I recently had a chat with an old friend who just got married. For most of her life, she has identified herself as ‘pretty’. She spends most of her money on make-up, nails, hair, handbags etc. I asked to see her wedding photos.
“I hate the pictures. He doesn’t look handsome. The make-up artist also didn’t give me a unique look.”
To me the pictures looked perfectly fine. The groom looked tad awkward in not knowing what to do in front of the camera but it was by no means ugly. It was also clear that the groom had absolutely no say in how the photographs were being shot. The bride hired the photographer with the promise of pretty shots, and failed to match up to the image that she had imagined of herself.
This got me thinking about wedding photographs and how they influence our own sense of identity.
I came across a post listing notable wedding photographers who shoot on film in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. As a disclaimer, it is not my intention to promote, critique nor disparage any of the photographers or their works as presented on the list. This is merely a commentary on visual culture, with the sub-genre of film wedding photography as the topic of interest. Photographs are used here only as a reference. The original article can be viewed here.
The wedding photography industry is huge, starting with cheap basic packages up to dreamy escapades to exotic locations that can cost tens of thousands of ringgit, or dollars. All of them come with the promise of capturing the wedded couple’s ‘most precious moments’. Hiring a photographer to capture those moments is usually one of the very first points of contention while planning a wedding, creating the need of lists of ‘best photographers’ on the Internet and a catalogue of portfolios in print.
For the purpose of this observation, I thought it would be interesting to use a selection of photographs captured on film, as it offers a relatively neutral aesthetics compared to digital photographs where elements are removed/added within the frame. This is especially evident in what is commonly referred to as ‘fine art wedding photography’ featuring not just adjustments, but complete recreation of a real or imaginary landscape. We will not be exploring that sub-genre here. Instead, we will simply look at the selection of images featured on the list, without any regard to the race or nationality of the photography.
Without the word ‘wedding’, some of the photographs here could easily pass of as random snapshots of a man and a woman. Since our context is wedding photography, I will use the term bride and groom to represent the woman and man respectively.
Following the adage of ‘capturing precious moments’, photographs capture elements that are considered to be of great value to those who are viewing it. Scrolling through the list, it becomes clear that main element of interest is the bride, who is pictured in the following ways:
The bride is presented as a beautiful woman. In fact this is the main priority of the photo shoot session, with brides often reminding their photographer “Make sure I look nice.” The photographer is then on a hunt to capture everything that makes the bride look beautiful, including things that are superficial at best. Photographers in this field are usually hired based on their portfolio, meaning the bride is convinced with his/her ability to make her look beautiful. Both the bride and the photographer are consciously working towards an ideal image.
Such shots focus not only on the bride but also on the accompanying dress, flowers, ring, shoes, hair, skin and anything else that amplifies the idea of beauty in great detail. It’s interesting that the two photos above are presented side-by-side with the same bouquet of flowers on the table and in her hands. Form is everything here, not function.
The bride is happy. She is pictured smiling and/or laughing towards and away from the groom.
The bride is the object of desire. She is photographed as the center of attention, being showered with affection in various forms: a kiss, a hug, a joke, a gift. She is the ‘prize’ that the groom has earned once he has proven to be worthy enough.
And in most cases, the profile of the groom is of much less importance than the bride. We even see shots where the is obscured, obstructed or directed away from the camera, and the female profile is clearly visible.
The presence of the groom and the way he is pictured reaffirms the male identity as accepted by society. His attributes of being able to provide for her financially, emotionally and physically are all emphasized even if the groom plays a largely passive role. The photographs seem to say “Look at how lucky he is!”.
For the bride, her identity as a woman that is largely defined by parameters of physical beauty is also emphasized in these photographs. The photographs say “Look at how beautiful she is!”
The photographer also reaffirms this by the following:
- In photos captured in a more candid manner, the photographer exerts his control by choosing the ‘best’ moments, snapshots which purportedly capture the moment. It is in the interest of the photographer to make his clients look and feel good, not documenting what is real.
- In photos where the subjects are posed, the photographer has control over the construct of the photo, and therefore the identity of the subjects.
From the photographs above, it becomes clear that the bride is the most important element in wedding photography, never the groom. The next couple who browses through ‘best-of’ wedding photographs looking for a photographer to hire or ideas for a photoshoot will invariably be ‘inspired’ by such aesthetics and continue to perpetuate it. With the rise of social media, wedding photographs are becoming increasingly personal, with the aesthetics of the image representing the taste, class, network, values of the couple. This is markedly different when compared to early studio photographs which served as nothing more than an official record of the marriage.