. Looking back to the people who I’ve known as clients and seeing their partnership prosper and continue to stay together in a healthy relationship, the memories of them I took in the form of photos now makes even more meaning.

You don’t have a birthday before you are born. You don’t get your diploma the first day of nursery school. So how on earth do you get away with declaring you are going to love someone forever… before you do? Such a wild leap of faith! I am equally charmed and baffled by the conceit of such certainty in the face of overwhelming evidence that life rarely goes as planned. And miraculously, I get paid to watch.

I’ve shot so many weddings, I feel “shot”—blissfully inoculated against getting married myself. I’m not cynical, just way beyond my limit. Most people have only one, or at most eight weddings. I’ve had hundreds. I’ve lived so many weddings, I’ve gotten over imagining my own.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a hopeless romantic, utterly fascinated by love. And I am profoundly involved in the weddings I shoot. Which is the whole seduction of the experience. Suddenly I am an intimate of a family I just met. A confidante of the bride. Respected authority about what should happen next. Bearer of safety pins, and frank informer that you have lipstick on your teeth. I lurk for hours, greedily observing everything. Awash in the lyrical texture of the occasion, I can’t help but feel an innocent sort of sexual charge. Copious food, tender lighting, and highly orchestrated flowers form a sumptuous backdrop for this most sensuous of theatrical events. All that hugging and touching! The nonchalant caress of a mother’s hand on a daughter’s cheek, the attendants fussing a bride into her dress, the sudden awkwardness that overcomes even the boldest groom, quietly thrills me.

And then there are the clothes. Any occasion where you have to “decide what to wear” enhances anticipation of the event, even when you grumble bitterly about it. The sheer discomfort of dressing-up is so sweetly erotic. When clothes are new and mildly uncomfortable, people become more conscious of their bodies. The individual yet collective desire to get out of such clothes makes a crowd bristle with an unspoken corporeal tension. After all, isn’t the implicit goal of looking beautiful to invite dishevelment? There’s an erotic charge to being the Designated Voyeur. Yes, I get turned on.

The ultimate discomfort comes in wearing white. White is simultaneously bold (Wow! Stark, striking and assertive.) and vulnerable (Ow! It gets dirty so easy.). And best of all, a white gown magically transforms every bride into an imbued miracle. No kidding. To be the walking embodiment of LOVE for a moment in one’s life is a generous gift to share with all those invited who have ever dared or hoped or dreaded to love. At this point in relationship history, white seems less about “virginal purity” and more like a fresh sheet of paper for reinventing the terms for a co-joined life. So I think it’s rather sad when a bride thinks she’s too evolved to wear white. Besides, for photographic purposes, it is so much easier for me to keep track of the bride when she’s thoughtfully wearing a glaring white schmatte.

I’ve come to understand that photographing weddings is nothing less than a secret form of “female” pornography. Not in a rude way. But as a complete inverse of traditional “male” pornography. Instead of paying to peep at disassociated strangers as sexual objects, I get paid to watch while accelerating associations and emotions. Right away, I’m calling the bride and groom’s relatives “Mom,” “Dad,” “Grandma,” or “Dear” while posing shots—though clearly a part of my pleasure as observer is to stay on the right side of propriety, to make it safe for the care that exists between the family and friends to be openly expressed.

That respectfulness is not abstract, nor distancing. Thinking about how one relates to a situation is a classic joy for women. So as a never-married person, I am genuinely in awe of the bride’s great plunge, while she relies on me to reassure her that she looks great, that everyone is having fun, that all is going well. This mutual alliance of appreciation inspires confidence and confidences. This is the most emotionally alluring aspect of being a photographer. And it’s in this ephemeral frenzy of intimacy (with no lingering responsibilities other than to deliver the pictures) that makes wedding photography feel pornographic in the most honorable sense. No wonder I never tire of shooting weddings.

