It wasn’t until Michelle Frankfurter was in college that she found her voice in photojournalism, and ultimately a taste for adventure and discovery. That has since led her down an exciting road of documenting humanity, from the streets of Haiti and other third-world countries to the special scenes and memories of the wedding day.
Along the way her work has been greatly appreciated by thousands. Her photos have appeared in a number of world-class publications, including Life, Time, Ms., The Guardian of London and The Washington Post Magazine, and she has been the recipient of two World Press Photo awards.
She always approached photography with an unwavering commitment to doing it her way, and that has found a great deal of creative synergy in her twin careers of independent photojournalism and wedding photography.
“My initial interest in photography was really an accident,” Frankfurter reveals. She was a Syracuse University student on a pre-med track. She had wanted to be a veterinarian since she had been a little girl, had an internship with veterinarians, worked on a dairy farm when she was 17 and had read All Creatures Great and Small ten times. “But when I got into college it became really obvious to me that even though I loved animals, I had no patience for the curriculum.”
It seems like everybody on her dorm floor during her freshman year was attending Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, one of the nation's premiere schools for print and visual journalism. “The guy who lived right next door to me was going to the photography program at the newspaper, and it just looked like fun, so I decided to take a photo class,” she says. “It was really just to stall my parents while I figured out what I wanted to do career-wise. But for me it became the ‘it’ thing immediately, like Helen Keller meeting Anne Sullivan.” I had found something that really grounded my mind, channeled my energy, and allowed me to communicate in a way that really made sense.”
Before her introduction to photography, Frankfurter had been a self-described “bungler and stumbler.” Her energy and ability to communicate was bottled up, with nowhere to go, but once she was turned on to photography, it became the central focus of her life, and was the first thing she had felt naturally good at doing.
“I remember the experience of being in an auditorium with 30 other beginning students and watching a slide presentation of Mary Ellen Mark and Eugene Smith, and just being completely transported,” she recalls.
“It was never ‘this is what I want to be.’ It was more ‘this is what I want to feel like all of the time.’ I would just take off and disappear for hours, walk the streets, take notes, and have the experience of everything else just dropping off. There was no noise or distraction and I was just completely absorbed.”
Frankfurter proceeded with the Newhouse photography program, became the photo editor of Syracuse University’s student newspaper The Daily Orange, progressed to a photo internship with a local newspaper, The Syracuse Post Standard and Herald Journal, and then became a staff photographer at the Utica Observer Dispatch before returning to the newspaper in Syracuse for another three years.
However, she soon realized that she needed more, feeling a bit uncomfortable about the possibility that she might never leave upstate New York. She had a growing taste for adventure, and wanted to go somewhere and do something really different. So in early 1988 she told her boss that she was quitting the newspaper and going to Central America. “I want to learn Spanish and take pictures. And that was pretty much my end with the newspapers,” she says.
She thought she would go to Nicaragua for about a year, but it turned out to be three. “The time I spent in Nicaragua was more like youthful blundering around. I think at that point I was still emulating. You look at the work of Susan Meisalis or Sebastian Segato or whoever, and it’s not a conscious thing—it’s what you do before you find your own voice. But it was a really good life experience; learning Spanish and learning about a different culture and having all of these amazing experiences that you can use later on. These are all skills you develop, and then you take them out of the bag later on. It really adds up.”
Upon her return to the United States she did some freelancing in Washington D.C., but felt like she didn’t really fit anywhere. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” she remembers. “It was a time of reading a lot and standing still.”
Then came her formative trip to Haiti in 1993. Unlike the youthful jaunt to Nicaragua, this was much more of a serious photographic expedition. A military junta had deposed Haiti’s democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. “It was a major international story, and everyone you had heard about, all of the journalism legends, were there,” she recalls.
Frankfurter says that she was the only one down there with a medium-format camera, one back and two lenses, shooting in black and white. “I remember getting some raised eyebrows, people thinking I’m some trust fund brat, but for me it was a really important lesson. I was not running with the pack, but was shooting just for me. And that was my first experience of having complete freedom.”
