A celebratory toast to the bride and groom is deeply ingrained in wedding tradition, but do you know how the venerable custom came about? In Bottom’s Up!, a 2005 book of cocktail lore, former maritime reporter Robert McKenna solves the mystery.
Drinking to a person’s health or happiness dates to Greek hosts who wanted to assure guests that the wine they drank was not poisoned. But the word “toast” comes from the Latin word “tostus,” meaning roasted or parched, and it came about during Roman times. Wine wasn’t very tasty then, so drinkers plunked a bit of burnt bread into their goblets to improve the flavor. The custom continued into the 1600s on European waterfronts, where seaman dropped a bit of toast in their glasses of ale or mulled wine. When the crouton grew soggy and sank to the bottom, inevitably one of the drinkers would call, “Toast!” and they’d race one another to see who could finish the drink first and eat the saturated bread.
These days, raising a glass to toast a bride and groom has a higher purpose: to wish the couple happiness and success. Toasts can be emotional or funny, sometimes embarrassing, but always heartfelt. They can also be tricky to photograph, logistically and artistically speaking, so wedding photojournalists have to remain alert, creative and nimble. For example, a bridal couple may be squarely in a photographer’s viewfinder during a toast, but “when glasses are lifted, you never know if their faces will be obstructed,” points out WPJA member Amy Raab, a wedding photojournalist in Annapolis, MD. “You may think you have a clear shot, but you don’t.”
“How we shoot is dictated by the environment,” says Wendy Woods, a Minneapolis-based WPJA member who photographs weddings with her husband, Nick Gorski. “We have to be careful to not block people’s view.”
Raab agrees. In fact, her consideration of guests at a 2007 Annapolis wedding reception led her to capture an award-winning photograph. The evening party was held on a boat cruising Chesapeake Bay. “About 75 people were gathered on the middle deck of the boat, which had a low ceiling,” Raab recalls. “That confined space dictated how I photographed the toast. I got close to bride and groom and the bride’s dad, but I had to squat down because otherwise I would have blocked everyone’s view. It was ideal because all three were lined up in a row.”
During his toast, the father of the bride told an amusing story of how the couple met. True to her photojournalist roots, Raab listened to the story with the camera to her eye. She kept the three subjects in her viewfinder and waited for the emotional moment. “You have to focus and keep in firing range in case you see emotion,” she explains. “The little moments—a subtle glance, rolling of the eyes—are the hardest to capture.”
Photographing moments that epitomize the mood of a wedding are part of what wedding photojournalists do best. Wendy Woods captured the essence of an emotionally charged Minneapolis wedding held earlier this year in an award-winning photo of a toast given by the bride’s dad. Woods likes to position herself at the side of the head table at a reception in order to capture the couple’s faces. That put her “in the right place at the right time,” she says modestly about the image. “The bride’s father was having difficulty delivering the toast because he was so emotional. The maid of honor suddenly went to him to lend moral support. I think she felt protective of him. Then she put her hand over her mouth because she was about to cry, too. It was a weepy wedding, and that moment encapsulated it.”
Often it takes creativity to visually translate a feeling. WPJA member Ben Chrisman chose a quirky angle and an interesting background to show the effervescent atmosphere during a toast given by the groom’s sister in a Las Vegas reception early this year. The wedding took place in Lake Las Vegas, located about 10 minutes east of the city. While the groom’s sister was talking, Chrisman moved among the seated guests looking for the right angle to put the scene in context. Slightly tilting the camera and including the boldly colored, striped wall conveyed the whimsical feeling in the room.
“I don’t like traditional wedding photography,” says Chrisman. “It’s boring! Wedding photojournalists are taking wedding photography to a new level. It’s an exciting time to be a wedding photographer. Each week I’m pretty amazed at the awesome shots my [wedding] photojournalist buddies are taking, and that forces me to come up with something I haven’t done before. There are so many photos to take and so much in front of me during a wedding, I just try to figure out how to make it visually interesting in a way that I haven’t seen before.”
Nearly all the nuptials Nevada-based WPJA member George Wolf photographs are destination weddings. “The reason people come to Hawaii to get married is that it’s a beautiful place,” he says. “They want their wedding to be at sunset on the beach and who can blame them? So I try to incorporate the sunset and surroundings as much as possible.”
Including the environment in a picture of an Ohio bride and groom toasting one another earned Wolf a WPJA award in early 2007. Hawaii is rich in color and textures, so to convey that, Wolf excluded all but a portion of the ocean in the background so that he could contrast the rich amber color of the champagne flutes with the vivid blue sky. Making the bride and groom slightly silhouetted added a touch of drama to the photo, and further accentuated the colors.
It was a small wedding, only a half dozen guests, he says, which is typical of the ceremonies he photographs. And because most of the weddings are small, attended only by loved ones, Wolf says toast makers feel free to speak from the heart. “Emotions come out, especially from the bride and groom,” he says. “But a lot of people like to go for laughs with their toasts, to varying degrees of success.”
The most humorous toast Wolf remembers was the wedding of director/writer Jay Chandrasekhar, who directed the 2005 movie Dukes of Hazzard. “His best man was from his comedy troupe, Broken Lizard, and his toast was awesome,” Wolf remembers. “Everyone was laughing. It was like a good standup routine and went on for 20 minutes. I took photos of people laughing, but that was one toast that wasn’t nearly as photogenic as it was entertaining.”
Laughing or crying, wedding guests lift not only their glasses but also their hearts in joyful toasts, and wedding photojournalists excel in visually translating the mood so couples can remember forever how the moment felt.
—by Lorna Gentry for the Wedding Photojournalist Association