Oh! the things I am permitted to see. The camera is far more than a gadget for exposing negatives. Taking a picture is easy. Drop a camera on its shutter button, it’ll click off a shot. The real trick is to use the lens as a crystal ball. I have rather accurately predicted the future of most marriages I have documented. Studying lovers for hours on end offers an unobstructed view of the visible and visceral elements in their relationship. Marital durability is not seen in the obvious. It’s not in the perfection of smiles, the posture of the family, the grace of the ceremony, nor in the quality of the weather. (No, rain does not mean “luck,” it just means a dreary background.) Likewise, pouts, trivial tantrums, and obvious bad behavior are not automatic signs that things won’t work out. (Though the time I caught a groom crouched behind the bar, drunkenly tongue-kissing a bridesmaid, I was not surprised to get a call a few years later, hiring me to shoot the bride’s second wedding.) The success of a marriage is based on an exquisite whisper of a blink. It is revealed in an almost imperceptible gesture between winning partners I call the “Conspiratorial Glance.” It’s neither cloying nor desperate, but a palpable connection that indicates the couple is in cosmic cahoots about all that is simultaneously profound and ridiculous about a wedding. When that synchronized heartbeat happens, I predict they have a real chance.

But in my role as photographer, the marriage “lasting” isn’t as much of a priority as making the memory of the day last. It’s more than a coincidence that as a child, my favorite storybook was my parents’ wedding album. A book that remains by far, the most enchanting fairy tale of all. And a curiosity. “What was everyone I loved doing there without me?” That’s how “Once upon a time…” came to very specifically mean the time when I wasn’t at my parents’ wedding. And that memory inspires who I am ultimately shooting for. Beyond the immediate client, I am preserving pictures for some phantom in the future, who will stare at all these folks she loves, while wondering about who they were “back when they were young”…”back before I was me.”

So I am impelled to capture the specific sense of being in this moment, with this family, in the tradition as it is being invented that day. I may shoot a close-up of the groom’s dinner plate, a blurry twirl from within the vortex of the hora, as well as a gorgeous pose of Table Number 8. Instead of pushing people around, I co-conspire with guests to create pictures that don’t trap them foolishly caught with half an hors d’oeuvre in their mouths, but cooperatively consenting to look the way they are loved by the hosts. It’s a form of consensus journalism.

Our camaraderie begins when confirming the job the week of the event. I ask each couple, “Is there is anything unusual I should know about your families? Any potential problems anyone may have in posing with anyone? I don’t want to inadvertently offend anyone.” And recently the answer has resoundingly been, “Nope. Everything’s completely normal. Nothing out of the ordinary!” Then I get to the wedding and Mom comes in with her Wife, Dad arrives with his New Wife, (who looks remarkably like the woman who married Mom) and there are numerous complications of siblings and step-siblings who may or may not be speaking. I shot a wedding last summer where all four parents had been divorced and remarried. But again, no one thought to clue me in. And I take all this as good news! Because it means the “kids,” the ones getting married, are taking all the formerly diagnosed deviations in stride. They are adjusted in refreshingly new ways, which cheers me to the bone.

Although it’s not always so easy. Last summer I was cautioned by a groom that his bride’s mother absolutely would not appear in the same room, let alone same photo, as her father. The bride was faintly hopeful that the wedding might offer a chance for some minimal rapprochement, but when the moment to pose for collected family shot arrived, the bride looked terribly weak and tense. All I could think to say was, “At this time I’d like to invite all who support the bride and groom to come stand with them.” And miraculously both her parents gently rose to stand on opposite sides of the grouping.

It’s in moments like these that I am blessed with seeing the real fairy tale behind a wedding. For it’s not in the details of making a pristine party that the myth resides, but in the fumbling to expand one’s heart. No matter how many times I witness it, I can’t help but mist up when I see the ability to love increasing within one soul. And I don’t just mean in the expected vibrations between the bride and groom, but in all the nuances of love and difficulty connecting everyone invited to the affair. When an irreverently hip couple decide it’s okay to please their parents. When a feminist allows her heart, not rhetoric, to define what’s independence. When bitter parents rise to honor their children. When the guests review their own liaisons and hold each other closer as they dance through the reception. Then even I begin to doubt my boast that I never want to get married. A wedding dares us to believe in the possibility of our own enchantment.

