Category Archives: personal flavor

personal flavor

The Cove, Eleuthera: Wedding Photographers at Play

Tatiana and I are famous for the kinda-sorta-vacation. I spent my birthday in Barcelona … processing weddings. Tatiana spent Christmas in midtown Manhattan … processing weddings. We’ve done work in places we should be enjoying ourselves all around the world. But at least once we got to turn it around a bit.

One of the great things about weddings is that people tend to want them to happen in pleasant places and times, and sometimes it works out really well. Looking at my calendar, I realized I had a wedding one weekend in south Florida, and a wedding the next in the Bahamas. The stars were aligning, virtually forcing us to sit down, shut up, and just enjoy life for a few days. And there are few better places to do it than The Cove in Eleuthera, a place so magnificent in its celebration of relaxation that the only choices you can make are “Do I sit in this hammock or that one?” or “Which beautiful ocean cove should I swim in now?”

Of course, Irish people and the sun are natural enemies, and I learned after my first day paddleboating and exploring the island that sunscreen and even khaki pants can only do so much for my vampiric brethren. Still, it was a gorgeous time with a gorgeous woman … and we both took some pictures along the way. More about those weddings quite soon…

(Some of these are by me; some are by T. Some are by DSLR, and some are by iPhone.)

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The Year of the T.

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I’ll do a real “look back at 2013″ post on a week when I’m not shooting two weddings, but on a personal level this one is the only photo I need. 2013 had so many incredible ups and downs, but through it all it was colored and flavored by my extraordinary girlfriend Tatiana. My life has changed in so many ways … and I’ve eaten so many fantastic breakfasts … thanks to her and her spirit. And I can’t wait until 2014 and all the rest because of her.

Thank you, T.

Camera: Nikon D4
Lens: Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6


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Kelsie’s story: Young, Beautiful, Alive.

Note: Things move pretty fast in the social media world. When I started shooting weddings, having a LiveJournal as your blog was a perfectly appropriate thing to do, even if you weren’t Russian. Now we have Facebook pages and Tumblr and Google+ and so much more, and the way we communicate as people and businesses keep changing. Ryanbrenizer.com will always be my most important space because, hey, look at the name. But this year I am going to reserve it primarily for telling stories and the occasional equipment review. Random pretty photos will primarily be added to my Facebook page. Nearly all of these stories will be of weddings and couples because that’s where a big chunk of my time and my heart is. (The other biggest chunk, my girlfriend, prefers not to be mentioned here for SEO reasons. Now that’s a modern relationship.)

But this is not a wedding story. Kelsie most likely has a lot of other stories to live through first. (I’m sorry to all other photographers, but when it happens, I call dibs.) But this is a story that I feel needs to be told, because it is harrowing, because it has consumed a big part of me recently, and most importantly because I think Kelsie’s spirit and incredible, soulful singing is something the world needs to know about. Also, there are lots of photos waiting at the end. So with her permission, here we go.

Warning: Some of what I will describe is fairly graphic, although I will leave out the worst bits. Also, further down there are some pictures of a model in her underwear, though largely obscured by focus or artistic lighting. If either bother you, skip the rest and go straight to her singing, and make special note of the top comment. Otherwise, continue on…

When I was a kid, I didn’t really know how the life of a professional photographer worked. All I knew was what popular culture told me. I pictured it like an agent, looking through head shots and saying “My god, who is that? I have to photograph her!”

But it never really works like that, at least not for me. What keeps me excited about going to work every day — and in a photographer’s case, “every day” tends to be literal — is telling stories about real things. How people relate to each other. How we react under the forces of joy and love and stress. Who we are at any particular moment. Out of the shoots I do every year, 97 to 98 percent are with people completely untrained in being in front of a camera — and that’s great, because it’s easier to see the real person there, even if they start out as a nervous real person.

In July, the [FRAMED] network flew me out to Boise to film a show about how I do some of the things that I do. I was eager to escape the 90-degree-heat of New York, only to find it replaced with the 106-degree heat of an Idaho heat wave. I was staying with dear friends and fellow photographers Sara and Dylan, and while we were getting ready for the show we were watching some previous episodes of their shows. They do such a great job with production that I just sit back and let myself be entertained for episode after episode.”

Somewhere around the third episode we watched, a fireball of hair and smiles and charisma bounced onto the screen, and it finally happened.

“My god, who is that? I have to photograph her!”

“Oh, that’s Kelsie,” Sara said. “She’s my friend, and she’s amazing. Want me to see if she can come out for a shoot?”

