To Kiss or Not to Kiss
When Mary called me from Nebraska in early June she sounded as pleasant and straightforward as her name. She had seen my wedding photography site online, and wanted to find out what it would cost to hire me to photograph her October wedding on the Northern California coast. I told her what I would charge to drive up north from my home in San Francisco and photograph her wedding. She sighed.
"That's just way out of our budget, what with the travel and hotels and everything. I'm really sorry to have bothered you."
It seemed like a long way to come to get married if she didn't have much money. I was curious. "Why don't you tell me a bit more about your plans and we'll talk about the price later?"
"Well, we're trying to keep things simple. The important thing is that my fiancé, Tom, just got back from Iraq a few months ago. He grew up in California, and he used to go to a beach out there with his grandfather in the summers. His grandfather passed away while he was in Iraq, and I know it means a lot to him to get married near that same beach. So we're just going to make it happen somehow. We've booked the Rotary Club near there for afterwards and our parents will do all the cooking and decorating and stuff. It'll be fine. Pictures were sort of extra, I guess. I just really thought it would be nice to have some. For later, I mean."
Lately I'd been photographing too many weddings that felt more like theatrical productions with a cast of three-hundred-and fifty and featuring every kind of over-the-top excess. It was far too long since I'd documented a ceremony that felt truly meaningful "I'd love to photograph your wedding," I told her. "Let's figure out a price you can work with." I sent her a contract to sign, and we were all set.
In October Mary called again. It was just a couple of days before she and Tom were due to drive to California.
"I wanted to check in with you about a few things," she said. "I'm not sure if I told you that my dad is performing the ceremony."
"That must be really nice for you."
"Yes, it is." She hesitated a moment before going on. "He's just about the sweetest man you'll ever meet. It's really different for him that we're getting married at the beach and not at his church, but he's been great about it."
"His church? He's a minister then? Or do you mean the church he goes to?"
"Oh no, he's a minister and ..." Mary stopped. Something was up. I tried to help out.
"Something else you think I should know?"
"We won't be exchanging rings."
"No wedding rings, you mean?"
"That's right. My parents don't believe in jewelry." I wasn't sure what sort of religion didn't believe in wedding rings. I decided on a general question.
"Can you think of anything else it might be useful for me to be aware of?"
"Well, we probably won't kiss, but I'm not sure about that. No, I'm sure. We definitely won't kiss. My parents wouldn't be comfortable with us kissing. And no dancing of course, because we can't have music. My parents don't believe in non-religious music."
Mary didn't seem to think I needed to know anything more; just no ring, no music, no dancing, and definitely no kissing. We sorted out what time and where we would meet and said goodbye.
On a bright and chilly Saturday morning, I drove out to Bodega Bay for Mary and Tom's wedding. Contrary to my ridiculous speculations, Mary's family did not show up dressed all in black with no zippers on their clothing and driving a horse and buggy. Mary's father did not have a long white beard. And nobody thumped any bibles or threatened fire and brimstone. Mary's father was indeed a sweet man. In fact, both her parents were lovely. They were mild, kind, and very happy for their daughter. The ceremony was short and simple. There were no rings, and there was no kissing. After hugs and handshakes all round, the guests left for the hall, and Mary told her father that she and Tom would do a few quick pictures and meet them there. She asked me if I knew a secluded spot. I took them down a steep narrow path to a very private cove I had scouted out for previous weddings.
"Could you just watch and take some pictures?" Mary asked me. She and Tom walked about ten feet away and stood facing each other. Tom took something out of his pocket and dropped down on one knee. He took Mary's hand and said, "Mary, will you marry me?" He slipped a diamond ring on her finger, rose, and kissed her. Then from his other pocket he took a second ring. Mary took the engagement ring off her finger, and Tom slid the plain gold band on and told her he loved her. She put her engagement ring back on. There was a great deal more kissing. I took lots of pictures. Close-ups of their hands with Mary's rings showing, Mary and Tom kissing at the edge of the ocean, and Tom holding Mary in his arms and spinning around.
Finally they decided we had done enough. Mary carefully took off her rings and gave them back to Tom, who put them in a small box which he then slipped in his pocket. We shook hands, and they left for the reception. They looked peaceful, and very happy. Probably Mary had had some practice walking the fine line of maintaining parental respect versus satisfying personal desire. On this day, she had found a graceful answer to maneuver her way through.
That was Saturday. Sunday's wedding was another story.
I had only had one short meeting with Rachel and Paul. They had looked through my portfolios in a businesslike manner, asked me a few basic questions, and booked me on the spot. They were both getting their MBA at Stanford, and clearly wanted to get things settled regarding their wedding and get back to the day to day business of their lives. I was glad to see them looking more relaxed and considerably less serious when I arrived at the wine country restaurant in Napa that they had chosen as the site of their wedding.
