How fake bridal photos got me real wedding clients

wedding photography
Note: not a real bride.

Part I: Fear of the Fake.

A bride dumpster diving.

A bride with her head in the oven.

A bride passed out at a construction site, sleeping peacefully in the claw of an excavator.

If you see these pictures, you might wonder if the photographer doesn’t care for weddings. You might think he has some cynical thoughts about marriage. I get asked that a lot.

The truth is, I love weddings. I’ve been happily married since before I took any of these photos. Anne’s and my wedding was a small gathering of family and close friends on a damp night in February. It was quiet, cozy, and funny. To us, it was just right.

At the time, the idea of shooting a giant, solemn wedding with hundreds of guests and breathtaking bridal portraits on a windswept mountain vista–I wasn’t ready for that.

I had only shot a couple of weddings professionally. They were both casual weddings for friends, and I intentionally undercharged–mostly because I wasn’t confident that I could do it well. The discount price was my preemptive apology to the clients in case I screwed up. I wasn’t about to go looking for work shooting weddings for people I didn’t know.

I wasn’t interested, either. I was terrified of working for a wedding couple with no sense of humor. I’ve never been a fan of the sincere, fairytale wedding. And I don’t understand the glamor-hungry, all-eyes-on-me bride.

When people whom I love decide to spend their lives together, it makes me so happy. But the wedding day itself–some people take that one day so bloody seriously.

I started taking photos professionally in 2001. For the first couple of years, I accepted any kind of job BUT weddings. At that time, the only real wedding photos I’d seen struck me as phony: posey-posed brides with pasted-on brideypoo smiles. Grooms and wedding parties who looked like they’d rather be anywhere else.

Bridal magazines circa 2001 featured a different kind of phony. The hair and makeup were perfect; the scenery was breathtaking. Yet all personality had been stripped from the model posing in the couture dress. Most magazine brides didn’t smile at all. Anyone who did was clearly a model. This was what brides aspired to?

And of course, same-sex weddings and weddings of anyone over 30 didn’t exist at that time. At least, not in magazines.

No bridal photography captured what I loved about weddings and marriage. They were missing the story, the relationship. The giggliness, the goofy exuberance. The joy.

But wow, the pictures were pretty. The fabric folding white on white. The structure of each gown creating its own crescendo. I had to admit, I was fascinated with the genre. Wouldn’t it be amazing to shoot knockout images like that? (I mean, minus all the phony.) I wanted to pay tribute to the genre of bridal photography while also pulling the rug out from under it. 

The first image popped into my head as I was leaving the grocery store one day. After transferring my bags to the back seat of my car, I pushed my shopping cart into the battered cart return. Suddenly I envisioned a stoic bride sitting in it. A magazine bride, posing dutifully in a white princess dress. Blank expression on her impeccably made-up face. Elegant in her own absurdity.

The first Unbride.

Before I knew it, I was on the computer shopping for discount wedding dresses. I was determined to create an alternate world in which only magazine brides existed.

Beautiful, out-of-date gowns were abundant on eBay. Some were used, but most were bridal store seconds. Elegant satin frocks with broken seams or scissor slashes through their billowing tulle.

I probably should have been nervous to tell Anne about it, but I charged ahead and asked for her opinion on the idea. She was totally game. She offered to help me out by making some veils and searching thrift stores for bridal accessories. We had a blast looking at used dresses online.

I called a handful of actresses I knew and asked them if they’d be willing to put on a wedding dress for me. Once I explained the premise, they were all in. 

Read Part II: Fake Brides, Real Love.

See The Unbrides photo series on my portfolio site.

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