At this point, I had just photographed six weddings in eight days, and flown out to find blistering heat waiting for me. I needed some rest. I needed to not pick up a camera until the next wedding. I needed …

“Of course! Let’s shoot!”

Never mind.

Who is Kelsie? From the photos below you might think that she is constantly sensual and sophisticated, pensive, aloof and longing. But that’s just because I photograph real stuff 97 percent of the time, so when I get to that three percent of sitting down and making a picture I want the photos to be an unanswered question, to make you linger.

But here’s Kelsie as I see her:

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There is the wild determination of someone who said “My dress is getting tangled while we shoot underwater … do you have any scissors?” There’s the fun and energy she showed when we taught each other how to Dougie. And there’s that laugh. The photo on the right is, to me, the real Kelsie.

You can probably tell that I love this girl. But not like that. I’m in the midst of my own love story that is so fierce I make my friends both delighted and a bit nauseated. Also, when Kelsie was born, I was eagerly awaiting my first day at high school. Friends are the extra family that you choose for yourself, and right from the start I had the protectiveness of an older brother. The photo at the top was photoshopped to mask the ways that she was being firmly held to the ground. When Kelsie begged to stand on the ledge, I went to full-fledged Dad mode: “If you so much as put your foot on the ledge I am putting my camera down and not picking it back up again.” I might as well have added “Young lady!”

The world is a better place with Kelsie in it, and if I can help her navigate it safely, all the better. Which is what makes this next part so hard.

Kelsie was back in Idaho with her family, planning her next steps, making recordings, resetting herself after some global travels. She was up in the mountains, soaking up the sun, fresh air, and cool water. “My day couldn’t be any more peaceful,” she wrote.

If not for an incredible series of circumstances, that page would have been her memorial.

On her way back, driving down winding mountain roads, the car suddenly spun out of her control, careering off a cliff. She saw sky and ground and no road at all, and she floated off of her seat, and she knew she was going to die.

She had time to think “Please God don’t let this be it. Please don’t let this be my time.” And then the car hit the ground. Everything went white. “This is it,” she thought. “I’m dead.”

And then she was ejected out the back window. Somehow she made it through the window alive, but deeply gashed all over by the glass. One piece had missed a nerve that would have caused permanent brain damage by less than an inch. She somehow landed sitting upright on the back of the car, like she was lounging with a good book.

I do not want to share the full extent of her injuries here, despite her permission. But when a mutual friend got to her hospital room and heard the full rundown of injuries, she immediately passed out. “Really? You passed out?” I asked her, and then she told everything to me. I felt faint and had to lie down.

So as you can imagine, she was losing blood fast, sitting at the bottom of a ravine, completely invisible to traffic above. She realized that she had survived the crash but would quickly bleed to death. Somehow, that wild persistence of hers gave her the strength and presence of mind to make her shirt into a tourniquet for her arm, but she wouldn’t have long.

“Hello down there, are you OK?” a woman called. She’d been driving in a car full of people and said “I thought I saw a car drive off the road. Did you see anything?” No one had, but she stopped anyway. From her vantage it looked like the girl sitting upright on the edge of the car must be fine, but she wanted to check. Kelsie screamed for help.

Help was there. One of the people in the car was a lifeguard. They scrambled down the cliff and helped stabilize her long enough for a rescue team to come by helicopter. She would live.

Here’s another thing that’s important for the story: Doctors are heroes. The worst cut went straight over one of Kelsie’s eyes, but in overnight surgeries the medical team managed to save it. Even after multiple surgeries she had major cuts all over her body and on her face, and a broken foot would keep her unable to walk.

Even with all this, the first worry she told me about was that she’d lost her car, so how would she get to work? There’s the determination.

Thousands of miles away, I didn’t find out all of this until the next morning, when her friends posted on Instagram and Facebook. No, no, no! I pestered our friends, even though they were shooting a wedding. What happened? What hospital is she at? What can I do?

The flip side of being a problem-solver is that I can’t not solve problems. Being unable to help, unable to make things work, is my greatest frustration. I even found myself saying “5 on AP Bio, 800 on Bio SAT IIs, why didn’t I become a surgeon?”

Oh, right, because when her injuries were even described second-hand I almost passed out.

I did all the normal things — I got her flowers, I spoke to her on the phone. For the whole call, she was relentlessly upbeat. She remembered everything, she remembered staring down death, so even being battered and broken and scarred, all that mattered was she was alive.

