What’s Old is New: Return to Weddings
I began to shoot weddings for real in 1999. I had recently left my job at Kodak, wanted to return to photography full-time, and at the suggestion of another wedding photographer, had decided to try my hand in this field.
This was before the wedding bubble, before the days of over the top marketing, advertising, websites, blogs, social media, etc. The wedding world, at least in my opinion, was more normal, real and frankly more fun.
I was a novice, and amazed that anyone would want me to shoot their wedding, let alone allow me to do it. I was not the normal wedding photographer.
My practice was to take one camera, one lens and a few rolls of black and white film. That’s it. Nothing else. I never even brought a strobe. It was as streamlined as you can get, completely unlike most “real” wedding photographers, but for me it was completely normal. I’d been doing documentary projects like this for years, so I wasn’t doing anything I wasn’t very comfortable with.
I didn’t have any “packages.” I didn’t have a great website. I didn’t belong to a single wedding anything. I got work through word of mouth, and also by showing work to vendors. I’d visit hotels, planners, etc, and show them documentary work. Nobody else it seems was doing this.
But as the years went by, and the industry began to grow, so did I. The idea of going to a wedding with one camera became lunacy. The thought of not taking a strobe became, “unprofessional,” and before long I too was being sucked in to the modern wedding mentality.
Two years later, armed with Canon 30D’s, I was fully digital and blasting my way through locations from Europe to the Caribbean and all across the United States. People were hiring me because I was “fully digital” or “high tech” and I thought I was a total wedding stud.
I still didn’t fit the modern mold in my vision. The maximum number of weddings I ever did in a year was 10, and I never had one tad of desire to become a factory, or triple the number of jobs I was doing. I never thought of training and hiring anyone else to work with me.
One day I came home after a large wedding shoot and sat down at the computer to begin the great download and post-production marathon that had become part of my life the minute I had gone digital, and I just hit the wall. It was sudden and dramatic.
I looked at my wife and said, “For the first time in my life, I don’t want to look at my own images.” It was a terrible feeling.
I knew why digital photographers hired out their post and design. I knew why some of the top shooters never ever saw their images after the wedding was over. I knew why photographers randomly converted half their images to black and white. It changed everything for me. Again, I never once thought of farming my life out. I felt, and still do, that if I’m farming out my post, I must be shooting the same images over and over, otherwise how could someone else do my edit? Editing was sacred, not something to turn over to an intern.
I realized I needed to return to film. And return to film is what I did. But this time I went to the medium format world, choosing to shoot the bulk of my weddings with a Hasselblad and 80mm lens.
For about four years I did just this, and became known for this style of work. Other photographers thought I was somewhat nuts because using the Blad is slow and provides a puny 12 images per roll of 120. By then the insanity of modern weddings had taken full effect. Suddenly photographers were shooting thousands of images during a wedding, and then selling the concept of quantity to unsuspecting clients. I attended a trade show and listened to a speaker claim to have shot 12,000 images by himself during a wedding, and the audience burst into applause. I was shooting 200 images at a wedding.
Times had really changed.
But about two years ago began to feel as if I had done enough weddings. Like I do every four or five years, I felt the need to change my life once again. So for the past year and a half I really didn’t do any weddings. I spoke with my favorite planners, locations, and said, “You know, I’m done for a while.”
It was just what I needed. During this time I instead focused more on my portraits, and had a great time doing this. Portraits are still a big part of my life, shooting again today actually, and I hope they will continue to be a part of my life in the future.
But a few months ago I began to think about weddings again. I ran into one of my original clients and was able to look at the work I produced for him. Looking at those prints took me right back to that day, those moments. It also reminded me how simple and clean what I did back then really was.
His entire wedding was shot with an Leica M6 and 35mm. There were no proofs, online hosting or book involved. I simply processed the film, by myself at that time, and then went into the darkroom and made 20, 11×14 prints. I then made an envelope, also by hand, added the prints, then sealed it with wax.
The client not only still had it, but said they viewed it on a regular basis. I was stunned.
Suddenly things made sense again. I realized that one of the reasons I needed a break from weddings was that the wedding industry had sucked me in a direction I didn’t want to go. Now, to defend myself a little bit, the wedding industry had exploded to a never before seen level. With the demise of many other photographic genres, the wedding world had become the refuge for many photographers, who a few short years before, would have NEVER stooped to shooting weddings. The industry, due to reality television, editorial explosion, had become a HUGE business. By the time many clients got to me their personal, boutique events had become super structures that were over the top in every way.
The industry was racing upward and I was sucked into the vortex.
But taking a year and a half off allowed me to fall back to Earth, and also allowed me a fresh look at who I had become, and what had become of the industry.
I realized that for me to return to this field, I had to make some changes.
So, the Hasselblad and digital bodies will remain in the locker, and once again, I will return to my original pursuit.
This weekend I will shoot a wedding, and my entire rig is highlighted in the attached photo. That’s it. Two bodies, two lenses, black and white film, and yes, this time around, a strobe. What can I say, I’m splurging.
My entire setup fits in one small bag which I will leave behind once I get to where I’m going. I don’t envision back pain. I don’t envision working with someone else, second shooter, and having to be aware of their needs and content.
Now, I realize something. This return to the past is not for most clients. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this ONLY fits one small niche of client. But that is what I’ve always been. That is what I’ve always looked for.
Weddings are in interesting event. There is so much tradition and history that many people do what they think they are supposed to do, and perhaps not what they actually want to do. I need those folks that say, “You know, we just want a core group of great images and the rest falls where it may.”
Because of this I have to work harder for my jobs. I really do. The way I look at it, if the industry gets to the client before me, I don’t stand a chance. The industry tells the client, digital only, quantity, teams of photographers, high-tech, slideshows, etc. Speaking of that, I was at a location once, staying for fun, and there was a wedding going on. The wedding photographer was times three, and all three were wearing black head to toe and were also wearing headsets. It was really over the top. I ended up talking to the bride who said she felt like she was surrounded by the mafia when the photogs were around, and even the location had to tell the photographers to “tone it down.”
So recently, I visited a location I used to shoot weddings at. When I mentioned to the manager I was thinking of shooting weddings again I really didn’t expect any reaction. This person said, “Oh, that is so great, you really understand this place and now I have someone I can refer that I really believe in.” It was surprising to hear but also made me feel like I was doing something genuine if you will.
My new/old style of working provides a certain type of image, and regardless of whether you like it or not, it stand outs from the modern wedding world. The 70-200mm 2.8 is the lens of choice it seems for modern folks, although it seems that one person finally discovered the fixed lens and now everyone is using fast 50′s and 85′s, but my longest lens will be a 50mm. This work stands out. Again, you might not like it, but it does, and my best selling point over the past few years has been to ask clients, “Can you choose the other photographers work out of a lineup?” Frankly, in most cases, with modern, digital shooters, you can’t. The bulk of the work looks exactly the same.
So, I’m not choosing this old route to be different, not at all. I’m doing it because I love it. It rekindles the relationship I had with my work all those years ago. And a happy photographer, in my book, typically is a good photographer.