The Bride Without a Game Face

wedding photography

Letting the couple be their private selves on their most public day.

Wedding photos are a kind of performance, and not just because they’re posed for the camera. We’re performing for the people who will see the pictures, including our future selves. 

When we look back at our wedding albums, the images should help us remember what happened and how we felt. The pictures call forth our memories of the day.

As time passes, something else starts to happen. The pictures don’t just help us remember. We grow closer to the images and further from the moments that actually took place. Over time, the pictures become the memories.

For people who are comfortable having their picture taken, this isn’t a problem. When they look at photos from their wedding, they see themselves. But what about someone who’s not at ease with the camera? Will the pictures bring up memories she wants to relive?

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I’m standing on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago, surrounded by five affable guys in tuxedos. The bride is on her way. 

I have taken the groom and his mates out to the downtown streets, to the spot where we’ll meet the bride for the first look photos. So far, we’ve had a grand time taking shots of the guys goofing around.

This couple is a lovely pair of artistic visionaries. Both work in theater, but they’re not the typical theater couple, if there is such a thing. The groom is tall and outgoing, with a quick wit. He naturally clowns for the camera. The bride is tougher to read–she’s quiet and elegant, with large, dark, perceptive eyes. 

When I checked in with the bride getting ready in her hotel room, I could see a hint of concern in those eyes. Not fear or regret–I wasn’t worried that she’d call off the wedding. But I didn’t see the game face that brides-to-be often wear.

Her hair and makeup weren’t fully done yet, so I had no problem waiting to take any photos until she was camera ready. Still, she seemed more apprehensive than the average bride with me being in the room.

So now I’m in position for her arrival. The groomsmen retreat, the groom stands at the ready, and I try to get a good angle on the bride crossing the street. There’s so much pedestrian traffic on this beautiful day, I have a hard time getting a clear look at her. When the crowd in front of her clears, I can see that she’s lovely in her gown, but she still hasn’t put on the game face. 

When she and the groom see each other, she finally reveals an effortless smile. She walks to him and they clasp hands. They look into each other’s eyes, and she seems to find a peace that has eluded her until that moment.

I realize she’s finally feeling like herself. 

Until now, she’s been a bride preoccupied with all the pressures of the day. She’s gone to great lengths to put on makeup and a gorgeous dress, to plan locations, hire a photographer, and invite a hundred people to be a part of it. She wants to create and enjoy a beautiful, personal experience with people she loves. But she doesn’t feel like herself when she’s conscious of the camera.

At that moment, I remind myself: Not everyone is comfortable performing on their wedding day. Because I’ve done a lot of theater photography and actors’ headshots, I’m fairly well connected in the performing arts community–I’ve shot weddings for performers of all kinds. For most of them, yukking it up for the camera comes naturally, or at least serves as a comfortable photo front.

Not for her. 

When she walked across the street toward me, I could see the tension in her eyes. The few times I asked her if she’d like to pose for a photo, she went stiff.

She’s at home acting in plays and giving formal speeches. How can it be that she feels awkward having her photo taken? 

Quick side note: This may seem strange to people who don’t know many actors, but a lot of them are much more comfortable in character. When they have a script, the confines of a stage, and a well-rehearsed set of character traits, it’s easy to face the audience or the camera. These folks are much more vulnerable performing as themselves.

I think about the concern I saw on the bride’s face in the makeup chair, when she was getting ready to go “on.” She was about to dive into a day that requires her to be agonizingly public, and she has to face the cameras without a script, without a stage, without a persona other than her own.

Being comfortable on camera isn’t something you can just switch on. She’s trying, but I can see that it’s a struggle.

As I shoot, I do my best to give her space. I try to let her be herself without making her feel like she has to perform herself. We take some traditional group photos, of course, but I keep those setups brief. I spend much of the day finding angles where I can shoot unforced moments between the bride and groom. When the bride is alone, I avoid asking her to pose. 

The ceremony is cozy, and the reception is full of humor, style, and warmth. At the reception, the room is full of people who love to play to a crowd. The bridal party puts on fake mustaches and does a sketch. The photo booth has an array of masks and props. There are plenty of opportunities for the bride to ham it up. And she doesn’t. It’s not her thing.

My efforts to shoot with discretion pay off. When the bride forgets about the camera, she comes alive. The shots in which she’s lost in the moment at the reception are lovely. Her husband remains a goof, and I give him plenty of chances to put on silly photo fronts, but only when his wife is socializing in another part of the room.

When the bride and groom are together, I observe with my camera from a distance, and I see their real affection and tenderness for each other. Their chemistry is beautiful; I’m relieved that in quite a few photos, I figured out how to capture it without destroying it.

Joy takes many forms. For some people, it’s posing for a big group photo, champagne glasses held high. For this particular couple, I think the photo that’s true to them is quieter. It’s a gentle moment in which both of them are walking away from a crowd, neither aware of the camera, and the groom puts a coat around the bride’s shoulders. That’s where they live. That’s their joy, pure and unperformed.

I keep this couple in mind when I’m getting to know potential wedding clients. I realize that years from now, each couple will look at their wedding photos and refresh their happy memories. I hope they’ll get to relive the personal, genuine moments as well as the big, showy ones. If the pictures are going to shape their memories, then I hope the pictures and the memories will be true to each other.

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