I had to do more. Weddings are in full bloom so I couldn’t go there. But I wanted to make sure she knew that people cared, that her dreams were still within reach, I wanted to do something that, if even just for a moment, would make her forget the long road of recovery ahead.

Wait. Lana Del Rey. One of Kelsie’s idols. Known to my parents as Lizzie — the name she went by when they taught her in high school. Our families know each other well. Even just a quick call would be that “Holy s***” moment. It’s silly, I guess, but it’s what I could do.

I threw a Hail Mary, going from my mother to hers. I’ve been put in a sort of state of micro celebrity by my photography, and I know how much stress and feeling of constant obligation there can be even for me — I cannot imagine what it all feels like for a rocketing “real” celebrity like Lana. She was going through a grueling promotion schedule for Gatsby in Cannes, which only sounds fun until you really think about it. I thanked everyone involved for being so kind, but it didn’t look like we’d be able to get through.

After a few days, Kelsie came home, and sure enough, she went to work. She’d had one of her first studio sessions a few weeks before, and had first seen the video of a cover she sang the morning before the accident. She watched the video again, and the words struck her in new ways.

Will you still love me
When I’m no longer young and beautiful?
Will you still love me
When I got nothing but my aching soul?
For those of you in a pop culture cave, it’s a song by Lana del Rey. I didn’t know Kelsie had recorded it — and man, she’s so good.

By this point I figured Lana was unreachable, but I sent a note on. “Hey, thank you so much for everything. I won’t bother you again, but I just wanted you to see this.”

I figured that was it. But the next day, I saw this:

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It was the holy s*** moment. Kelsie flipped out. Our mutual contact told me that it was definitely written by Lana, not her publicist. Thank you Lana, they raise ‘em right in the North Country. It is going to be a long time until Kelsie is back able to dance the Dougie with me again, and any trauma will leave physical and emotional scars. But no one makes scars look so good. In every way, Kelsie will continue to be beautiful.

This is the longest story I’ve ever written on this blog several times over. But it’s not over yet. That’s my favorite part — Kelsie’s story is just beginning.


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A Week with My New Family: Foundation Workshops

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So this is it: I’ve been named one of the world’s top 10 wedding photographers. Wedding photography has never been a stepping stone for me onto other things — I already have my dream job. So clearly I’m exactly where I want to be, and there’s nothing left to learn.

Ha. Hahahaha…

You never stop learning in a job like this, and that’s one of the things I love about it so fiercely. I love learning, and I love a job that forces me to constantly use my brain in new ways. So I made a vow to take at least one workshop or photography class every year, forever. I’ve seen photographers like Joe McNally do their thing; I’ve been through several excellent courses at the top-notch International Center for Photography, and more. I’ve been forced to leave my comfort zone in a hundred ways for classes — I’ve used new and exotic equipment, I’ve contracted pneumonia, and I’ve been stripped naked both figuratively and literally. But in some ways this was all preparation for the Foundation Workshop.

Founded more than 10 years ago by Huy Nguyen and newspaper photographers who had transferred into wedding photography, Foundation is an intense, grinding, transformative experience that seeks to ground wedding photographers in the modes of hard photojournalism, both as a shooter and as an editor. The wedding photography experience tends to be defined by people in tears saying “Oh my god, we love our photos and we love you!” while photojournalism is defined by a coffee-chugging photo editor yelling “Hey jerk, there’s a tree coming out of this person’s head! Look at this horizon … were you drunk when you took this?” A great photo editor can make you love them and hate them at the very same time.

Foundation is about change, and in many ways the defining experience is making wedding photographers — harbinger of tears that we are — break down in tears ourselves. The 8:30 mark of this video sums it up. But it’s too reductive to think of it as a place where people will try to make you cry by being extremely hard on you. That’s one reason you might cry, sure, and people do. But I’ve been through photo school and the newsroom. While learning, I’ve had people tell me that my photos made them physically ill. I knew I could take some criticism. But Foundation brought me to tears anyway. What did it for me was that magic mix of sleep deprivation and incredible waves of emotion. You are in a small room with many of the world’s best wedding photojournalists, and there’s just no ego in sight. Strangers become colleagues, and then friends, and then family. And then, when you’re at your sleepiest, your sappiest, they hit you with the results of the week, the incredible work of your fellow students. And at least one of the assignments — Mary McHenry‘s — had the tears rolling down my face.

