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Portrait Photograph of Heather Mabry

Portrait of Heather Mabry

At first glance, Heather Mabry’s photography career looks direct, even planned. On the contrary, her path was a burst of creative combustion that propelled her from fine art photography and a financial career to wedding photojournalism.

The Austin, Texas, USA-based WPJA award winner cultivated her natural talent with photo classes in college, studying still life, architecture and landscape photography. After graduating in 1999 with a psychology degree, Mabry eschewed her major and got a job in Austin selling mutual funds. But daily financial trade stifled her creativity, so she set up in her bathroom a darkroom kit she bought for $20 at a yard sale, and spent evenings making prints of fine art photos she took on the weekends. Several retailers around Austin sold her work.

When her company held an art show, Mabry placed several prints in competition and won best in show. A coworker was so impressed with her work that she begged Mabry to take a portrait of her with her son. “I was not comfortable with portraiture,” she remembers. “I didn’t like it because I don’t like to pose people. What has always interested me about photography is finding moments, scenes and settings.”

The coworker persisted and Mabry finally acquiesced, taking a number of pictures of mother and son in a nearby park. The woman was thrilled with the photos, and the experience made Mabry more comfortable with photographing people.

Coincidentally, a number of Mabry’s college friends were getting married at the time, and knowing that she liked photography, asked her to take pictures of their wedding receptions. “I did it for free, as wedding gifts,” she recalls. The brides raved about her photography, many telling her they preferred her pictures to those of the professional photographers they’d hired. “I think that was because I was shooting in a photojournalism style, while the photographers they hired were taking mostly posed shots.”

This flirtation with wedding photography grew into a passionate embrace of wedding photojournalism and launched a new career. Mabry created a web site with some of her wedding pictures and her rate: $500. To her surprise, a bride hired her right away. “I was really, really nervous, but it turned out well,” Mabry says laughing. “Then I did another, for a total of two that first year. I was still working full time.”

The next year Mabry photographed eight weddings. “I raised my prices slowly as I got more comfortable shooting weddings and got better at it. When I did 25 the next year, I had to go part time at my job. Word-of-mouth about my photography spread and the business grew. In 2003 I finally quit working altogether so I could do photography full time.”

Now Mabry shoots more than 40 weddings a year, primarily in the Austin area, although she often travels to nearby San Antonio, as well as to Dallas and Houston. Most clients are fellow Texans who want to get married in Austin, which is becoming a wedding destination for many couples, according to Mabry. “Some clients live in other states but want to get married in Austin,” she says. Among the capital city’s charms, she says, are historic architecture and lush, hilly landscapes. Mabry has also photographed a few destination weddings in places as far away as St. Kitts in the Caribbean, and Playa del Carmen and Acapulco in Mexico.

Mabry’s style shows talent for capturing details and emotion and placing them in relationship to the environment, a skill she credits to her wide-angle lens. “I use my 16-35mm lens 80 percent of the time because I like the perspective and I like to be in the action,” she explains. “I think it’s intimidating to a lot of photographers to be so close, but I find that people get used to me more quickly [when I am].”

She was so close to a bridal couple at a 2004 wedding that they nearly ran over her. The reception was held in a 19th-century dance hall in San Antonio. As the couple left the hall for their honeymoon, a round of fireworks in the yard startled them. “I was very close to them and had my wide-angle lens on my camera. They ran right at me and I started firing, jumping out the way at the last minute.” That picture earned Mabry second place in the Action category in a WPJA competition.

Mabry was also close when an Austin bride and her little brother shared an intimate moment. “It was right after the ceremony,” Mabry recalls. “The bridal party had gone into a private area to catch their breath. I was standing near the bride, but I noticed her little brother getting very emotional.”

Mabry turned her camera on him as he approached his sister and positioned herself for the best angle. “He told her he felt she wasn’t going to be his sister anymore now that she was married and he wouldn’t see her as much. He was realizing that he had to let her go. When he started to cry, the bride also started to cry. I knew the boy’s emotions had great potential for a photograph, but I didn’t know it was going to be so great.” Mabry further underscored the picture’s powerful emotion by making it black and white. The image earned third place in the Emotion category in a recent competition.

Two years later, Mabry again took third place in the Emotion category with a joyful picture of another Austin bride with one of her bridesmaids. Mabry’s instincts once again served her well. “The bride was very emotional,” says Mabry. “When her bridesmaid came into the room and saw her in her gown for the first time, she told her, ‘You’re getting married!’ They started screaming together and hugging and laughing. I knew something like that might happen because the bride was so excited, so I stayed near her the whole time waiting for those moments.”

Whether Mabry is tracking close, emotional moments or creatively setting a scene, her images fuse a fine art sensibility with photojournalistic instincts to create a you-are-there immediacy in an aesthetically pleasing frame. It’s a skill she works hard to hone with every wedding, and the results speak for themselves.

—by Lorna Gentry for the Wedding Photojournalist Association