Paul and Rachel had decided to have their portraits taken before the ceremony. They were blessed with a glorious day, far warmer than it had been out at the coast the day before. The grape vines were deep shades of red and gold and the sun was filtered gently by just enough cloud to hide a few rough edges and make everyone look good. I maneuvered the bride's long veil past the treacherous bits of trailing vine as we headed out into the vineyard. I found a good spot for Paul and Rachel to stand between the neat rows of vines. Usually, at this point, I just leave the bride and groom alone to talk to each other. I move quietly around them and watch what happens. Then I can photograph them talking, laughing, or just being peaceful together before the rush of the ceremony and party begins.
Rachel and Paul were happy to oblige. They stood chatting easily. After a few minutes I noticed a change in their posture. Rachel had pulled away from Paul and was shaking her head. Paul threw his hands up and turned away. Rachel angrily walked around in front of him and tried to take his hand but Paul pulled away. They began to argue in earnest. It's very hard to take romantic portraits of a couple who are having a heated argument. It is also embarrassing. I decided I'd move in a bit closer and find out what was going on.
"I don't think it's a good idea that's all," Rachel was saying between sobs.
Paul scowled. "Why not? We don't have to do a big one or anything and its just one time."
"But why do we have to do it at all? You know I don't like it. Why make such a big deal about it."
"Ok, ok, if you hate it that much then we won't," Paul growled, and started to walk away. Rachel grabbed his arm.
"I didn't say I hated it," she said. "I'd just feel more comfortable if we didn't."
"Great. Let's just make sure you're comfortable then. We certainly won't worry about what our guests feel or think. We won't care if we disappoint everybody." I got a few pictures of them from behind as they stalked back to the restaurant.
Figuring I'd better try and find out what was up I went looking for the maid of honor. She was a cousin of the bride, in possession of a set of brand new twin girls. I found her in the restaurant kitchen mixing up formula with one hand and burping a baby with the other.
"The bride and groom seemed a little upset when we were doing the pictures. Everything ok?"
She shrugged, which made the baby burp. She kissed his nose. "I know it's hard to believe, but the problem is the kiss."
"The kiss?" I didn't see how the kiss could be a problem. It's usually one of the few moments in a wedding that you can count on to be trouble free.
"She doesn't want to," said the Maid of honor.
"She doesn't want to kiss?" This was a new one.
"No. She doesn't like kissing much anyway, but it makes her especially uncomfortable in public. Paul told her that she's going to disappoint all the guests and ruin the whole wedding. He said that the guests expect a kiss and if they don't see one they'll feel cheated. He's worried about what everyone will think." I couldn't help but think that if I were Paul I'd be a lot more worried about the fact that my future bride didn't like to kiss.
"Exactly." Both babies were now crying. "Listen, I've got to feed these two and then try to get them to sleep. Then I'll go see what I can do." She headed out of the kitchen with a howling baby on each shoulder. Twenty minutes later she found me out on the veranda taking pictures of the guests.
"Forget it." She said. "Not gonna happen. No more pictures now. She's in tears and he's furious."
During the ceremony Rachel looked tremulous and Paul angry. At the end she hugged him and he relented just enough to hug her back. Barely. The guests cheered and politely ignored the tension. The whole thing seemed such a pity. Paul and Rachel had managed to completely spoil their wedding day. Paul was more concerned about his guests than his bride, and Rachel couldn't break through her inhibitions just enough to give him one public kiss when it really mattered. It seemed a poor start to a marriage.
Each of us, somewhere deep, or not so deep, inside, has some sort of hope for a happily ever after ending. For many people their wedding day symbolizes the beginning of that perfect time. Throw in a little social, parental, and religious pressure, or a lot, shake well, add the expectations fostered by the images of weddings in glossy bridal magazines and countless wedding guides, and you've got a recipe for stress and disappointment. Or, just maybe, you can ignore all that and remember why you are there in the first place. I wonder sometimes if twenty years from now my clients will look at the pictures I took at their wedding and remember how they felt, not just what things looked like. They might even know by then that the feelings were what mattered. Or perhaps they will see that where it all went wrong later was foreshadowed in those moments caught on film when no one was trying to keep up appearances. I'm not a glamour photographer. I'm not a fashion photographer. I am a story teller, and the story I tell is the one I see.
Excerpted from Exposed: Confessions of a Wedding Photographer by Claire Lewis. Copyright (c) Claire Lewis 2008. Reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books.