Getting The Picture

When he was a photojournalist, "wedding photographer" sounded like the punch line of a joke. Then he went soft and discovered that taking photographs of the most important moment in people's lives actually is funny. Also moving, sad, scary and profound.
By Matt Mendelsohn
Sunday, September 2, 2007

When he was a photo-journalist, "wedding photographer" sounded like the punch line of a joke. Then he went soft and discovered that taking photographs of the most important moment in people's lives actually is funny. Also moving, sad, scary and profound.

IT WAS 10:15 P.M., AND THE BAND WAS HALFWAY THROUGH GLORIA GAYNOR'S "I WILL SURVIVE," a song I've heard so many hundreds of times in the past nine years that I think I should start earning some sort of secret ASCAP royalty, when the tiny phone in my pocket began to vibrate.

My cellphone, like any good wedding photographer will tell you, is always on vibrate, even when I'm not at a wedding. Just one of those silly things, really, but I don't take any chances. I never trust traffic on the Beltway, even on a weekend. I don't eat strange foods on Friday, lest I become sick on Saturday. And I absolutely cringe at the thought of my phone going off during a wedding.

I cringe because it's my job as the photographer to document the nuptial events unfolding in front of me -- from the hushed nave of St. Matthew's Cathedral downtown to the Potomac overlook at George Washington's River Farm -- not become part of them. I'm hired, of course, to chronicle, but after nine years and some 400 weddings -- think Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day," but with a lot more salmon -- one can't help just plain observing. And so, here is observation Number One: On average these days, one and a half guests will receive a phone call during a wedding, often smack during the vows, the inevitable tinny strains of Beethoven's Ninth emanating, just as I'm sure Beethoven himself would have wanted, from the circuit board of a Motorola RAZR.

One and a half guests. Welcome to my world. This is what I've become after all these years, a deranged comic book character: mild-mannered wedding photographer by night, captive observer of the human condition by day. Who could pretend not to notice, after all, when a mother's very first words upon seeing her daughter in a wedding dress are: "Your earring is crooked." And who could look the other way when a priest tosses the couple he's married only three minutes earlier out of a warm and dry church and into the pouring rain because he has a confessional schedule to maintain? (Though not Christian myself, I've heard Paul's letter to the Corinthians about charity -- the one with the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals -- enough to appreciate the rich irony.) Or when an orthopedic surgeon, minutes away from his own marriage, takes time to treat the leg of one of the waitstaff who, while setting up tables, has slipped on a wet floor and happens to speak not a word of English.

I witness acts of incredible tenderness -- a bride quietly pinning a photo of her mother who died of breast cancer into her dress; acts of incredible joy -- just about any father dancing with his daughter; and acts of questionable sanity -- a group of adult groomsmen allowing an 8-year-old to pilot a golf cart into a lake comes to mind. And each Sunday morning around 2 o'clock, as I collapse into bed after another wedding, I'm convinced that I must be part of some kind of clinical trial, with no end date in sight.

And so, on this particular June night, it wasn't until a few more songs had whizzed by -- I can't be sure if it was "Mustang Sally," "Shout" and then "Love Shack" or, more likely, "Love Shack," "Shout" and, finally, "Mustang Sally" -- that I had a chance to look at the flashing display on my phone, a strange number with a strange area code. I put down my cameras, walked outside to the patio of Vienna's Meadowlark Botanical Gardens and dialed in the dark.

"Hi, this is Matt Mendelsohn. Did someone call this number?"


What is it about those two words together that seems to evoke so much pity? No one thinks twice if you say that you're an architectural photographer, or a photographer who shoots nudes, or a globe-trotting photojournalist. Friends will feign interest, at least, on the architectural front; be really excited about the nudes; and ask you again and again if you've ever been shot at as a news photographer. In fact, for years when I was a photojournalist, I went to parties where I was the only non-attorney out of 30 guests -- attorneys making a jillion dollars a year more than I -- only to be told that I had the coolest job. You've shot Michael Jordan?!?!

What was Nicole Kidman like?

How long were you in the Gulf War? Have you ever been shot at?

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