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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Wedding War Stories

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Next year Judy and I will have been shooting weddings -- as well other commercial work -- for 20 years. In photographing more than 600 weddings over that time, we have been blessed with great clients, most of whom bear no resemblance to the neurotic, controlling "Bridezillas" recently profiled in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times.

Which is not to say that every wedding we’ve shot has gone without a hitch. Oh my, no. But happily most of the glitches and goofs we have seen these past two decades did nothing to dampen the day. Actually, "dampen" may not be the best choice of words.

There was that time when Hurricane Hugo showed up unexpectedly as a wedding guest a few years back. But more on that later.

It’s wedding season. I know because my knee is acting up from schlepping our big rolling camera bag all over the place for the last month. (In the D.C. area, May-June and September-October are the prime wedding times.) Though we work portably and always in 35mm, our gear is heavy because of redundancy: six camera bodies, a ton of lenses, four high-voltage (and very heavy) battery packs and chargers, two tripods, two exposure meters, a big step-stool, and myriad gadgets and doodads that, at one time or another, have come in very handy and therefore have earned permanent residence in the bag.

(These gadgets include everything from a nifty portable Wein slave unit to trigger a second, off-camera flash, to a tiny maglite flashlight to help us see in dark reception rooms, to earplugs to block out the noise of hyper-loud wedding bands.)

Judy and I try our best to be prepared for every occasion and emergency -- one reason we also travel with needle and thread in case a bride or groom needs to sew a button or a hem at the last minute.

Still, for all that preparation -- by us, by the caterer, by the florist, by the bride and groom -- fate has a way of throwing lemons. The trick is to make lemonade, and never to lose your sense of humor.

What do you do, for example, if you are the caterer and find that the wedding cake hasn’t arrived -- and that you can’t raise the folks who were supposed to have delivered it hours before?

This actually happened at one of our weddings. I knew there was a problem because I always take “portraits” of the cake early and couldn’t find it anywhere. For the longest time, no one breathed a word to the bride, as the caterer tried frantically to raise the cake person. No dice. Finally, growing desperate, the caterer dispatched someone to a local supermarket to buy up a bunch of pound cakes. Fortunately, the chef already had some candied fruit that was to have been the final touch to the real cake -- as well as enough white icing on hand to work a little eleventh hour magic. It was like working with pound cake Legos, but finally, the chef cobbled together something that looked like a wedding cake.

The bride, of course, knew immediately that this wasn’t her cake, but she soldiered on admirably.(It turned out that the cake person, who should have been reachable by cell phone -- but wasn’t -- had mixed up the delivery time, thinking this afternoon wedding was in the evening. I never did find out what she did with the extra cake.)

Pre-wedding nerves are natural. Everyone is nervous before the ceremony. Most times, that simply means sweaty palms or butterflies in the stomach.

Sometimes, though, it means hives.

That’s what Judy found several years ago when she went to make getting-ready photos of a bride and her bridesmaids and found that the bride had broken out all over. Unfortunately, she had chosen a somewhat low-cut gown, so the little red bumps stood out just fine across the top of her bosom. Again, good humor saved the day. The bride was a good sport as her attendants daubed makeup on the hives -- and Judy got some great, if unusual, pictures.

In fact, Judy was able to commiserate because she herself came down with some kind of odd rash on the day of our wedding in 1984. You’d think that old wedding pros like us would have been way cool, even at our own do. Guess again.

Judy’s son Bill called us the morning of the wedding. "Are you nervous?" he asked his mother. "Because I am."

Driving over to the ceremony, Judy’s other son, Dan, had a fender-bender.

And I, who had lent Dan one of my Nikons so he could make pictures -- forgot to load the camera. (Happily other, less nervous, attendees did not forget to load theirs.)

Handy photo hint: Pose pictures with an eye toward judicious cropping. At our wedding, Dan and Bill each came with girlfriends whom we knew were not marriage candidates. In the photos with us, Judy and I had the girls stand on either end of the group, for easy removal. Of course we didn’t say this at the time. But we thought it.

Finally, one reason we take July and August off is to go to Maine. But, even if we didn’t go there, we still wouldn’t want to work weddings in D.C.’s hellacious summertime heat. And that heat often is accompanied by the dreaded "late afternoon thunderstorms" that can wash out a reception quicker than Bill Clinton could say "you gonna finish those fries?"

But how do you plan against a hurricane?

Easy answer: you don’t.

It was the last nasty remnants of Hurricane Hugo that turned this outdoor wedding into a near-disaster. It was the good humor of the wedding party and guests that turned it instead into a hell of a bash.

Everything looked wonderful for the 2 p.m. outdoor ceremony at an historic house and garden near Baltimore. As 2 p.m. neared, the bride and groom decided to wait another 15 minutes or so for late arrivals.

Big mistake.

The ceremony began and I was standing at the minister's back, making close-up pictures of the bride and groom, oblivious towhat was going on behind me. Judy, however, who was working from the back ofthe crowd, shooting the reverse angle, saw the huge black wall of storm clouds descending upon us like the Four Horseman. As the rain started with a vengeance, the guests and Judy made a beeline for the reception tent, leave thewedding party, the minister and me to deal with Hugo. I got some great picturesof the bride’s dress flapping in the wind as she and the groom gamely recited their vows. Then all hell broke loose. Torrents of wind and rain—and me wearinga high-voltage battery on my belt.

We bolted for the tent. By the time we got there we are soaked.

The minister, his vestments a sodden mess, stood on a chair under tent and told the crowd, “In case you didn’t hear it, they said ‘I do!’

A cheer went up and the party began. Happily, the tent held, but just barely. Happily too, some of the wedding party, who were staying at the historic house, were able to change—a good thing since the temperature dropped twenty degrees.

The bride's mother changed into sweats.

We had a ball.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

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