Flash Rosenberga performer, photographer and illustrator, is worried that no one will hire her to shoot weddings since she has confessed it’s a form of pornography. She can be reached at Flashberg@aol.com.


Make Your Wedding Reflect Your Values

The world does not turn on whether you decorate with stargazer lilies or white roses, on whether you wear your hair in a chignon or a French twist. But you can change the world with other choices you make in planning your wedding. In the belief that these choices can reflect your values, Lilith offers you some practical suggestions:

Heidi Gralla and Dean Chang wanted to break though the silent wall that usually stands between members of the bride’s side and the groom’s. Reporters both, their wedding program was framed as a newspaper article from “The Wedding Times,” and introduced the entire list of 240 guests. Inside they included loving introductions to their wedding party. Gralla and Chang also crafted a ketubah to match their lives. It reads in part: “Let our days be filled with lasting friendships and meaningful debate, sunny afternoons in Saratoga, take-out menus and foolproof recipes, good seats and good fortune.” Gralla explained: “Initially, we were just trying to make the [ketubah] text a little less stodgy and serious, but as we worked on it together, we ended up having a surprisingly meaningful discussion about our future.”

Dear departed relatives are often a phantom presence at any life-cycle event. Rabbi Susan Schnur asks couples if they would like to give her in advance a small bag with talismans that represent the people they are missing— a photo, a locket, some small object. She puts the bag on the table that stands under the huppah. “I always give them permission to use this table as a kind of shrine. It’s very powerful that these objects are private in the context of this public ceremony.” And she speaks about dead relatives or friends, “‘We also keep in mind the love of Grandpa Dave. We take responsibility as a community to be witnesses in his stead.’ This teaches that joy is inclusive; the sad thing becomes a part of that joy. It’s a realistic idea of marriage—you’re going to laugh, and cry too.”

Eager to connect your wedding to Jewish history? The Lower East Side Tenement Museum now welcomes wedding parties. A historical tenement, the museum housed some 10,000 working-class immigrants in its residential days. Ceremonies may be preceded by a historical program— a recent one featured a Sephardic girl who emigrated from Turkey around 1914. And after the ceremony, guests may dine on recipes from the building’s former residents. Contact: Sara Abraham, 212-334-2278; www.tenement.org.

Neot Kedumim: The Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel has become a popular spot for weddings with an educational twist. A nature preserve, Neot Kedumim attempts to recreate the physical setting of the Bible. Guests are offered a tour of the Dale of the Song of Songs, “to see how the Scriptures depicts love,” arriving at the banks of the Pool of Solomon, where a huppah stands. (Contact: 972-8-977-0777; fax 972-8- 977-0766; e-mailgen_info@neot-kedumim. org.il; www.neot-kedumim.org.il)

Rabbi Susan Schnur casts the mitzvah of giving tzedakah very beautifully when she meets with couples in advance of their wedding: “This is a time of incredible privilege,” she tells them. “You have someone you love who loves you back, you have the privilege of being able to have a legal wedding consecrated before family and friends.” She instructs the couple in ways they can translate their privilege into acts of charity. “I give couples a lot of different options; for example, they can choose seven different charities, for the seven wedding blessings. ‘You believe in this stuff, get it out there,’ I tell them.” Rabbi Nancy Wiener in her new book, Beyond Breaking the Glass: Planning Your Reform Jewish Wedding (forthcoming from the Central Conference of American Rabbis), has several suggestions for appropriate wedding charities, including Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which produces table cards encouraging guests to contribute. (Mazon, 310-442-0020; e-mail mazonmail@aol.com; www.mazon.org) And plan in advance to have someone deliver leftover wedding food to a soup kitchen or shelter.

Even the traditional corny bridal shower can be made to serve your values. How about a “mitzvah shower” in place of the traditional gift-laden one? Or a shower to practice with your friends the traditional Jewish circle dances for the wedding? Lilith Magazine has published these and many more alternative practices to enhance your wedding celebration. “A Huppah Quilting Bee” involves bride, groom, and far-flung friends in creating the huppah itself. “Beyond Belly Joy,” on socially responsible weddings, helps couples create a modest celebration, directing money they might have spent on a lavish wedding to those in need.