How fake bridal photos got me real wedding clients, Part II

wedding photography

Fake brides, real love.

Read Part I here.

I wanted to create a world populated by elegant brides doing unbridal things. Passed out in a bathtub. Smoking by a graffiti-tagged wall. Dangling from a neon sign.

All brides. No glamor.

I shot six unbridal portraits within the first two weeks after the dresses arrived. By the end of that year, I had shot 30 of them all over Chicago. 

Sometimes I had to jump through hoops to get permission to shoot in odd locations. When I met with the owner of a steel foundry and asked him if I could shoot pictures of a bride pouring molten steel in a white gown, I didn’t expect him to say yes. But as I sat in his office with Heidi (the bride in question) explaining the idea, his eyes lit up with childlike glee. “Wear a silk dress,” he advised, “Can’t wear polyester or it’ll melt.” Then he added with a wink, “We’ll have to make sure we follow OSHA safety procedures, of course.”

Sometimes I just showed up and did the shoot guerrilla style. Riding the Chicago L train one afternoon, I saw a vacant lot in a dilapidated West Side neighborhood. It was an empty block full of mud, garbage, and ramshackle houses with boarded windows. On it sat an unattended excavator, a giant piece of construction equipment, parked with no one around. No construction was happening at the moment, and there was no fence to keep me out.

I quickly called my friend Sara, who lived not too far from there, and asked if she was free that afternoon. I got her dress size and hurried home, pretty sure I had a gown that would fit her.

We met up at Sara’s apartment. She put on the dress and a long veil, and we drove to the site. We slogged across the muddy lot to the sleeping yellow dinosaur. (I hadn’t asked Sara to put on heels, thank God.) Sara was fearless. She walked right up to the cold, rusty claw and climbed in. I backed away and started shooting.

After about five minutes, we noticed a black car with tinted windows circling the block slowly. It stopped and seemed to be looking at us. I don’t know who was in the car, but I’m guessing it wasn’t anyone working for the construction company. Sara and I decided to quit while we were ahead. We hurried back to her car. It occurred to me later that we may have been naive to be there, in that neighborhood, with an expensive camera and a very eyecatching dress. If I had it to do over again, I would have brought more people. But we got the shot.

Every now and then, the unbride photos would reach people I never expected. The shot of a bride dumpster-diving ended up getting a life of its own as the poster for an improv show. The dumpster she was digging in had been tagged with graffiti. About a year after I took the photo, I was contacted by the street artist who had done the tagging. He had seen the poster, and he wanted to know if he could have a copy of the picture–his street art had since been painted over by the city. I gave him a framed 16×20, and later he helped me out as an advisor on another Unbride photo.

So you may be wondering, how much did this project cost? More than I could afford, no doubt.

Sure I spent over a thousand dollars on slightly damaged bridal finery. Every one was a bargain. Anne and I didn’t have kids at that point, so the expense was relatively harmless. 

In fact, Anne was extremely supportive of the whole project. Along with making veils, she came up with props, and she lent me her editorial eye on many occasions. She was great at hearing my initial ideas and refining them, adding details. There’s no way I could have done the project without her.

She also was kind enough to tolerate the overflow of white poof that took over our bedroom closet.

There’s only one bride in the whole series who’s wearing her real wedding dress. It’s Anne. She’s carving a pumpkin by herself at a Halloween party. She’s pretty great.

After I showed prints of the unbridal photos in a local art show, several people approached me, asking if I’d be interested in shooting their weddings. This shocked me. I had assumed that this project would kill any further wedding photo inquiries. Surely no one would see these irreverent images and think, “That’s the guy I want taking pictures at my wedding.”

Turns out I was wrong.

I was thrilled to learn that many people getting married weren’t interested in glamorous, fairytale portraits. Some folks would rather brush off the glossy fantasy and have some fun.

So I began shooting weddings for real. Unlike before, I decided to be a professional about it. What I quickly discovered was that I really enjoyed working for people who dug what I did, and they let me do it without standing over my shoulder. I didn’t have to shoot real weddings with tongue in cheek, either. I could do sincere, romantic, even glamorous, as long as I was on the same wavelength as the people I was working for. 

And I worked harder for them because I liked them. I felt like they deserved wedding photos that would really represent their unique taste and style. 

So the Unbrides ended up being kind of a filter. People who saw them and still wanted me to shoot their wedding–those were my people.

Before I seriously considered shooting weddings for a living, I thought it would be the drudgiest of drudgery. But my expectations were all wrong. When I really started trying, I realized that wedding photography wasn’t a limitation–it was an opportunity to blow people away.

Now, 15 years later, I look back at the real wedding portfolio I’ve put together, and I think the photos in there reflect who I am as much as the anti-glamor unbrides. (See Principle #3: Stay Interested.)

More importantly, I think about all of the wedding couples whom I’ve grown to love. Somehow, taking the piss out of bridal photography has led me to a deeper appreciation of weddings. I’ve gone from an irreverent photographic goof to forming real friendships with some truly amazing couples.

See the Unbrides photos here.

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