Read an Excerpt
Exposed: Confessions of a Wedding Photographer
Kristie came to our first meeting wearing a cloud of gardenia scent and a purple tank top, with BORN TO SHOP written in jewels across her chest. I thought she was holding a baby in her arms, but it turned out that she was cradling a twenty-pocket accordion folder. There were sections labeled “Table Linen Swatches,” “Bridesmaids’ Shoes,” “Cute Table Favors,” “Martha Stewart’s Secrets,” and “Stress-Free Honeymoon Sex.” Kristie pulled out a thick stack of magazine clippings from the “Special Photographs I Love” slot. I took a look. There were lots of very tall, very beautiful women.
“These are pictures you like?” I guessed.
“Oh, yes.” Kristie looked me straight in the eye and continued with great seriousness. “I love them. This is exactly how I want my wedding pictures to look. I knew the minute I saw your Web site that you could create that for me. But the most important thing you should know about my pictures is that they have to be real. I hate phony stuff.”
There were lots of things that Kristie wanted me to know about her.
“I love weddings because they are so emotional and intense. I know you must understand how I feel. I love planning weddings. That’s why I’ve made a huge career decision. When this is all over, I’m going to become a wedding planner myself. My whole life has changed since I started planning my wedding. I feel so centered. I go to the gym more, and my eating habits are totally under control. My friends think I’m psychic, you know, because I sensed your honesty just by looking at your photographs. I know I’ll be able to sense other people’s honesty for my future clients’ weddings as well. People would pay a lot for that. I really do love your pictures.” She paused and smiled blindingly. She had the whitest teeth I had ever seen.
“Oh, well, thanks,” I managed to say before she started again.
“I always think that a woman should support other women, don’t you?”
“Well, sure. In general, I do think so,” I started to say, but the question had been rhetorical.
“Women, after all, we’re, like, about half the population, right? We need to give each other half the support.” She stopped short. “We should get down to business, Claire. You’re just too easy to chat to! Now, there should be no posed pictures or glamour stuff. That’s not what I’m about. I want the sort of natural spontaneous stuff like in magazines. You see what I mean, don’t you?” What I saw was a lot of red flags.
“The work in magazines is actually very carefully styled,” I told her. “Pictures that look like that don’t just happen. There’s a lot of lighting and makeup involved in those images. I’m more of a documentary photographer. I hardly do conventional portraits at all if I can help it.”
“That’s perfect,” beamed Kristie, “just what I want. I love the stuff that looks like real life. Here, take another look at my samples and you’ll see what I mean.”
For the next hour I did my best to explain. I made her tea and went through her clippings one by one.
“See that full moon over the beach? It was digitally painted in behind the couple kissing. I don’t do that. I would never, ever use Photoshop to color in the bride’s bouquet in a black-and-white shot like they did here. I don’t retouch, and I would definitely not ask the groomsmen to form a chorus line and do a high kick the way they’re doing in that picture there. I’m really just not sure that my style is right for you.” I looked over at her, hoping to see some glimmer of understanding. She looked me in the eye and smiled.
“You are everything I’m looking for in a photographer. Can I give you a hug?”
I agreed to photograph Kristie’s wedding. Sometimes I take a job for the money. That happens when the pile of bills gets too high for me to ignore any longer. This was different. Somehow, Kristie had convinced me. I believed her when she told me that with my brilliant eye I would record her day as no other photographer could. One week later, her signed contract arrived in the mail. There was also a schedule for the day that was twelve pages long and another stack of photographs torn from fashion magazines. They were clipped together with a gardenia-scented note. Can’t wait for the big day, said the note. It was signed with a smiley face.
Weddings are big business. Tuscania Winery knows this. It’s hardly a winery at all anymore. More like a mall. There’s a store stocked with Tuscania merchandise, an on-site wedding planning department, and a permanent wedding reception tent set up on the property. Tuscania has florists, caterers, bakers, and wedding coordinators. It is one-stop shopping for all your nuptial needs. Weddings move through the place at the speed of light, with three or four ceremonies happening every weekend. An army of khaki-clad dictators, cleverly disguised as wedding facilitators, rushes around with headphones and crackling walkie-talkies, trying to keep the various brides from bumping into each other. There are lots of rules at Tuscania. I hate rules.
