Wedding Albums Reach a Peak of Artistry

A new breed of photography captures the moment in unique, creative ways.

Wedding photographers used to have a formula. Necessary shots included the cake cutting, vows, and first dance. The whole family lined up and posed stiffly. The flash was always bright.

That's all changed.

These days you're more likely to see black-and-white candids in a wedding album capturing the spontaneity of unplanned moments. You might see a pet dog getting entangled in the wedding procession, the mother of the bride shedding a surreptitious tear, or the happy couple speeding away on a motorcycle.

New York Wedding magazine, the arbiter of style for nuptials in the Big Apple, says that a more natural, documentary style has evolved over the past decade. A new breed of wedding photographers has brought the art of albums to ever-new heights.

The photographer is decreasingly a guy with an obtrusive flash and ruffled shirt who leans against the wall in between his set shots. It is just as likely to be a woman dressed in black who studied fine arts or a photojournalist who covered Central America. "It does indeed seem that in the 1990s, the wedding album has reached the peak of its artistry," the magazine says.

"The best wedding albums of the year combine the finest portraiture of the past, along with the more newly popular candid technique that brides and grooms across the country are requesting in record numbers."

Testimony to its words are the photographers advertised in the magazine, most of whom hail from the new school. For instance, Gildo Nicolo Spandoni lines up the bridal party with their Ray Ban sunglasses on. Others show laughing guests dancing wildly or the bride's attendants carefully adjusting her veil, unaware they are being filmed. In another, a formally dressed bridal couple walks toward their wedding venue through busy New York traffic.

Nearly all the shots are in black and white.

"It's about capturing the true spirit of the moment," says non-traditional wedding photographer Alan Klein. "People are looking for something different from what their parents had."

Mr. Klein says marriage photography is no longer something would-be artists scoff at as a lucrative but unsatisfying way to make money.

He and his colleagues take pride in the craft, which verges on anthropology, documenting one of modern society's last remaining rites. Klein describes his rigorous approach as merging two divergent skills - fast-paced action and portraits. He says it requires the concentration and stamina of shooting a news event, on his feet the entire day primed to catch that decisive moment.

"I get vicarious pleasure from the job. I'm there in an intimate space with the bride and groom on one of the most important days of their lives," he says. "It shows in the photographs if I'm enjoying myself."

Another who enthuses about the craft is Nancy Adler who is trained in fine arts. Her high-quality prints could serve as examples for the photography courses that she teaches. She attributes economic factors as one reason for the popularity of this kind of photography. As professional wedding photographers are expensive, more couples are opting for people with journalism, advertising, or design backgrounds to shoot weddings today, she says.

Ms. Adler herself began photographing friends' weddings in the 1980s and found that she enjoyed it, somewhat to her surprise. "It's happy work. It's good for people-oriented photographers who don't mind being directed and can put others at their ease," she says.

Many of the nontraditional wedding photographers prefer to get to know their subjects well in advance, taking portraits hours if not weeks before the event to get a "feel" for the couple.

Karen Hill, a photographer trained in fine arts at Pratt Institute and Yale University, normally spends eight to 10 hours with the couple on their wedding day. She follows them from the excited moment they get dressed to the exhausted last dance.

Aware that she was at the vanguard of a new wave, Ms. Hill joined up with nine other alternative wedding photographers to form a group last year. They call themselves SPEW - Society of Photographers Enjoying Weddings. "It's a sort of support group," she explains.

The professionalism of this new breed is reflected in the prices they charge for their work. Many ask between $3,000 and $4,500 just for the shoot, negatives, and proofs. Add on another $2,000 for prints and an album. Gruber Photographers, for instance, charges as much as $8,500 to cover the event.

Yet this apparently does not deter customers. Many of these photographers are booked at least six months ahead of time.

This is especially true of months such as September, one of the most popular times to get married in New York because of the mild weather. For the photographers the weather is very important, as portraits are often done outside landmarks, which make the city a surrounding part of the scene.

Some recently chosen venues were in front of the Chrysler Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, Rockefeller Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Union Square subway station.

The settings create dramatic shots - the concrete buildings contrast with the femininity of the bride dressed in delicate white.

Many of the female photographers focus almost exclusively on the bride, whose fantasies they can relate to. "I photograph the way I would want my own wedding captured," Adler says.

What kind of photographs are taken is a strong consideration for Klein, who plans to get married later this year. When he and his fianc made the decision to wed, they immediately called a special person. And it wasn't his mother. "It was a photographer friend. We wanted to ensure he was free before setting the date," Klein says.

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