By Mariah Ashley
Everything was going wrong. The groom was throwing up and the bride was taking it very personally. "He's going to go through with it isn't he?" she nervously asked the wedding planner.
"Um, yes? I mean yes, of course he is," said the wedding planner in a weak attempt to assuage her concerns.
I wasn't so sure. At the altar the pair stood in scared silence staring straight ahead at an indiscriminate spot on the wall while the ceremony swirled around them. I figured one of three things could happen; someone would throw up, someone would pass out or someone would turn and run the wrong way up the aisle to freedom.
I was wrong. Half way through the service the uncomfortable uncertainty fizzled and was replaced by a beaming new Mr. and Mrs. walking hand-in-hand up the aisle toward my lens.
The rest of the day unfolded in stops and starts without ever finding a flow. Eight hours is a long time to go with no flow. The weather was gloomy and the forecast threatened severe thunderstorms which put the planned fireworks display on hold. The parents of the bride were in a panic and the wedding planner was in a tizzy.
The bride struggled to hold her composure while her mother drove her completely bonkers. The groom struggled to regain some color in his face and keep down his dinner. Trish and I struggled to create romantic formals in the gloom, struggled with reception lighting in the oddly shaped reception room, and struggled not to miss any of the action as the band kept announcing toasts and dances without coordinating with their fellow vendors, namely us.
In the middle of the Maid of Honor's toast the master of fireworks, who was watching the storm approach on his cell phone, decided it was go time and indiscriminately started the display. The Maid of Honor tried to soldier on with her speech, but gave up as the guests all rushed to the windows and then out the door to watch the unfolding show.
Trish and I were on the wrong end of the extra long room fighting our way against the tide of streaming wedding guests to retrieve our equipment. I grabbed the camera, made a guess at the exposure and shoved it into Trish's hands as we were carried away with the clamoring crowd.
Out on the lawn a magnificent display ensued. Brilliant streams of white, red and blue exploded directly over the heads of the bride and groom who stood arms entwined and heads touching. While Trish snapped like mad, I watched their smiling faces lit in the darkness by the impressive bursts of color and saw them exhale in unison. They had found their flow.
I turned to Trish, "How much do you think it costs to have a fireworks display at your wedding?"
"I don't know, ten thousand dollars maybe?" she shrugged.
"Snap girls!" shouted the mother of the bride. "I just want to thank you for thinking so fast on your feet. I can't believe you were able to get out here and get those shots so quickly. It just means so much to the bride. Of the whole day, this was the moment that was most important to her."
Epiphany time! A ten thousand dollar photo is a photo that defies a price tag. It is in essence priceless, although we have qualified it here based on the estimated price of the fireworks display. It is not the photo that you (the photographer) deems priceless because you have poured all of your technical and artistic knowhow into its creation. More often than not, our clients skip right over the print competition worthy photos with not so much as a nod.
The ten thousand dollar photo is very personal, so it doesn't necessarily matter to your client if it is technically perfect, exposed properly or even in focus (gasp!). You cannot ask the bride and groom what their ten thousand dollar photo is either because most of the time, they don't even know. However, they'll know when they see it and if you are in tune with them you'll know when you snap it. Oh and, there is only ONE ten thousand dollar photo per wedding. Only one.
To uncover the ten thousand dollar photo you must think like a treasure hunter. A treasure hunter who has some knowledge of the human heart, a degree in psych wouldn't hurt either. Warning though, once you start looking for the ten thousand dollar photo you won't be able to stop. Searching for it is a quest and you are Indiana Jones pursuing the Holy Grail, only without the whip because that would be strange. Maybe the hat though, you might be able to pull off that hat.
At our very next wedding I put my theory to the test. This wedding was teeming with opportunities for the ten thousand dollar photo. The bride and groom were best friends since high school but did not fall in love until after the bride had a bad breakup with an unworthy boyfriend. She discovered she was pregnant and alone. Loving and strong, she accepted her role as single mom until her amazing best friend stepped in declaring his love for her and his wish to help her raise her son. From single mom to happy family of three, this treasure hunt should be finished before it gets started. We took photo after photo the adorable trio, each sweeter then the next and in many ways we had achieved the ten thousand dollar goal. That is until I photographed the bride and her sister.
The bridal party had been photographed and had all left the beach. All that lingered behind was the bride, the groom, the bride's sister, and me. I knew before hand that the sister was ill, fighting a second battle with cancer. She was a mom of three young boys herself and I marveled at her cheerfulness and dedication to making the brides day happy and beautiful despite her own struggles.
I asked the sisters if they'd like to take a few more photos together. After a few seconds of holding onto one another, they both started crying. "I think what you ladies need is a walk, why don't you take a little stroll down the beach." I suggested.
They walked and walked and eventually turned at the far end of the beach. The fog was rolling in and they stood facing one another. The sister wiped the tears from her eyes and the bride bent forward taking her sisters face in her hands and kissing her sweetly on the forehead. I snapped the treasure, a priceless moment frozen in time, the ten thousand dollar photo.
Not all ten thousand dollar photos are so heart-wrenching. At our last wedding we searched and searched but our subjects would not give us a truly real or emotional moment. The entire day was so carefully scripted and orchestrated as a photo shoot (the bride had mentioned not too subtly that she wanted to be published in a bridal magazine) that the ten thousand dollar photo eluded us at every turn. I snapped my way through the day, taking pretty shots without much emotion despite my constant digging. At the end of the night Trish tried to set up a dramatic last photo of the couple but the groom would not cooperate. "Oh forget him! He's a pain. Let's just take a few more of me!" said the bride waving off the groom who happily joined his friends.
The bride was perfectly content to end the day as she had started, by herself. That is when I realized I had taken the ten thousand dollar photo hours before. The bride had arranged for us to photograph her formals on the grounds of a celebrated Newport mansion. She cascaded across the property and posed herself expertly in a long corridor of lawn edged by neatly-trimmed, insanely symmetrical trees. The light fell on her face and veil in exquisite perfection.
In that moment she was not a girl with a cute but crooked smile and tattoo on the back of her neck. She was Audrey Hepburn, the star of her own movie. She was Grace Kelly. She was Newport royalty. She was splendid. She was bridal magazine worthy. The ten thousand dollar photo was validation and proof of the elaborate bridal persona she had created for herself that day (no groom necessary).
When I think back at the thirty plus weddings we have shot this season each one has its own treasure and each ten thousand dollar photo is very different. Approaching each day knowing that there is a golden prize to uncover makes the experience interesting and challenging and exercises the old heart strings. The satisfaction of presenting your client with their ten thousand dollar photo is reward in itself, although I have a feeling if you take the time to understand and relate to your clients enough to uncover their ten thousand dollar photo, actual riches for you might not be far behind.
So dig for that treasure, Indy. Do whatever it takes. Wear the proverbial hat, but leave the whip at home because that would just be creepy.
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