There are so many emotions that roll through you — I spent portions of the workshop ecstatic, exhausted, even incredibly angry — but I started with terror. I knew this would be a tough week, but staff member after staff member kept coming up to me and saying “Ryan, we’re doing our best to figure out how to kick your ass.” Oh boy.

This speaks to the incredible level of individualized attention you get at Foundation. My week there were 25 students, and 27 staff members. I don’t know anything else in the wedding world that even approximates that. You can’t get away with slinking by and giving a half-hearted effort, there are too many people looking over your shoulder … literally. By the end of two days of shooting, hours and hours of tight editing and mentoring, every single student knocked their assignment out of the park. We aren’t allowed to publicly show more than two images for some very good reasons, but there are a couple assignments that I really wish could be released to the world, because the work is so strong about sensitive subjects that they are actually important.

But they staff had a different challenge in mind for me. They work very hard to tailor assignments to the specific students’ strengths and needs, and they knew that I would relish any emotional or physical challenge, that I’d be happy to roll around for two days in dirt or blood or fire for the shots. So instead they challenged me with tedium and familiarity. I was assigned a small newsroom, the kind I started my career in. With my experience, I already knew that absolutely nothing visually interesting happens in a small newsroom. My proposed subtitle for the piece was “People threw away papers, and sometimes took a smoke break.” But it allowed me to drill down on technical aspects I never had time to really focus on during the frenetic wedding day, working on skills in layering, filling the frame with relevant information, reducing visual clutter in an extremely cluttered environment, etc. I even shot most of my assignment with the 12mm on the OM-D so I couldn’t use shallow depth-of-field as a visual crutch.

I couldn’t imagine a better team leader in this than David Murray, with his decades of experience shooting for newspapers and newswires. And imagine a workshop where staff is as packed with excellence as Erin Chrisman and Daniel Aguilar are the secondary mentors. Each of them pushed me farther to make great images from the mundane than I ever had before, and I am bursting with energy now, waiting to tear into this wedding season.

Thank you to everyone in my new family. I said this to Daniel at the end of the workshop, but it also applies to David, Erin, “team mom” Cliff Brunk and so many others: “When this started I loved your work. Now, I love you.”

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Photo by Ed Atrero


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SWPB takes on WPPI

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I’m a member of a number of wedding photographer communities who have been great to me — I’ve enjoyed so much support from DWF right from when I was starting out as a wedding photographer; I’m easing my way into the staggeringly talented crowd of the Foundation Workshops (and I promise I’ll go next year!) but one community keeps grabbing my attention, my love and friendship: SWPB.

You know how KFC isn’t called Kentucky Friend Chicken anymore and the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy has five books? It’s like that with SWPB, which until recently was called Starting a Wedding Photography Business. With so many members who have now been in the industry for years and are on lists ranging from Junebug’s Best Wedding Photographers to American Photo’s Top 10, we figured we’d expand the scope to Succeeding as a Wedding Photography Business. But really it’s SWPB, and it’s a big, crazy family. Like any family, there’s dysfunction from time to time, but overall it’s the most supportive large wedding community I’ve seen.

I just returned from a massive conference in Las Vegas, and saw so many fantastic people from all over, but the highlight for me was heading out into the desert with my friend Stephanie and members of SWPB. I can’t wait to show you what happened when these talented photographers just cut loose and had a great time.

As we finished up, I suggested a group shot with our four cars (including the rental car we covered inside and out with dust) as backlight. I used a tripod and timer to put myself in — the most important thing was the posing. Photographers know how to pose pretty well, but I also wanted to make sure all of the headlights were hidden by body parts for the exposure.

The easiest way to see the lineup is in the Facebook post, where everyone is tagged. So much more to come.

We also are already starting to plan big things for WPPI 2013. Mark the dates.

Lens: 24mm f/1.4
Camera: Nikon D3s


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Welcome to 2012.

The other day I almost cried while shooting. Now, I’m not a weepy guy, but that’s not unheard of. You have to be something of a softie to be successful in this business, and there have been times I’ve been glad for autofocus because a beautiful moment was clouded by tears in my viewfinder.

But this was different: I wanted to cry simply because I was shooting, and it felt so good.

