Capturing the Moment vs. Glamour in Wedding Photography

I am always suspect about NY Times reported “trends,” because I’ve found that if a trend is reported in the Times it is either confined to a handful of people in Brooklyn, or the trend was already over two years before the NY Times reporters found out about it. Nonetheless, I read with some interest about the latest trend: “marriage-minded men … conspiring with photographers who … lurk in crowds, behind bushes and in the darkened recesses of restaurants to capture the delighted, unposed reaction of the fiancée-in-the-making” as they are proposed to.

proposal photographs

This interests me because of the contrast with Taiwanese Bridal Photography 婚紗照, which I wrote a brief post last year when the phenomenon was covered in the Washington Post. In Bonnie Adrian’s book Framing the Bride, she talks about the importance of glamor in these photos. Taiwanese wedding photos are produced like a fashion shoot, with expensive lighting, numerous costume changes, etc. When they are printed they might even feature overlaid text, just as you would see in a glossy magazine.

wedding photo shoot

This focus on elaborate glamor photography contrasts with what the increasing use of “photojournalistic realism” in American wedding photography pointed out by the Times. You can explore the differences on flickr: here is a search for photos in the “proposal” cluster, and here is a rather typical set of Taiwanese wedding photos (more here).

Former Savage Minds guest blogger, Michael Wesch was quoted in the NY Times for this article, where he comments about how students feel the need to post such photos on Facebook, because “It’s almost like if it’s not on Facebook, it didn’t happen.” Of course, the second the article came out, Mike couldn’t help but post it to his Facebook profile …

4 thoughts on “Capturing the Moment vs. Glamour in Wedding Photography

  1. Kerim,

    Thanks. This observation lightened my day. It also tickled the grey cells with the following question: What is the status of the two photos as evidence? It is easy to note differences in composition and color, for example.

    In the USA photo, we see no photographer(s). The focus is on the couple, but if we look closely we can see people in the background noticing that something is going on. The color scheme is muted.

    In the Taiwan photo, photographers are included in the photo. They are part of the subject on which the camera is focused. That the photo in the photo is staged is evident, from the way the bridal couple are dressed and posed. The people in the background seem to be paying no attention to what is going on. The vivid red of the photographers’ shirts contrasts sharply with the white of wedding dress and the groom’s outfit.

    It is easy to imagine writing an essay on these two photos, drawing conclusions that appeal to cultural stereotypes: American spontaneity vs. Chinese staging But, then, reading the story we find that the American version is also elaborately staged–to capture a moment of spontaneous response! There is no question about it; the red and white in the Taiwan photo scream “ritual” to anyone who has done research in a Chinese setting. But, then, returning to the Times photo, we may note how stylized it actually is: The tall, slim woman with long, light-brown/dark blonde hair, the dark-haired man kneeling at her feet…. the slope on which they stand and the structure behind them… both eliciting an almost reflexive “San Francisco” response from me.

    I realize that I know so little about the people who appear in these photos and the contexts in which they are shot, that I can only speculate how local or transient the story topic may be.

    Any thoughts?

  2. John,

    The Taiwanese photo is rather untypical for the genre, with its reflexive focus on process. There links to some more “typical” wedding photos on Flickr. I think looking through the flickr groups for the two types of photos we can get a much better sense then from these two individual instances.

    I think you point to something important about the supposedly “candid” photos, which is that (just like reality TV) they are actually just as scripted, clichéd, and carefully framed as the Chinese photos. But even though I haven’t done research on this myself, my guess is that the people who take these photos don’t see it that way, and the NY Times article certainly supports this reading.

  3. John, if you read the Times article, the guy doing the proposal is quoted as describing how he set things up – her dress, the time of day, the place – so the photos would look good. It’s as scripted as spontaneity can be.

    Kerim, I looked at the Taiwanese photos on Flickr and was astounded at how elaborate they were. When are these photos typically shot – before or after the wedding? How are different sets of photos circulated, and among whom, and when? Does someone do makeup and staging for every photo shoot? The expense must be enormous, so I’d imagine that the ability to do these photos is limited to a certain sector of Taiwanese society.

    I’m thinking of wedding rituals in the upper-middle class in the United States: there might be a set of engagement photos, and certainly wedding photos – and now, it seems, proposal photos. But when these photos are taken, and their style, and how they’re circulated, and the aesthetics of the photos, is also a matter of class and regional culture, as you point out – just because Brooklynites are trending a certain direction doesn’t mean the entire country is, or can afford to.

    Hmm… our wedding anniversary is today. Better go make dinner reservations.

  4. Laura,

    These are shot before the wedding. Usually there will be cards and posters from some photos which are put on display, while other, more intimate photos are put into an album and only shown to close friends and family. These albums can cost thousands of dollars (US), and the photo shoots take a lot of time and preparation.

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