Indeed, Frankfurter was taking the trip on her own terms, covering the street scenes not so much as a news event, but as storytelling through allegory. For her efforts she won two World Press photo awards for her work, and received assignments from Life magazine, Time and Ms. “I thought my star had risen,” she says.
After Frankfurter again returned to the Washington area and the Haiti euphoria wore away, real life reasserted itself. “I had been gone a long time, and some of the clients I had been stringing for were gone, it was like ‘Okay, now what?’”
She says that if somebody had said to her prior to that point that she was going to be photographing weddings, it would have been equivalent to being told that she was going to be selling Tupperware or doing daytime drama—not the kind of thing she had ever pictured herself doing.
“But this friend of mine who was this incredible documentary photographer broke out this little black portfolio, with photo after photo—all black and white and hand-printed. They were gorgeous and they were all from weddings. I thought ‘wow, this is amazing,’ and does it have to be written in stone that wedding photos have to look horrible? Do they have to be cliché?”
It was then that she realized that it’s not what the subject is, but how you approach it. “I thought ‘If he can do it, then I’d like to try this.’”
Frankfurter’s first wedding job was for her best friend. “It was a way of getting out of actually being in the wedding. I just didn’t want to be a bridesmaid, so I said ‘Why don’t I photograph your wedding?’ And the rest is history. Someone else got married and didn’t want typical wedding photos, so I did their wedding, then a few more.”
After those first couple of jobs, Frankfurter dove in, placing a wedding photography ad in a magazine. “I decided I no longer wanted to run around doing freelance editorial work. I wanted to build this as ‘my thing.’”
By the late 1990s she was able to confidently say, “This is what I do: I’m a wedding photographer.” But even at that point, wedding photojournalism had yet to become popular, and there were some raised eyebrows among her colleagues.
But it worked for her on several levels, allowing her to put her many years of photojournalistic experiences to work in a new milieu, while continuing to feed that creative synergy with independent projects.
“With Haiti, the idea was that I wanted to do medium format street photography. It trains you to think about what the photo is going to be about instead of just reacting. You need to think about the scene and decide what’s a distraction and what’s substantive,” she explains. “With weddings you tend to have a pre-determined vision of what it’s supposed to look like, but when you’re there in the room it’s also a winnowing process of how much of what is happening is superficial or a distraction that I can ignore.”
Therefore, Frankfurter shoots with long lenses, wide open. She doesn’t use much depth of field, preferring to isolate the subject. “I light everything with light stands,” she explains, “so you not only have this amazing moment; you also have this Rembrandt lighting to go along with it.”
And wedding photography is also a good fit for Frankfurter on a more practical level. Because for her it’s seasonable, March to December, it allows her to continue work on her personal projects during the rest of the year, such as the large-format portraits she took in Nicaragua last winter.
Frankfurter freely admits that she’s never been happier taking photos for anyone else other than herself, and that she doesn’t go out of her way to sell her clients on her work.
Her website displays all black and white photos even though she will also produce color shots for clients. “It has the effect of screening by proxy,” she says, “attracting people who want to be different and will allow me to do what I want to do. When I meet with people I want people who are at least in the ballpark in sharing esthetic sensibilities. I have risqué pictures up there too. It’s my subtle way of saying ‘I’m not everybody’s flavor.’”
However, once clients have chosen her, she feels grateful and loyal, so there’s a real climate of mutual respect. “People appreciate what I do and they ‘get’ all of it. When I look at the photographs I take, it’s not like I’ve put on my wedding photographer hat,” she notes. “I can see myself in these photos. I feel like I’m able to offer people something that’s going to be accessible to them, very broad, and yet I can still be me when I take these photos.”
Ultimately, that’s all Frankfurter wants to do: be herself. She wants to make a living, but also continue to roam around capturing the photos that she feels compelled to take. As she says, “In some sense I’m like the impressionist painters of previous centuries,” she explains. “They lived to paint and painted to live.”
—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalism Association