It takes a certain kind of personality to be a wedding photographer, to have done around 250 weddings and love the job more each time. There are certainly ways to spend your photographic talents that are more fun to talk about at cocktail parties — photographing celebrities for magazine covers, documenting the atrocities of war. Unlike the former, though, we do something that has inherent value from the start — you can make celebrity portraiture important, but it doesn’t start out that way. Does the world need another photo of Jack Nicholson grinning? War photography, ironically perhaps, is much closer to the give and take of a wedding, but there are far more pitfalls there than just getting shot. I like to use my life and my work to remember that as a people we do more than just shoot each other. We love and we laugh and we dance and we drink until maybe we regret the rest morning, but have memories and moments and connections that last us the rest of our lives. It’s life, but more so. Life is messy and chaotic and confuses the heck out of me sometimes, but that’s exactly what makes it beautiful. The unsurprised live is not worth living.

And it feels so good to take this chaotic world in through my viewfinder and make some sense of it — just enough order to be dynamic, to show the chaos and surprise pulsing against the composition and flow of a story. Moments just happen, but by the time we remember them they have become part of a story. We traffic in these memories, and shape them.

But it breaks down further. There’s something that feels so right about being good at something, about complicated tasks becoming part of your nature. There hadn’t been more than a few days in a row since March that I didn’t have my camera in my hand, and yet here I was after the holidays, after weeks of relative break and separation from my work. The camera was in my hand again and I felt whole. It was like looking down and realizing where you misplaced your kidneys. I compose photos as I look around, all of the settings and composition set before I raise the camera to my eye. I’ve developed a little shrug that, with almost no movement, can make a camera jump into my hands from its position hanging on either shoulder. I change settings as I walk, not looking down, not thinking. My thumb dances around the camera body, 1/250th becomes 1/80th, the ISO shoots up, the flash goes off, or back again, and I’m not thinking about this any more than I’m thinking about putting my right leg in front of my left. By the time I see the jumble of chaos resolve itself in my viewfinder, everything is the way I want it. It just makes sense.

And this is my life, because of you. Because of all of my amazing clients, because of my readers, because of my family, my friends, people who push me forward, who share in my joys when life is easy and keep me going when life is hard. You have gotten me here, and for you I’m going to do things in 2012 that will push it even harder. And for me, because that just makes sense.


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Portraits of Help

The Catholic Guardian Society is a wonderful agency staffed by people dedicated to helping needy children, young mothers, the developmentally disabled and others in the New York are. I have photographed fund-raising efforts for them for years, and while I don’t have the exact numbers, they’ve told me their related fund-raising has taken a big boost since I started photographing for them. It’s a great feeling to meet the people that they serve and know that I am helping them in a small way, too.

This year we changed the formula and went to the group homes and private residences of some of those served, which took us to every corner of the Bronx, from Co-Op City to the neighborhoods rendered almost unlivable by the construction of the Cross-Bronx. I met kids and adults, clients and those helping them, who were funny, outgoing, ambitious (one member of a group home had logged 900 hours in culinary education!) but also with tales of the incredible costs of care, especially for conditions such as cerebral palsy.

I am saving the vast majority of the shoot for the fund-raising, but here is a taste.


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Cleaning House

I’m good at being uncomfortable, so I can’t stop changing all the time…

I like to keep my work evolving, which means I go through a lot of equipment, and I leave a lot more in my wake behind me. This doesn’t work so well when you live in Manhattan, so I’m doing a summer house-cleaning sale on some equipment I have lying around. I want to be done with this and ship everything before I go to California next week, so even though the pieces retail for as much as $2,000, I’m putting them all on eBay starting at 99 cents, no reserve.

This is what’s called faith in the system.

I still have a few things I was on the fence about, but here’s what’s on the chopping block. Everything is described as honestly as I could in the listing:

RK2 2734
Panasonic LX3

RK2 2738
Nikon 35mm f/1.8G

RK2 2747
Nikon 135mm f/2D DC

RK2 2748
Lensbaby Control Freak

and … last but not least…

RK2 2751
my Version 1 Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8
.
Killing my children, but onward and upward….


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Featured in PDN again (On Gay Marriage)

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The good folks at PDN have published my work and interviewed me again with a nice update about the business side of gay marriage. I should have mentioned that I’m in Manhattan proper these days, not Westchester, and that I don’t know whether or not my phone has been ringing with gay-wedding inquiries because during peak season my assistant handles most of the initial inquiry e-mails, but it’s a great piece and I’m always happy to be featured there.

I try to maintain a “dinner-table atmosphere” in my public dealings these days. Growing up in an Irish family where no one was shy about voicing their opinion, you soon learned that there was lots of stuff you could talk about and have a grand ol’ time, even in your disagreements. Then there were things that would lead to anger and hurt feelings … and then there were things that would lead to conversational Armageddon (like making fun of the Jets). I have friends, family, and fantastic clients along all points of the political spectrum, and have always sought meaningful conversations instead of point-scoring, because let’s face it — talk to anyone long enough, and eventually they will say something that you think is downright looney-tunes. But I have never been shy about my belief that gay people should have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else.

