Smoke on the Water

wedding photography

The wedding photography profession can involve putting out metaphorical fires. Sometimes I have to put out real fires too.

You may know them from the famous scene in the movie Tangled. They’re sky lanterns–paper cylinders that act as luminous little hot air balloons. The translucent paper is closed at the top; a lightweight wire skeleton keeps the the bottom open. Ignite the flammable square at the base, and the glowing lantern floats out of your hands and ascends into the night, wherever the wind takes it. Release several at a time, and they speckle the sky with soft light. It’s a thoroughly dreamy, romantic image.

Unless you’re a fire marshal.

These days it’s hard for me to romanticize fire when I think about the recent cataclysmic wildfires in Australia and California. Countless people and animals have died or lost their homes because small flames got out of control. The sky lanterns are beautiful, but look past the romance and it’s easy to see why lighting a bunch of little flames and releasing them into the air with no steering mechanism could be disastrous.

Think back to a more innocent time: 2011. An absolutely charming, easygoing couple, both active in the performing arts, held their September wedding at a picturesque lodge in Michigan. Built in 1909, the lodge remained intentionally quaint. It stood in a rural wooded area on the lakefront; there were no televisions or telephones in any of the guest rooms.

This lodge included something unusual in its wedding package. After the reception, guests could walk a few hundred feet from the reception tent and enjoy a bonfire in the woods. Lodge staff would build and stoke the fire, and guests could sit around it to drink and toast marshmallows. The wedding couple loved this idea, and they asked in advance if I would make sure to get some photos of it. I happily agreed.

The late afternoon ceremony went to perfection. It took place outdoors on a wide wooden deck overlooking Lake Michigan. Afterwards, we retreated to the tent for champagne and toasts. Shortly before dusk, I got word that the groom’s father had brought some flying paper lanterns as a surprise. He invited everyone to migrate back to the deck where we would release the sky lanterns over the lake.

My partner Michelle and I were skeptical that they had permission to do this. Still, we didn’t want to be wet blankets, so we hustled over to the deck, pulled out our cameras and shot fast and furiously while the groom’s father started lighting one of the lanterns. No one from the lodge staff tried to stop him.

A soft wind was blowing out toward the lake. Between the deck and the water was a steep slope (almost a sandy cliff) thick with brush. Tall trees flanked the hill on either side. I don’t drink while I’m working, so I was conscious of the dauntingly narrow path that the lanterns would have to travel to get out over open water. The wedding couple and guests all had glasses of champagne in their hands. The opening must have looked wider to them.

The groom’s father launched the first lantern. It lifted off triumphantly before veering left, promptly getting stuck in tree branches above the deck, just out of our reach. The tree clung to the lantern despite the rising hot air inside. Ah well, the guests said, let’s keep trying. They lit more lanterns.

After a couple of successful launches, another lantern failed to lift entirely. The wick in the bottom must not have produced enough heat, because instead of rising, it floated straight out at deck height. It doddered horizontally for about 10 seconds, then sank pitifully down onto the bushes. A dud, it rested on the foliage, still lit and burning. (I wonder if this happened to any of the royal lanterns in Tangled.)

In spite of the limited success rate of the lanterns, guests kept at it. A few glowing cylinders had finally made it past the trees and out over the lake. They were picturesque against the dimming blue sky. The lantern that was caught in the tree continued to burn without moving; the one resting on the hill brush gave up and extinguished itself. 

At the edge of the deck, one of the guests held his lantern sideways as he put his lighter to the wick. There was very little clearance between the lighter and the sagging dome, and the paper caught fire while the lantern was still in his hands. Rather than dropping it and backing away, as I would have done, the guest held onto the metal ring while the paper burned, giggling and admiring the blaze. The edges of the paper glowed orange, shedding sparks and ash. 

Another guest helpfully tried to put the blaze out by pouring the remains of a bottle of champagne onto it. This was ineffective. Finally the giddy guest dropped the ring and what was left of the burning paper over the railing of the deck and onto the bushes below.

People leaned over the edge of the deck, smiling and laughing as they watched the fiery paper on the ground sway in the breeze.

Michelle and I, professionals that we were, kept shooting throughout. I wanted the shutter clicks to drown out the voice in my head yelling, “Stop this before we burn the deck to the ground!”

I looked up to check on the lantern that had been stuck in the tree. It was gone. At first I thought it had escaped the tree and made it airborne. Then I noticed a flicker on the hill directly below the tree. The lantern had drifted to the ground, and now the wick rested against a bush. To me, it looked like it was about to ignite.

I’d had enough. I lifted the camera straps off my shoulders and set my gear under a wooden bench. I stuck my legs under the deck railing and dropped down onto the sandy hill. Walking down toward the sad flame, I did my best to keep my balance. If I tripped on a root, there was very little to stop me from tumbling all the way down to the beach.

I reached the lantern and stamped out the fire with both feet. To be on the safe side, I kicked sand on it too. 

I turned and looked at the people on the deck. Everyone seemed to have lost interest in the flames on the ground, and they were celebrating the successful launches of a few more lanterns. I trudged back up the hill and kicked some sand on the laughing guest’s champagne-soaked lantern for good measure.

Pulling myself up onto the deck wasn’t as easy as getting down, but I managed. I strapped my camera gear on and got back to the job of wedding photography. I can’t remember if anyone thanked me, or even acknowledged that I’d put out the potential bushfires. Maybe the danger was in my head and there was never anything to worry about. No one else seemed at all concerned. Guess I ended up being a wet blanket after all.

A few hours later, after the reception, the remaining guests gathered around the bonfire in the woods. As I shot pictures of people relaxing and cooking wieners, I was poised to spring into action if so much as a cinder were to land on a dry leaf. None did.

In hindsight, I have no idea how this lodge survived for more than a century. Since the management was cavalier enough to permit sky lanterns and they facilitated bonfires at every wedding, who knows how many other near-infernos had been started by tipsy revelers over the years. Maybe close calls like this were typical.

The lodge ran out of luck 15 months later. In December 2012, the main building, uninhabited during the offseason, burned to the ground. The deck and most of the trees on the lakefront went with it. It took 77 firefighters to put out the blaze. No one knows what caused it, but I have been assured that my wedding couple and their fire-enchanted guests were all at least 200 miles away. 

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