When things go wrong at Tuscania, it can be a lot of fun. It’s like watching the wrath of the marriage gods as they rebel against the idea of weddings as such grimly managed commerce. This was the site Kristie had chosen for her wedding.
I picked up my assistant, Sarah, at 8:00 A.M. in front of the Mission District Victorian where she has her studio apartment. She climbed into the car looking uncharacteristically cheery for such an early hour.
“This is going to be fun,” she said.
“At Tuscania?” I felt grumpy. Sometimes just picking Sarah up in the morning makes me grumpy, since she always looks like she’s just back from a yoga retreat somewhere, all blond, tanned, and perfectly fit.
“Oh, come on. We’ll just follow our twelve pages of highly detailed instructions and try to have a good time.” She turned on the radio and started looking for some music. This was definitely odd. Sarah’s usual style in the morning is to wear enormous sunglasses and hide behind a cup of coffee until we are fifteen minutes away from the wedding site. Then she asks for her film and schedule for the day, and that’s it for small talk.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I just have a feeling about this one,” said Sarah. “It’s going to be good.”
At Tuscania, we were shown to the bride’s dressing room by one of the wedding directors.
“Here we go,” said Sarah cheerily as I pushed open the door. There, in a room packed with bridesmaids, lavender tulle, hair dryers, and hot rollers, Kristie was having her makeup done. She looked out at me from under enormous false eyelashes.
“How’s my makeup?” Her lips were outlined in dark brown, her face was two shades darker than her neck, and her cheeks were very pink. She was wearing a tiara. It was way too late.
“You look great,” I said. “No need to do too much more, right?”
“Oh, we’re just getting started,” said the makeup artist.
An hour later, we began taking stiff, self-conscious pictures in the hundred-degree heat with Kristie, seven bridesmaids, and a lot of other people who wanted to have their pictures taken and whom Kristie had forgotten to mention. Kristie was working hard. Her makeup was melting down onto the neck of her white gown. Mitch, her groom, was sulking.
“Calm down, baby,” Kristie said, giving him a kiss on the cheek while keeping one eye on the camera. “We’ll just do a couple more, OK?”
Mitch had had enough of standing in the midday sun wearing a tuxedo and having his picture taken, he was in no mood to be pleasant.
“Not OK, I’m done here.”
“Maybe you should take a little break,” Kristie crooned, patting his arm. “We’ll start on the family pictures without you. Let’s do a few cute ones together in the gazebo when you get back.”
Mitch gave a grunt that could have meant anything and left with his best man.
“Men,” said Kristie. Her bridesmaids nodded in understanding.
“Five bucks says he doesn’t come back,” whispered Sarah. I wasn’t taking that bet. Sarah and I had both seen Mitch’s groomsmen gathered in the parking lot with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.
Kristie gave me a bright smile. “Let’s get set up in the gazebo,” she said. “That way we’ll be all ready for pictures when Mitch comes back.”
We all trooped off to the gazebo. Half an hour passed. There was no sign of Mitch.
“Shall we do a few of me alone in the vineyard?” Kristie asked. Her smile looked a bit stiff. “Mitch loves the wine country so much. This whole wedding was his idea, you know. He’s been in on the planning right from the start. I told all the girls on the Knot about Mitch, and they all think I’m the luckiest bride they know. He’s so involved.”
We headed for the vineyard. Sarah shot me a dark look. “This is pathetic,” she said. Her good mood had evaporated.
Mitch never arrived. Finally even Kristie realized that he wasn’t coming, and she and her bridesmaids went back inside to freshen up. Sarah and I decided to go check out the ceremony site, which is what we were doing when we saw an odd-looking woman floating in our direction. As she drew closer, I realized it was just the flowing sea green dress and multiple shawls she was wrapped in that gave the impression she was being pushed along by the breeze rather than walking.
