What is a wedding portrait? It seems like an easy enough question. Though in the world of wedding photojournalism, in which long held traditions and an artistic sensibility intersect, the lines between a portrait and a moment can become blurry.
Simply put, a portrait is a composed image of a person who is posing for the camera. Oftentimes, the focus is on the face and personality of the subject, but it does not have to be. The person doesn’t need to be looking at the camera, though these are the most obvious types of portraits. The focus can be on his/her silhouette.
One of the defining qualities of a portrait is the subjects’ relationship to the camera. How do you characterize this relationship? First, determine if the subjects are aware they are being photographed. If they are, the photojournalist is no longer capturing them candidly. Whether intentional or not, when the subjects are ‘camera-aware,’ they are presenting themselves in what they perceive to be their most photogenic. As a result, the authenticity of the image is diminished.
How do we know the B&G are aware of the camera? The most obvious answer is that they are looking at it. It’s in the eyes. They have that look. Are they ‘performing’ for the camera? Would the bride throw her arms up in the air as if she had just crossed the finish line if the camera were not in front of her? Would the groomsmen face the photographer and raise their glasses all at once as if in solidarity with the groom?
Whenever the subjects look at the camera, the line between what is photojournalism and what is portraiture has been crossed. They are no longer reacting to the world around them completely and utterly spontaneously. Their expressions and actions are driven to varying degrees by self-awareness. They know the camera is capturing them. They look into the lens and react in a way that will hopefully help to create a great image. Though it is no longer a candid one.
The archetypal portrait is the Mona Lisa. We can all agree on that. What about the picture of the flower girl sending her biggest smile into the camera lens? Is that a portrait? Or the couple walking towards the breaking waves? A portrait? Did they decide to leave their reception for a moment to take in the vista? Did they know the photographer was behind them, catching their silhouettes against the setting sun? Was it all planned? The clues are there in front of us.
When we look at an image of a B&G walking along an empty beach, we assume it was all planned. How else would the photographer get that picture? Two things would need to happen. One, the photographer is either unbelievably stealthy, hiding behind sand dunes; and two, the couple has really decided to leave their friends and family during the biggest event of their lives to date, in order to take in the scenery. It’s highly unlikely.
The logical conclusion is that the couple knows their photographer is taking their picture. It is not a moment of pure kismet, in which the couple happens to be walking towards a beautiful sunset and coincidentally, the photographer is there to capture it. The events leading up to this picture did not unfold organically. Instead a number of controls have been set in place. For instance, the setting has been chosen. Where the couple is in relation to the camera has been coordinated. Putting these controls into place is part of the process of creating a portrait.
Clearly, it doesn’t have to be a picture of a person looking squarely into the camera in order to be a portrait. Many times, the B&G just need to know they are being photographed. If they do, they’ll act in a way that may or may not be how they would naturally behave if they didn’t know the camera was there, essentially creating their own wedding day portraits.
In the world of wedding photojournalism, in which authentic moments are prized, has the portrait lost its place? Definitely not. The traditional elements of a wedding are akin to anchors. They ground us, as well as instill a sense of permanence and significance into the whole occasion. The same is true with portraiture. It is a traditional aspect of wedding photography that has its place, without a doubt.
The problem arises when the quantity of portraits outweighs that of candid moments. The Wedding Photojournalist Association suggests that a portfolio should be made up of twenty to thirty-five percent of portraits, details and manipulated images combined, while the remainder consists of raw, undirected photography.
David Roberts, WPJA founder, explains, "Portraits are an important part of the wedding day but they shouldn’t be the main focus of wedding photojournalism. Couples are hiring WPJA members because they don't want their wedding pictures to consist primarily of portraits and/or set-up shots. They're hiring someone to document the events of the day as they naturally unfold. A wedding photojournalist creates real memories for the couple by recording what is actually happening, not by posing or otherwise directing the shots."
In this age of the Internet, the wedding photojournalist’s portfolio is invaluable. In terms of attracting new clients, the online portfolio is key. This is why it’s so important that your portfolio accurately reflects what you have actually photographed. If the majority of your work is in a photojournalistic style, the majority of your portfolio should be in that same style.
As a wedding photojournalist, most of your photographs should be those authentic, unplanned images. When your portfolio realistically reflects what you capture at a wedding, you will attract the right clients for you. Ideally, they will hire you based solely on your online portfolio. Their wedding photographs will turn out exactly as they had anticipated because they mirror the style of work on your site.
Where do the portraits fit into the wedding photojournalist’s portfolio? Roberts suggests creating a portrait gallery. In a series of pictures, portraits that follow the unrehearsed feel of photojournalist-style images can feel like a roadblock. They are posed, and they have a weight to them in contrast to the spontaneity of the candid images. This weight is better felt when the portraits are placed alongside one another. Look to the work of Annie Leibovitz, Diane Arbus and Irving Penn for examples. These three are some of the great portraitist photographers. While they have taken (and took) candid pictures, they did not mix them with their portraits in their gallery exhibitions, books and portfolios.
Like all art forms, wedding photojournalism requires balance. Though it is unique in that it merges what is tied to tradition, and therefore the past, with what is unfolding right now in time and space, the job of the wedding photojournalist is to manage this balancing act and in so doing uplift the art form to its greatest expression. Now, that’s no small feat but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.
— by Lauren Ragland for The Wedding Photojournalist Association