Steph and Mike’s last dance was to Harvest Moon by Neil Young. Go ahead and press play on the video so that you have the right soundtrack to this wedding – I don’t know that there’s a more fitting or beautiful song for this wonderful, genuine, REAL couple.
Steph found me on facebook – a legitimate win for social networking! She was looking for bridesmaid dresses, and a friend of hers sent her a link to a picture I’d posted on facebook, of a wedding that the friend’s FRIEND had been a bridesmaid in. Did you follow all that? Steph didn’t love the bridesmaid dresses, but she loved the image, and followed the links to my website. Even though her wedding would take place three states away, nine hours up the road, she still inquired – which is how I know that I’m one of the luckiest people on earth. Had she been turned off by my location and the potentially outrageous travel costs for getting me up there for the wedding, I never would have met these people. I never would have been a part of the most eccentric and fun-loving families for two days of my life. I never would have seen my car covered in a million mayflies at a gas station, or been so close to the Yuengling brewery, I might not have laughed so hard that weekend, or shot so many frames, or met a state senator. Sometimes I just can’t believe my luck. It follows me everywhere.
I’d had so little contact with Steph leading up to the wedding day – to say her job is demanding would be like saying Mike and I take “a couple” pictures at a wedding. She seems to be ALWAYS working, so keeping in touch and getting to know each other in the months before the wedding was a challenge. I didn’t have much of an idea of who I’d be working with in Pennsylvania – would they be cool? Would they be aloof and disinterested? Would they ‘zilla me to death?
My Mike didn’t get to come with me to this wedding because of local obligations we had in NC – this was one of those unfortunate times when we had so much going on, we had to split up and take the jobs solo. It was a bummer to begin with, but once I got there and knew what kind of wedding I was shooting, I was almost distraught that Mike would be missing out.
The first person I met when I got to the rehearsal dinner in Pottsville PA was Mike. And the minute I saw him, the very second his giant hand enveloped mine in a firm-yet-gentle handshake, every doubt I might have had about their personalities went right out the window. And when I stepped back and took a look around the rehearsal dinner – a backyard affair at Steph’s mom’s house, folding tables set up with beer bottle centerpieces, guests arriving on Harleys, a few pizza boxes and buckets of slaw and macaroni salad – told me everything I needed to know about the weekend before me. These were “my people”.
About a half hour into the rehearsal dinner, when Steph still hadn’t arrived, Mike chided that she would probably be late for the wedding, too. Some grooms would be miffed, some would be terrified, some would be downright pissed – but Mike talked about Steph’s chronic lateness like a husband might talk about his wife’s adorable snoring – it was endearing, a facet of her personality that she couldn’t change, but made her uniquely HIS. He reminded me so much of MY Mike – no matter how awful some parts of me can be, I’m always 100% fine in his book. He doesn’t pretend I’m not awful in some ways; he just accepts them, finds them charming, and teases me about them when the time is right. That’s love, you know?
On the wedding day, I met Mike at the hotel where they were all getting ready. I spent more time with Mike getting ready than I did with Steph – she was late. Grooms don’t usually get so much pre-ceremony attention, and Mike was probably the least likely groom for such coverage – he’s so not a primper, and certainly wasn’t going to do outrageous things for the camera’s benefit (thankfully). But the time I spent with Mike getting ready was peaceful and sweet; I got to document his nervousness and his sudden obsession with every strand of his hair getting into perfect place, with every button being perfectly centered… sometimes it’s a truly welcome break to be able to sit back and observe and document without being rushed, without all the noise and chaos of tight schedules. The bonus is, I got to understand more about Mike, his quirks and his humor, he told me stories of his past, his job, the way things might have gone had life not taken the right turn. I got to hear him talk about his bride as his light, as his personal savior. I got to learn about them. Times like these are priceless in our job. We don’t often get the chance to learn so much about our clients before the ceremony.
When Steph arrived at the hotel, everything changed. Things had taken much longer at the hairdresser’s than they’d planned (take note: THEY ALWAYS DO), and she was behind schedule. It was a mad rush, a whirlwind of bridal satin and bling. As behind schedule as she was, though, she still made time to talk to me, to find some calm, to be herself. The buses were waiting to take guests and the bridal party to the wedding, and Steph and the girls were supposed to be next up for the long drive to the winery, so I booked it up the road so I’d be there, ready for her arrival to the ceremony.
I didn’t need to rush. Steph’s bus was late on an epic scale. The ceremony started about 40 minutes late or so, which would be disastrous with a different crowd, with a different groom, in a different venue. But for these guests, for this groom, at this laid back awesome venue? It was NO BIG DEAL. Everyone knew she was coming. Everyone knew that sometime today, Mike and Steph would get married and everyone would drink, and whether it happened at 4 or 4:30 or, hell, midnight – it just didn’t matter. They were celebrating no matter what.