The Oxford American Dictionary says that an officiant is someone who performs a religious service or ceremony and is typically a priest or minister. Not anymore. An officiant now means anyone who has gone online and has made himself or herself an officiant. It takes hardly any time, and anybody at all can do it. Your plumber, your best friend, your dog walker, or your personal trainer—all are fully qualified in ten minutes and a few clicks of the mouse. The officiant for Kristie and Mitch’s wedding was a tall, stringy woman wearing long dangling earrings made from seashells and a dreamy expression. She smiled absently at the space somewhere between Sarah and me.
“I am the celebrant,” she said. “You can call me Ariel.”
I avoided looking at Sarah and said hello. Since the ceremony was due to start in ten minutes, I got down to business.
“Shall we sort out where you’ll be standing so we’re sure not to block the guests’ view and then just quickly go over the order of everyone’s entrance?” I asked.
Ariel’s eyes widened. She made a tut-tutting noise, as though reprimanding a child, and shook her head sadly.
“We have not worked together before, have we?” she said gently. “You must realize I have a passion for joining people in this, the most sacred and beautiful of unions of the soul, that springs from my own deeply spiritual consciousness. Where people stand or how they enter is supremely unimportant to me.”
At this point Sarah tried to slip away. This sort of talk usually sends her off to check if the bar is open. I caught her just in time.
“Sarah, could you go over the ceremony details with Ariel? I’m going to go and make sure Kristie is all set,” I said, and ran.
Once the guests were seated and Kristie and Mitch were standing between two enormous marble urns filled with pink roses, Ariel bowed her head for a moment of silence. Raising her head, she rang a tiny brass bell three times and said, “Let the ceremony begin. I open this glorious day by extending my deep love and fellowship to you who are gathered here. I will now read some sweet details from the private letters that I asked the bride and groom to write to each other and share with me so that I could better come to know them.” She paused. Kristie and Mitch looked worried.
“Do you think they knew she was going to read sweet excerpts from their intimate letters to their two hundred guests?” I whispered to Sarah.
She grinned at me. She was beginning to enjoy herself again. “This is great,” she said. “I knew it was going to be a good one.”
“Our bride,” said Ariel, “is a long-distance runner who often travels to participate in triathlons. Mitch cares faithfully for Fleur, their beloved French bulldog, during her long absences.” Someone in the crowd laughed and was quickly hushed.
“The proudest day of Mitch’s life,” continued Ariel, “was the moment when he proposed to Kristie at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and she accepted his pledge of eternal love. This remarkable and public-spirited couple hopes someday to design a vegan running shoe that is not only comfortable but will be affordable to people from every walk of life.” Ariel beamed.
“What? What is she saying?” the bride’s grandmother asked loudly.
“She said Kristie likes running,” the bride’s mother shouted into the grandmother’s hearing aid.
“Running where?” the grandmother shouted back.
There was more laughter now. Mitch stepped close to Ariel and began to speak to her in a whisper too low for Ariel’s body mike to pick up.
“What’s he saying? I gotta know what he’s saying,” said Sarah. Not being able to hear was making her nuts.
Sarah and I focused our zoom lenses in on Ariel’s face. She looked like she was melting. Her features sagged. She grew even paler, and her shoulders hunched as Mitch continued speaking to her. A soft moan came through the speakers that were wired to the microphone attached to her collar. She began to sway slightly from side to side.
After a moment, Mitch backed away, and Ariel seemed to pull herself together. Taking a shaky breath, she shuffled the papers in her hands and began speaking in a quavering voice.
“Moving on, I will now share a reading from The Little Prince,” she said. “‘Water may also be good for the heart … .’”
The quote didn’t seem to have anything to do with what was going on, but everyone looked relieved that things were moving forward again. “‘The stars are beautiful, because of a flower that cannot be seen,’” Ariel continued reading. Then, suddenly, she stopped. Several of the groomsmen darted in to support her as she swayed dangerously to one side, but she waved them away. She began reading again. Unfortunately, she started from the beginning.
Three more times Ariel started her reading, lost her place, and began again. Finally, she stopped—and dropped like a stone. After so many false alarms, the groomsmen had grown careless. No one caught her. The thud as she hit the ground was projected by her microphone to wonderfully dramatic effect. Everyone froze.