Or, in other words: Dear awesome gay couples. There is only one NYC photographer who has been featured for gay marriage in PDN and the American, international, and Japanese editions of Newsweek. Let me document your awesomeness.

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Anyway, even though I tend to avoid controversial subjects, this is something that is not only near and dear to my heart, but central to what I do as a documentarian of people and relationships. While it doesn’t take the same sort of courage to be pro-gay marriage when you’re running a business out of Manhattan as it does in, say, Alabama, we are at a strange point where self-publishing photographers are minor-but-international public figures. Google Analytics tells me that one of my biggest fan bases is in Malaysia, for example, and one of my previous gay-marriage postings was viciously attacked by a government official from the Sudan.

When I first shot a gay wedding, I expected the experience to be similar to any other great wedding. There are slight differences in what sort of poses will look good, but that’s true from couple to couple as well. But there was an extra intensity to the emotion throughout the room, and I think I know why. I always try to let people’s history inform the shots I take. I fight for that perfect mother-son dance shot even if I’ve taken 200 before, because I know that she has spent decades thinking about just this moment. Well, for a while at least, when you shoot a gay wedding you are photographing people who grew up thinking that this whole wedding thing could never happen for them. That all the connection, the public displays, the meaningful vows, the celebrations, everything I adore about weddings — that these things could only happen to other people.

And then, finally, the doors opened to them.

That is what makes me an ardent supporter. That is why I’ve made sure to have a gay-wedding photo in my front-page portfolio ever since — because I’ve talked to gay couples about their shame and anger when they meet a photographer who photographs gay weddings but won’t display them proudly out of fear. Sometimes things are worth a little courage.

I was shooting a wedding when New York passed the gay marriage law. My fantastic (and gay) assistant Erica had been following the news closely, but while the state Senate was in deliberations, the reception was hopping like you’ve never seen, so we lost track. I mean, we’re talking three inches of wine sloshing on the floor and no one cared — I can’t wait to show it to you. When we got a quick break, I pulled her aside and said “Hey, what happened with the bill?”

She pulled out her Blackberry. “It passed. IT PASSED!” High fives and hugs. Thank God for autofocus, because her eyes filled with tears.

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She tapped a gay couple on the shoulder. “It happened. Gay marriage is legal.”

They stared, “What … just now?” More celebration.

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I mentioned it to another guest whose wedding I had photographed, and we high-fived. It spread like a ripple of excitement in an already raucous reception.

I don’t care about the politics. I don’t care about trying to score points and argue with someone who believes differently from me — my grandfather is one of my greatest role models and favorite people, and let’s just say he felt differently about the issue. What I care about is that feeling, that joy, that incredible connection. That is what I seek to capture and I’m so glad that so many more people can experience it now.


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Stories and Problems

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A Fordham University employee tells stories about her 9/11 experience in an interview to mark the upcoming 10th anniversary.

Whether it’s just the time I’ve put in or that, according to back-of-the-napkin calculations, I’ve crossed the threshold of taking more than a million photographs for professional jobs, I feel like I finally have reached a mature understanding of what I do as a photographer. It’s been a long process of simplification. When you start out, what you do, basically is point your camera at stuff, push a button and hope for the best, so you rattle everything that applies to: “I specialize in portraits and weddings and photojournalism and sunsets and flowers and families and dogs and babies and sports and travel and macro and did I mention sunsets?”

And then you look back and say, “What do I actually like? What am I actually good at? OK, maybe I do weddings with a photojournalistic aesthetic and portraits with a bias for dynamic light and emotions.” Or whatever.

But then you realize that’s both too complicated and too simple, and the real question as a long-term professional is what is it that beats through your heart? What keeps you going, keeps you from calcifying, keeps you from that death knell of photographic careers … déjà vu and boredom? A bored photographer is doomed for mediocrity or professional failure, and generally both. Why do you think wedding photography has such a high turnover rate? Too many people didn’t understand how to make their 100th or 1000th wedding as exciting as their first, how to keep pressing themselves forward when improvement is slower and harder than figuring out how your flash works.