Because of the strange rush and the chaos of the late hair appointments, one incredibly important token had been left behind. Steph planned to carry a picture of her father with her during the ceremony, because her father had passed away and wouldn’t be walking her down the aisle. As a photographer, particularly as a photographer specializing in happy, celebratory, joyful times – documenting grief and sadness can be a struggle. I pride myself in journaling every moment of a wedding day, from the highest highs to the lowest lows – but when those lows happen, you can’t help but feel like you should lower your camera and let the moment unfold on its own, without documentary.
But the lows are part of the story, and Steph’s love for her father, the depth at which she misses him and wished he was there, was a huge part of her story. I took the shots that were needed for that part of her story, and then lowered the camera. Steph’s amazing Maid of Honor reminded her that dad was with them all day, all night, whether his picture was folded around the stems of her flowers or not. He was always with her, in her heart, in her memories, and in spirit. While this didn’t fix the missing photo, it did give Steph a chance to take a deep breath and remember what she was there for. It was a moment that can’t be told in pictures, but I’ll never forget it anyway, despite having no tangible visual memory of the words that were spoken, of the transition from despair to anticipation.
Their ceremony was simple, the way you’d expect it to be. The vows were perfect. My favorite part of their vows was this line: “I promise to let you know, each day, what it means to be alive, and to be loved.” Ahhhh, perfect! We might have to steal it for our vows.
Here it is again. That elation that re-charges all my batteries halfway through the wedding day. That incredible combination of joy and relief and togetherness and, well, victory really! They mastered the ceremony, they made it through the planning, no one got killed, everyone they love showed up, they didn’t spill anything on their clothes before the ceremony, every fear, every bit of nervousness, GONE – it’s done, we did it, we’re married!!! I can’t wait to experience this myself, after seeing it happen so many times in my career. It’s probably one of the highest emotional moments in a couples’ history, right up there with that first positive pregnancy test, or the realtor handing you the keys to your first house.
Have I mentioned that I’m a lucky photographer? A lot of brides wouldn’t dare hop on the back of a motorcycle in their dress. Those things can be DIRTY… grease doesn’t exactly wipe right off, you know? But Mike and Steph are biker week types, the bike is a part of their world, and it was important to Steph that she get pictures that reveal that part of them. Hey, you don’t have to ask me twice! Over.Joyed. I love it when the day takes a little turn into the unexpected.
This is the back yard of an old couple that lives near the venue. It was *perfect* for their portraits, with the light and the tall grass, and the old couple was sitting out on their front porch in rocking chairs – I imagine they were sipping on lemonade or iced tea and reminiscing about the days when there were no motorcycles revving up and down their quiet street. They graciously allowed us access into the back yard for pictures, and we were lucky enough not to discover any scary animals or big poisonous bugs as we trekked into the marshy grass.
This next shot. This is what I live for. It’s not epic, it’s not going to win any awards or make the front page of my site… but it’ll be an image that they look at years from now and remember exactly how they felt at that moment. She’ll see the way he’s looking at her, and how he still looks at her the same way, twenty years later. It’s *my* award winning shot – it’s the one that made me say “YES” as soon as I caught it.
A dollar/shots dance with Wild Turkey American Honey? Oh hell yeah.
When you choose your entertainment for the reception, you can go with a wedding DJ, or a band, or you can DIY it with an iPod and some speakers… or you could hire a club DJ. Not a lot of people think about club DJs for their wedding – it’s just not what you do, right? Well, Steph and Mike did, and HOLY. FREAK. I felt like I was back in the clubs, back in my DJ groupie days… this guy was AHHHHMAAAZING. See, a club DJ keeps the music going. He mixes on the fly, he creates a vibe that is 100% unique to that event, he doesn’t cheese it up with announcements or jokes, he just dammit plays some awesome jams. DJ Manik Mike, out of State College PA, is by far one of the most talented DJs I’ve seen – I mean, forget weddings, he’s one of the best I’ve seen in clubs around the country! They made SUCH a great choice here, he turned their wedding reception into a mild rave and it was AWESOME! (If you could hear me say that last sentence aloud, the AWESOME part was at least two octaves higher than my normal speaking voice)
The end of the night, when Neil Young’s soothing voice filled the tent with the most perfect conclusion of the most incredible day.
Sometimes you’re on your feet for ten or eleven hours, shooting and running and squatting and bending and carrying heavy gear all day long and you’re weary. You’re just tired, you just want to go home. The wedding is lovely, but you found your third wind and ran through it, and you’ve got nothing left. This wedding was not like that. I could have shot for hours longer – the energy, the atmosphere, the warmth and the enveloping love that surrounded every part of this day kept me energized and excited and ready to keep shooting for as long as it took. Those weddings are rare, but we are lucky enough to get several of them every year.
I’d shoot Steph and Mike’s wedding every weekend if I could. Even if it meant driving all the way up to PA and back each time, and fighting with swarms of mayflies every time I stopped for gas. It was that kind of spectacular.
Congratulations, you guys. I can’t wait for Bike Week 2013!!! Beers and pictures in the dirty south! YEAH!!!