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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daragh - Well said.

Amanda Basteen - What a great role model. I haven’t thought much about who my role model is. Thanks for the inspiration.

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Emily Porter - You nailed this, buddy. You’re a rare breed because you’re enormously talented at your craft yet you also never seem to lose sight of why it’s important. Thank you for sharing your photos and wonderful attitude with the world. You are truly an inspiration, and not just in the photographic realm.

Sean - Greetings from Chicagoland Ryan.

What freshly bold humility. Mr Rogers was cool in all the best ways.

Keep up the visionary passion.

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Ryan Brenizer - Thank you, Emily, that means a lot.

Dennis Pike - awesome. Fred Rogers was one of the most genuine people ever. what you saw was what you got with him. He was the same person on and off camera. People like that are rare.

Ben Godkin - Great insight Ryan. I have always admired your unique perspective on wedding photography. I think a lot of people get wrapped up in the latest trends that always seem to fade… but you, you know what is really important. Real moments, the frames between the “photos”. The kinda of shots that people will look back on 50 years from now and still shed a tear over… Keep up the good work, you are a constant source of inspiration.

Maggie Rife - It’s encouraging to read a post like this. I find moments/honest emotion are always what really draw me in and move me in wedding photography. It’s great to see a collection of images that exemplify this belief.

gabe aceves - Beautifully put Ryan. Hopefully this is why we all do what we do.

matt shumate - This is why you’re my rockstar wedding photographer. :)

Jonas Peterson - You get my standing ovation, Ryan. So true.

Ryan - Thanks so much, guys.

Becca Dilley - Ryan, thank you for putting this into words. As I struggle with my identity as a wedding photographer, I always try to remember that the elements I love about being a wedding photographer are the little moments that I know I have captured faithfully. I strive to improve my skills and tools to continue to do that better, but the connections I can document in people are the things I cherish. Mr Rogers is a great person to reference for a life of quiet dignity and public caring, which is something we would all be lucky to have.

Jake Rome - Didn’t you hear, Mr. Rogers is evil & he destroyed our generation. See the link.

Matt C - Well put! I have just recently started following your site, but wanted to take the time to let you know that what you have just published was appreciated by me. I will agree with much of what has been posted here before. Thanks. It is hard to keep your bearings and at times I have to stop and ask myself WHY am I doing this? Anyhow THANKS!

Shella - Well said. I love #4 by the way – great catch! :)

Luis Godinez - Ryan, everyone was raving about this post yesterday and I now know why. I didn’t get a chance to read it until today and I must say your post embodies everything I wish to accomplish as a wedding photographer. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, knowledge and awesomeness. :)

P.S. – Love the Robert Capa reference, I find it sad that very few ‘wedding photogs’ in my circle don’t know the man or his work.

seth goodman - Very well said! You’re an inspiration to me.

Ryan Brenizer - Thanks Luis! Who was raving? :)

Natalie Gibbs - I think I like your writing as much as your photos. Well said.

Lisa Redfern - Not super familiar with Fred Rogers, in Canada we had Mr. Dressup, but children’s entertainers (and educators) are so, so important. I think that’s a lovely thing to aspire to.

Paul Von Rieter - If it was possible for me to stand up and cheer for you writing this as though you had just read it like a speech… I would be the first one to do it. You may have just become my hero by saying Fred Rogers is yours. You rock Ryan, for all the right reasons.

Rhys Albrecht - Couldn’t have said it any better Ryan. I remember seeing clips of his testimony to Congress, and remember thinking “Whoa, this guy is WAY more than just a dude in a cardigan”.

kristi wright - Oh my goodness, you just made me cry, Ryan. Such a lovely worded post.

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Just Alex Photography - Hats off to you, Ryan. Your well articulated thoughts in this post are inspiring.

Jen Smith - So I’m a year late, but this is awesome. I never gave much thought to Mr. Rogers, but I have two small children who are mesmerized when they occasionally catch his show on PBS. Timeless. In our ADD world of flashing and zooming and crashing kids’ shows, his mild manner is refreshing. To command an audience (a live or TV one) with such a quiet, observant way is indeed a gift.