Maybe that’s when you become an artist, and keep chasing your aesthetic down the rabbit hole. But I don’t know much about that. Too subjective. Once you take a photo, in my opinion, you are merely the first viewer of it. Your opinion about whether it is art or good is no more important than anyone else’s, except if it makes you happy or excited. But I know what I can do: Tell stories and solve problems. Simple as that, but also complicated and challenging and exciting to keep my blood pumping until I can’t hold a camera any longer.

Here I faced a problem long familiar to me from my days as a photographer for Columbia University — how do you take a bunch of people sitting around a conference table and photograph them in a way that’s in any way as visually exciting as the words they are saying? You could go down the artistic rabbit hole (“I call this set … “All Of Your Ankles”), but that’s not a great way to serve your clients. Here I solved the problem as simply as possible but no simpler. I put an SB-900 on each side of the room, bouncing toward the wall and ceiling, but close to it, so the light surface isn’t as huge as your traditional bounce. That allowed me to get the contrast and clarity I wanted wherever I stood with my 70-200, lighting what I wanted enough to bring out the reflections, and not lighting a distracting background. Even the water glasses — the bane of event shooters everywhere, serve a purpose with crispness and perspective, and setting the scene with a handy logo.

It’s not a fantastic wedding in Aruba (keep an eye out in November for that), but it keeps my brain churning with “How can I solve this problem better?” And that’s always exciting to me.

Lens: Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II
Camera: Nikon D3s


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Osama is Dead; Photos from a historic party at Ground Zero

On a gorgeous September day almost ten years ago, I had just started my morning as the editor-in-chief of an upstate newspaper when one of my reporters told me a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Five minutes later, he told me about the second one, and I knew everything was about to change. Every impulse in me in a reporter told me to drive the 300 miles and be in the thick of it, but I had to manage everything, including an afternoon edition, so I sent out someone else.

Now, I finally strapped on a camera and headed for Ground Zero, but I was met with a site of raucous celebration, not despair. Osama is dead; we even have the body so there won’t be Osama sighting for the next 50 years, and New Yorkers were in the mood to celebrate. Given that it was 1 a.m., most of the ones really ready to celebrate in public were the college kids who were ready to go anyway, which ensured the atmosphere would be of revelry, not contemplation, though we were among the graves of Osama victims.

But if any city is ready for an impromptu rally at 1 a.m., it’s this one. And I’m glad to call it my home.

UPDATE: I wasn’t there to do video, but here’s a quick one I took to just get a sense of the crowd. Also, my friends at B&H Photo asked how I did this technically, given that it was 1 a.m. under low and very tricky lighting. Images have very little editing as befits photojournalism, but I knew I’d have to capture action in near-darkness, so I brought my “night vision” set-up: Two Nikon D3s‘s with the Nikon 24mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, and Sigma 85mm f/1.4. Under sodium-vapor streetlights, white balance gets truly wacky, so I used Nikon Capture NX2 to process, as it has the best white balance control of any program I’ve used.

Otherwise, the main skills were things I learned in years as a newspaper photographer, such as how to politely elbow your way through a surging crowd and get where the action is.

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Students, including a girl on her 21st birthday, use street poles to show their patriotism.

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Revelers spray champagne onto the crowds below

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After spraying the crowd, he enjoys some of the champagne for himself

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Who knew New Yorkers had so many spare flags?

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And the crowd goes wild for the cameras

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A woman walks past a one-man candlelight vigil

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Nothing says pride like face paint

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The crowd chants for peace

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Marching past the 9/11 memorial

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Scaling Mount Patriotism…

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“Lady, do NOT go up there! You are wearing a DRESS!”

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City worker takes it in…

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Moments like these are more important than car hoods

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The only time I have ever seen a New Yorker happy to be stuck in traffic.

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The sign of the night…

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Let your colonial flag fly…

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Tossed toilet paper hangs above as the crowd surges

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Texting in the USA…

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I can’t get enough of these guys.

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Carried above the crowd

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Vigilant.

UPDATE: There’s a lot going on in the comments, some of it I find quite distasteful. Here’s my view as someone who was there, in it if not of it:

I would prefer Osama have come quietly, but, he didn’t. I don’t really trust these events to be related truthfully given the value of propaganda, but the whole “firing back and using a wife as a human shield” thing, if true, makes me pretty comfortable with their decision to fire back.

