Unsung Heroes of Wedding Photography: Fred Rogers

If you want to know anything about why wedding photography is important, a good place to start is this guy:

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Yes, Mr. Rogers. As I go forward in this industry, as, after 120 weddings or so, I can no longer see myself as a fresh young upstart, I’ve been thinking a lot about the focus of my photography, the meaning, the whys more than the hows — and it’s hard to think of a better role model than Fred McFeely Rogers.

Now, people familiar with my MacGuyver obsession may say that I was overly influenced by the television I grew up with, and you’re probably right, but hear me out. Fred Rogers was about as close as 20th Century America has to a living saint. He was one of the most famous people on the planet, but as far from a “rock star” as you could ever imagine. He lived simply, and he never lost sight of what his work was really about — primarily the education of children, but also imparting the central message that we are unique, and that our uniqueness is wonderful. And nothing got in his way — with kindness and determination, he saved public television and he saved the VCR, because they helped him do his work. If you have never seen the video of him testifying before Congress, watch it. It’s amazing — his earnestness and intelligence utterly melts away the cynicism of career politicians for one of the few times in recorded history.

He was the antithesis of cool. He was skinny and nerdy and drove an old car, and he wore the same sweater all the time. But cool didn’t matter — he had a job to do, and it was important. Watch his acceptance of a Lifetime Achievement Emmy. Watch him stand before a lot of cool people and remind them that there is something so important.

We are in the middle of a deeply weird change — wedding photography, the red-headed stepchild of artistic photography, is becoming cool. People want to do it, people look at you approvingly when you tell them that you do it for a living, heck, you aren’t even publicly shamed quite so much at art schools if you dabble in it. This is awesome, and amazing, and has opened up so many new possibilities for photography in the industry. But I always try to remind myself that what we do is more than cool. By documenting the one of the most important days in someone’s life, we are writing social history for our clients, for their friends, for their families.

I spend a lot of time at most weddings just looking for perfect expressions. These photos are rarely cool and virtually unpublishable — they don’t tell much of a story, they don’t help future brides plan their wedding, and they don’t really help other photographers learn how to take good pictures. But when a couple comes up to me and says “This is the first picture of my mother I’ve ever seen that actually looks like her!” I feel like just maybe I’ve done something important.

People let us in. At weddings, between the joy and the anxiety and sometimes the alcohol, the walls that we walk around with come crashing down. In many ways, people are most themselves. We have the opportunity to document their uniqueness, the way they express joy, and that is something I want to stay focused on. Beyond the cool portraits, the Brenizer methods and flash composites and jaw-droppingly expensive equipment, sometimes I take photos of people that look like who they are, and I love them.

As he said in his acceptance speech: “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. … Think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life.” In other words, the people who we invite to share our wedding days. That is exactly the thing we have the power to document.

There’s no one way to do things. As I said, being super-cool has opened up so many new possibilities, allowing all sorts of couples to get photos that represent their style of expression. Be the Fonz of wedding photography, the Jack Kerouac, the Robert Capa, the Annie Liebowitz. I want to try to be more like the Fred Rogers.

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