Story Behind the Photos: Oahu Wedding
There is always a story behind the photo. Always. A grabshot. A planned image. Luck. Fate. Confusion.
Several years ago I was hired to do a wedding on Oahu’s North Shore. I’ve been to this area dozens of times, both to work on documentary projects and also to complete the occasional wedding. I’m not a traditional wedding photographer, not by a long shot, so when I do get hired to make pictures during this special event, it still feels new, exciting and most importantly, different. I can’t imagine doing dozens of weddings each year. I don’t think it is possible to do creative work, different work, when you shoot that many events in one year. I look around at the production line photography that is pervasive in the wedding world and it supports my view. Everything, for the most part, looks exactly the same. In fact, one of the things I ask potential wedding clients is, “Could you pick your photographer’s work out of a lineup?” and in most cases the reponse is “No.” I’m not meaning to bag on wedding snappers. I’m a wedding snapper. This idea is true with any genre of photography, for the most part. You shoot catalog work 50 weeks a year, and chances are you have a formula. It’s the same principle. And for me, working this way would kill me. Really. I would quit photography. The same goes for my portrait work. If I was shooting six, seven shoots a week, there is no way I could sustain my enthusiasm or the idea of making distinctive work. Putting it another way, what auto manufacturer can increase production by 50% and maintain initial quality? The answer: none.
So it might seem a little odd for me to describe this image as a wedding photograph, but it is. And my first thought when I see this image is not of the location, the people in the boat, etc, but the ceremony that would follow the next day. I’m still friends with these folks, still remain in contact, which seems to be par for the course for me, something else to feel fortunate about.
So when I was sent to do this wedding my thoughts were not really about the wedding itself, outside of the basic vitals of the event. How many folks? Where? What time? Inside? Outside? Etc. My thoughts were of the book, and of creating the story behind the event.
These people in the boat are not part of the wedding party. Neither are any of the other folks I photographed this same afternoon. The landscapes I shot were also not of the wedding location. You see I treat these shoots as documentary projects.
If you browse through the wedding world, you will quickly notice that nearly every photographer you encounter is a “documentary wedding photographer,” or “wedding photojournalist,” but the reality is that 99% of these photographers have never made documentary pictures, have never done a documentary project, and might not even know what doing that work actually entails. I’ve always found this really odd. That is like me shooting my friends jet ski and then calling myself a “watercraft photographer.” I could do that, but it really isn’t accurate. Or like me shooting photos on vacation and then calling myself a “travel photographer.”
In the end, it’s a little insulting to those folks who really do this kind of work. I know a lot of documentary photographers and I know a lot of photojournalists, and what people are doing at weddings has NOTHING to do with these fields. I know they are using these descriptions simply to sell an idea of how they work, but even that doesn’t work for me. What I’ve seen is a trend to describe wedding work in the “documentary” tradition, but much of what I see, especially right now, is posed portraiture called documentary work. I went to a presentation a while back, a well known and highly touted “wedding photojournalist,” who showed about 10,000 images during his presentation, and about 9999 of them were posed, photoshopped portraits. And every image was crafted for “perfection.” This is the exact opposite of documentary photography. The only saving grace for these folks is that most wedding clients probably don’t spend a lot of time studying documentary photography, and most probably don’t care. So, it works for the photographer. It makes me laugh.
So back to Oahu.
I arrived for the wedding a few days early, like I like to do. You never know with air travel what could happen, better to go in early, and also better to build the foundation of the story. There is no substitute for time and access in the field. And when you consider the actual amount of time you get with great light, great moments, you need every second you can get.
So I rented a car and headed to the furthest reaches of the island, taking the long way around, and got a room in a huge house where a lot of surfers stay. I rented a tiny room, outside shower, and stowed my gear. Grabbed my 645 camera, my Leica, black and white film and hopped back in the car. The day was mature and the light was getting warm with a hard directional feel. I had the mountains to deal with, knowing the light would be hidden along the coast due to the sun dropping behind the peaks, but I also had great clouds in certain sections. I loaded the Leica with color, but a strange film that I don’t exactly cross process, but I process it myself, in a strange chemistry that gives me a unique, bluish grainy look that I haven’t seen from anything else (even the PS crowd.) And I loaded the Pentax with black and white.
I don’t know about you but when the light is great, regardless of where I am or what I’m doing, my heart races. Sometimes this is great, other times, torture. This day, great. I would drive, stop, get out, snap a few frames, get back in, drive more. I worked along the coast for hours, talking to people, shooting portraits, shooting landscapes and piecing the wedding book together in my head. I figured the first third of the book would be “unrelated” imagery to the actual ceremony. We were, after all, on Oahu. This isn’t Palm Springs, LA, Santa Barbara, etc, Those places have their own distinguishing features, and Oahu does as well. In fact, these island are the most remote landmass on Earth. So, if I’m doing a shoot there, my pics should reflect this.
There is something about the air in Hawaii that drives me crazy, in a good way, and moments before I shot this image, my mind was unsettled. I think Hawaii is a great combination of wind, landscape and sea. Okay, obviously that is what Hawaii is about, but I think these ingredients unhinge all of us from the mainland. I think this is part of the magic that makes Hawaii what it is.
Just before the sun was setting I drove across a small bridge near a harbor and noticed this boat heading back into the safety of the bay. The water was glass, the light was right. I moved up higher to get a slightly different perspective. Initially I framed the boat clean, against just the water, but then realized I wanted more of a layering effect so I panned right, added the small jetty of land. I wanted the boat as the foreground, the land as the middle ground and the cloud as the background.
Looking at these snaps online never do them justice. The print is rich, razor sharp and somewhat three dimensional. And, was nearly a completely straight print, meaning I had to do almost no dodging or burning, meaning great light, great exposure.
Like I said, these people were not part of the wedding but it doesn’t matter. I also included images of burned out cars on the side of the highway, and cairns that people had made along the road, which were all part of the feel of this place, and part of what you have to record if you really are a documentary wedding photographer.
This isn’t the greatest image ever taken, not by a long shot, it was simply one piece of the wedding puzzle.
I’m going back in a few months, to do another wedding in this area, and I’m already beginning to relive these moments, these places, in preparation for building another book, another story.