One thing I was VERY proud of. Nowhere in all of the NYC revelry that I saw in person or on the news was there the scarcest bit of anti-Muslim sentiment. A guy with an “I’m a Muslim, don’t panic” t-shirt was cheered everywhere he went. No one denigrated or desecrated Islam except for OBL himself. (Online and in some other parts of the country, yes, but that’s not what these celebrations were about)

What’s hard to understand if you weren’t there is that there’s a very simple reason for the atmosphere … it was 1 a.m. These were 90 percent college kids who decided to hook a left instead of heading to the bars. No hatred, no burning people in effigy, just good news meaning an excuse to hang from a light pole on a day where the cops would cheer you on for doing so. Does it really make sense to set a car on fire because your team won a basketball game? Sure, if you listen to your id.

I didn’t think it was the tone I would have wanted, but the more I see people give high-handed criticism of a bunch of people gathering in the streets just to sing songs and share a sense of glad togetherness, the more protective I feel.

I mean, dude. I saw a hippie go up to a military offer and say “Do you mind if I just … give you a hug?” And they hugged. I saw police officers laughing gleefully at people committing (victimless) crimes, yelling “just don’t get hurt!” And 400 people cheering on a Muslim guy waving an American flag I saw New Yorkers not caring about a traffic jam. No hatred, but a sense that we did something right, something we said we’d do, and brought him to justice. (And if the raid went down the way they said, it seemed to have been handled justly).

The atmosphere was joyous and inclusive. When someone shouted “Hooray for the troops!” everyone cheered, then chanted “Bring them home!” The chant merged into “End the wars!” and someone responded with their own chant: “Don’t get greedy!” Everyone laughed. This is how it felt. While the wars aren’t funny, while death isn’t funny, and while the people here took their convictions seriously, even when they opposed each others’, you laugh when anything happens that relaxes your tension just a little bit. You put 1,000 people together who are happy about anything, and it becomes a party.

Do you think none of the celebrations would have happened if he’d come along quietly? If the announcement was “We’ve got him!”

I think there would be countless debates later about what to do with the guy, but I think there would have been just as many people in the streets, and if so, then they weren’t really there cheering for death, and sanctimoniousness must be tempered.

We did the conga when Hitler died, but we also went out into Times Square and kissed nurses when Hirohito … didn’t die.

Personally, I am cheering one of the most successful, precise military actions in history. It would have been easy, but terrible and a disaster, to just send in a Predator and destroy the place. We finally made a series of right, difficult decisions after a series of incredibly competent intelligence gathering. I mean … incredible effective government decisions? Incredibly competent intelligence agencies? And it all worked together to absolutely minimize any impact on civilians? That’s a stopped clock worth cheering.

In short, Americans aren’t particularly obsessed with death — we’re absolutely obsessed with WINNING. And in asymmetric warfare, the events of May 1, whether he had come quietly or not, is as close to a win as we can possibly come.


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Rambling: “Send cameras”

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This story, about Japanese earthquake survivors looking for their photos of friends and family, got me thinking. I try to remember the inherent importance of what I do, of why I’d rather shoot a wedding than spend all day shooting rockstars and celebrities, and it comes down to this — I have a lot of photos. I’m performing a catalog sync right now on 200,000 photos from last year. But there are some photos that are actual treasures to me, some that I would throw all my camera gear away just to save a single one. All of these are of moments with people that I can never get back, but when I I look at the photo, I remember them, and I remember how I felt. They’re treasures, and if I can create at least one photo at a wedding that would make my clients feel the same way, then I’ve done my job.

I’ve seen this sad story before. The only place I’ve lived outside New York state was New Orleans — I’ve traveled back and forth there so many times over the years that it felt like a second home, and so Hurricane Katrina brought a personal sense of shock. I did a number of stories about people who had taken up refuge in New York, and I went down as soon as I could to survey the city and work with the people putting it back together. In particular, I remember every word of what a principal in a Jefferson County parish school said to me:

“People around the country and the world have been wonderful — they’ve sent us so much help. They’ve sent blood, they’ve sent food, they’ve sent clothing. But we don’t need blood or food now. Please, send cameras. All of these people, they’ve lost their homes, but it’s even worse because they’ve all lost their photos. They’ve lost their history, their memories — and it’s devastating them. They can get a new home, but now they have to start piecing their history back together. Send cameras.”


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Swimming with the Fishes

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Please allow me a moment of tourist photography here. Wendy and I went down to Atlanta for about 36 hours in a quick “before the insanity comes” getaway. While the goal of finding some warmer weather utterly fell to 35-degree mornings, we did have an amazing time swimming in this very tank, including whale sharks, the largest fish in the world. There also was a Hammerhead in the tank that came awfully close, but we were promised it wouldn’t eat us … much.

Lens: 35mm f/1.4
Camera: Nikon D3s


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