“Oh God, what do I do? Keep shooting? Is that right?” said a relative with a video camera, addressing the question to anyone at all.
“Of course you keep shooting,” said Sarah. “Memories are made of this.”
Kristie screamed. All attention switched firmly back to the bride. Guests leaped up to support her. Bridesmaids scattered in a flurry of flowers and ruffled skirts. Mitch backed slowly away. Kristie, slumped in the supporting arms of her maid of honor, looked down at her collapsed officiant.
“How could this happen?” she gasped. “I just don’t understand how this could happen.”
Finally, a doctor among the guests actually thought to check on the condition of the fallen Ariel. “She’s all right. Please don’t worry,” he said, though no one appeared to be worried. They were all far too busy with Kristie. The doctor helped Ariel to a chair.
“I want to finish the ceremony,” she insisted weakly. “Their souls must be united.”
I elbowed Sarah, who was doubled over with laughter. Ten minutes later, with the support of two groomsmen, Ariel rose from her chair and slowly made her way back to the ceremony site and to Kristie, who stood waiting there, pale but determined.
“I can do this,” Kristie said to her mother, who was fanning her with a copy of the program. “Where’s Mitch?”
Mitch was over near the ornamental fountain, chatting to the prettiest of the bridesmaids.
Kristie’s lips thinned a little. “Baby, we’re ready to start again,” she called. Mitch looked up.
“It’s about time. What’s the holdup here? Can we get this show on the road?”
Ariel started reading her quote from The Little Prince.
“Skip to the vows already!” groaned Sarah. “No way is she going to make it. Look at her. Oh, no. She’s stopped reading already. I can’t stand it.”
We watched as Ariel turned very slowly toward Kristie. “I am so sorry, my dear,” she said politely, and vomited down the front of Kristie’s Reem Acra gown.
Kristie looked down. Her lips moved, but no sound came out.
Then it did.
“Get it off me!” she screamed. “Get it off me! Get it off! Get it off!”
She kept repeating this as four of the groomsmen lifted her up, her body forming a crucifix shape, head lolling back to give us one last view of her mascara-stained face as she was carried from the scene. Mitch, fully present at last, followed. Both bride and groom were still wearing their body mikes, so we heard Kristie’s hysterical weeping and Mitch’s curses for several more minutes until the doors of the bridal room shut behind them.
Three women with walkie-talkies had now rushed to the scene and stood looking with blank expressions at the bride’s abandoned shoes covered in vomit, the stunned guests, and the gagging ring bearer. This was not in the planning guide. Ambulance sirens were heard in the distance.
“Wow,” said Sarah.
One month later, Kristie came to pick up her pictures. Surprisingly, they didn’t look too bad. After an hourlong wait while the bride, the officiant, and the wedding site were all scrubbed, the vows had actually happened. They were very short. Then the officiant left in an ambulance and the reception played itself out, with everyone trying hard to forget what had just taken place. I tried to piece together a book of pictures that documented the fiction that this marriage was off to a glorious start. It seemed like the least I could do.
Kristie arrived beaming. She hugged me and handed me a huge purple orchid plant. “Wasn’t the wedding a dream?” she said. “I’ll always remember it as a perfect day. And you were perfect, too, Claire.”
Kristie’s rose-colored glasses must have been stuck on with Super Glue. But perhaps that was a good thing, I thought, if she was to live with Mitch. She hugged me again and left with her pictures.
It was almost a year later that I met a coworker of Kristie’s who came to talk with me about photographing her own wedding. She was anxious to tell me the whole story.
“That lady doing the wedding,” she said, “you know, the crazy one? Well, she got Kristie and Mitch’s letters mixed up with someone else’s letters, and when Mitch told her what she had done, she had a total nervous breakdown. Can you imagine being so embarrassed you, like, throw up all over someone? Other than that, though,” she continued, “it really was a perfect wedding. Can you believe they got divorced already?”
EXPOSED: CONFESSIONS OF A WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER. Copyright © 2008 by Claire Lewis. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.