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Story Behind the Photos: Oahu Wedding

December 15, 2009

I’m a little adrift on this story but stay with me. Get it, adrift. Get it? Okay, I’ll shut up now.

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.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. David Wissinger permalink
    December 16, 2009 12:15 am

    When you go back to Oahu in a few months for the next wedding, I suggest you bring along a second shooter so you are free to get more of those photojournalistic shots. Hmmm, I wonder where you could find a second shooter… You’ll figure it out.

    • December 16, 2009 11:27 pm

      I normally work alone, which is also not very modern. I had one young photographer go crazy, calling me names and telling me I was “totally unprofessional” for not working with at least one more photographer. Most of the events that would require a second shooter I pass along to other photographers. Not my style event. Sometimes I do with with my wife however, but mostly because I like hanging out with her.

  2. December 16, 2009 5:24 pm

    The second shooter spells her name mom.

  3. December 17, 2009 1:07 am

    Dan … it’s very interesting to read your blog; some of your comments tell even more about you if one can read between the lines. Written like a true documentary snapper [you write]; “So when I was sent to do this wedding” … and earlier in this piece you write; “I was hired to do a wedding” … as someone that is an admirer of documentary style imagery I find your words telling; as Press Photographers, freelance photographers, etc., are “sent” to document a story. And most of us that shoot weddings have never documented anything more than our family vacations or trips to disneyland — something that doesn’t involve much planning, research or something as serious as developing a story, we are simply going out for an instant picture. Sometimes it just happens naturally and we document our lives …

    I call myself a “documentary wedding photographer”, and have thought about the distinction for sometime now — and it’s a term that is easy to coin and to tell you the truth 99.9% of the brides that hire me wouldn’t know a documentary photograph if it was placed in their lap … AND they wouldn’t want one … they really just want a myriad of images that represent some of the “best moments” from their day and some very nice pictures of themselves that will look nice in their “wedding book” …

    I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes what happens naturally in front of me at a wedding is a story unfolding and I like to think I can capture a few nice moments here and there and call it documenting the day — I always hope to get better at it and hope to someday “live up” to the name “documentary wedding photographer” … for now I’ll use the term as a marketing ploy and agree with the clients that hire me when they tell me they love my style …

    I’ll bet there are maybe a dozen — or less — true documentary style wedding photographers in the country … I can think of only two or three, present company included …

    Robert Mullins

    • December 17, 2009 1:55 am

      I think you are exactly right. I think there are very few photographers working as doc/wed photographers. I think Dennis Reggie was the guy that started it all, and to his credit, from what I have seen and heard, is still one of the few guys that works that way, not talking a lot, not posing but just making real images. (And I’m not talking about posing group shots.)
      I think most photographers use that term to get work, and you’re right, many clients can’t tell. When I meet with a wedding client I don’t show wedding images until we have spent a good deal of time on doc pictures. Based on how they client reacts to the doc images determines whether or not I’ll do the job, so for me it is of critical importance. I believe there is nothing better than a real image, so the client has to be on the same page with me, or I won’t do the job.
      Getting real images is far more difficult than posing. Far more difficult, AND, most importantly great, real images take luck, timing, anticipation, etc, and frankly they don’t happen that often. So, people pose images, in many cases, in an attempt to “make” great images, instead of waiting and recording them. You have to live by the sword and also be ready to die by it because the reality is different events produce different levels of great moments. I’ve been to weddings that were filled with moment after moment, and others with very few. I think this scares a lot of photographers because I’ve had a lot of photographers tell me it scares them. It doesn’t scare me. I find it challenging.
      I find it very difficult to tell most wedding photographers apart. I go to tradeshows, watch presentations and I’m often left with the feeling that the wedding world has been homogenized almost beyond recognition, and I’ve seen quite a few photographers who were great in their original genre, land on weddings and disappear into the homogenized wedding world. . I’ve never had that problem, and one of the first things that most of my clients say is, “I looked at a lot of work and your work really stood out.” And I don’t have any wedding work publicly viewable online. They have to go through several levels to get to it. I think a huge part of this “standing out,” is that the moments I show are real.
      I’m not sure you have to “live up” to anything. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with being “just” a “wedding photographer.”
      Some of the best wedding work I’ve ever seen was from the 1950’s, people working with old equipment, moving slowly, but people who had basic understanding of light, timing and composition.

    • December 17, 2009 1:57 am

      And as for “being sent.” I still feel that way about every shoot I do. I don’t know if I’ll ever out grow it.

  4. December 17, 2009 1:23 am

    A great entry. A nice piece of writing. Truly enjoyed it.

  5. December 17, 2009 6:14 am

    “This isn’t the greatest image ever taken, not by a long shot, it was simply one piece of the wedding puzzle.”

    This quote is now permanently burned into my brain. 🙂 I couldn’t agree more.
    Our job as photographers is to capture the entire day…the moments that others might miss…or may think don’t apply.

    Enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing.


    • December 17, 2009 6:35 pm

      Hey Lisa,

      Thanks for the note. The looks I get when I’m doing a wedding are always filled with tilted heads because people are wondering, “What is he doing?” I think that is a part of it.

  6. January 1, 2010 11:43 pm

    hmmmm…. nice bit of writing. i’ve been shooting weddings for 15 years, and still to this day, find it exciting and new. i will never get bored, nor will the same “moments” ever exist from wedding to wedding.

    and yes… denis did start this trend.


    • January 2, 2010 4:17 am

      Hey Joe,

      I agree, Denis deserves a lot of credit. The young guard could learn a lot from him.

  7. January 2, 2010 6:36 am

    forgot to say…. lovely seeing/talking with you. been a while. hope all is well.

    best in the new year daniel!!


    • January 2, 2010 6:15 pm

      Hey, you too. It’s been a long while. I hope 2010 is a great year for you and I’ll throw 2011 in as well!
      Keep doing what your doing.


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