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Photo by Annette Lein

Portrait of Karin von Voigtlander by Annette Lein

In the streets, alleyways and back roads of Merida, Mexico, a 15-year-old Karin von Voigtlander found her passion: photojournalism. She had been shooting only about a year and a half in her hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich., when she was invited by a girlfriend to aid her minister mother in her work in the Yucatan Peninsula. Von Voigtlander packed her manual Minolta 35mm camera and 30 rolls of black-and-white film, flew to Mexico and found her calling.

With no way to communicate—she spoke no Spanish—the camera conveyed von Voigtlander's intentions and emboldened her to unflinchingly document what she saw. “The camera was my invitation to interact with people I don’t think I would have interacted with otherwise,” she says. “I felt like it was exactly what I should be doing when I was out there photographing.”

The camera had been a gift from her parents when she was 14. Over the years, the von Voigtlanders watched their daughter struggle to find a creative outlet. “I had tried a lot of other different types of art: painting, sculpting and drawing. I failed miserably,” she admits. “I was just rotten at all of them.” The camera, however, was the right fit. “I started documenting the exploits of my teenage friends. Whatever we did, I shot it in black and white. Then my dad helped me convert my bathroom into a darkroom where I processed and printed my pictures. I was so in love with the process that I would spend 12 hours at a time in the darkroom.”

In her senior year in high school, von Voigtlander applied to the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY—the only school she approached, much to her mother’s chagrin—and was accepted. She graduated with a BFA degree in photojournalism in Fall 2001, but the sour economic conditions during that period truncated her career possibilities. “It was such a bad job climate then,” she says. “9/11 did horrible things to the photography market.” She went to Mansfield, OH, for an internship on a small weekly newspaper. When that expired, she returned to Rochester and got a job as a photojournalist on another small paper. “I was happy to work and didn’t care that it wasn’t prestigious,” she says.

However, the slow pace of her work—three to four assignments a week—squashed creativity and sapped her energy. “It just wasn’t stimulating enough,” she recalls. Then she saw some wedding photojournalism work done by WPJA founder David Roberts and was intrigued. Never had she seen that approach to wedding photography. A little research revealed that there was a demand for non-traditional, candid photography and she began to offer her services on weekends, enabling her to shoot more and make more money, too. Soon she was photographing so many weddings that her day job was getting in the way. A year and a half later, she quit the paper and became a full-time wedding photographer, traveling to nuptials from Long Island to the Catskills, Buffalo to the Adirondacks, as well as other northeastern states and foreign countries.

Von Voigtlander enjoyed the freedom and creativity, she says, but missed the weekly mix of wedding and editorial photography. When a position on the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle daily newspaper became available a little over two years ago, she immediately applied and was hired. Now, she enjoys a steady diet of editorial and wedding photography, and her contentment is evident in her work. Over the years, many of her images have placed in numerous competitions, garnering her WPJA’s Silver Member designation, an honor of excellence. Von Voigtlander’s images show her sense of humor, insight and bravery in capturing intimate moments.

During a wedding in Skaneateles, NY, a picturesque town upstate in the Finger Lakes region, von Voigtlander photographed a bride trimming her father’s nose hair. “It’s amazing what people give me access to,” she laughs. “I don’t want to offend my clients by putting a camera in people’s faces in intimate moments. I tend to back away until I know my behavior is accepted. The bride said, ‘Dad, you’ve got some nose hairs. We’ve got to get those nose hairs.’ And I thought it would be so funny, so I put my camera up..." Good thing she did-that picture won third place in the humor category in another WPJA competition.

Von Voigtlander also took fourth place in the ceremony category in a WPJA competition with an image of a tender moment between a Rochester bride and her dad just before he walked her down the isle. “There was a close relationship between those two,” she remembers.

“She was an older bride, thirty-something, and you could tell it was tough for her dad to give her away. They even looked a little alike. They were standing in the room where you wait before you walk down the aisle. That’s a great place to take pictures. Nine times out of ten you can get a good moment during that time.” She doesn’t recall what was said that made the bride laughingly embrace her father, but she does remember being struck by the light illuminating the pair. She chose black and white for the picture, she says, because “color would have been distracting. You get drawn straight into the moment when it’s black and white.”

Von Voigtlander had another award-winner, this time in the Kid’s Category. Her picture of a wedding cake that looks like the leaning Tower of Pisa and a blindfolded boy took ninth place. When von Voigtlander spotted the boy at a Rochester wedding reception scaring guests with his antics, she positioned herself so the cake loomed in the foreground of her viewfinder. “He was trying to freak everyone out that he was going to tip over the cake,” she says. “He put the napkin on his face and waved his arms around the cake, trying to get attention. I’m pretty sure he could see okay, though. He was just being a little boy.” Her choice of angling the picture makes both cake and boy seem vulnerable, and makes it hard for a viewer not to gasp and laugh out loud.

She’s been gathering so many wonderful stories over the years that last February von Voigtlander started a blog on her web site, even though she was a little dubious about it. “At first I thought it was pretentious,” she says. “But when I started to read other people’s blogs, I thought it was a great way to display updated work and keep in touch with people, especially clients.” Now she’s in love with her electronic journal. Like wedding photojournalism, blogging about the weddings she photographs appeals to her journalist nature to share people’s stories in words and beautiful, emotional and humorous photographs. “I’m a blog addict,” she confesses. “I want my life to be more interesting so my blog will be!”

—by Lorna Gentry for the Wedding Photojournalist Association