The dramatic climax of Jennifer Miller and Michael Bennett’s wedding came not at “I do,” but a few phrases before.
Officiant Steven Gaudaen had just begun to ask, “Do you, Jennifer — ” when a pair of security guards cut through the crowd of spectators and waved the trio toward the door.
“You can’t do this in here,” one guard announced. “Y’all need to leave.”
Miller, Bennett, and Gaudaen remained motionless in front of the African elephant in main entrance of the National Museum of Natural History. An onlooker called out, “Aww, let them finish,” but the guards were insistent.
After a beat, Gaudaen quickly pronounced the couple husband and wife, and then the wedding party hurried out.
“This is going to go viral,” a guard muttered bitterly as Miller and Bennett passed by.
They finished the ceremony outside on the museum’s front steps, beyond the gaze of testy security guards. Miller and Bennett kissed, photographer Maggie Winters captured the moment, and with that, they were officially married.
They’d pulled the whole event off for $1,500, a small fraction of the nearly $30,000 that an average American wedding cost in 2013, according to the wedding-planning Web site the Knot. For that economizing, the newlyweds have their wedding planners to thank. Or, to be more precise, their elopement planners.
It’s not a contradiction in terms, says Winters, who makes up one half of the duo that married Miller and Bennett. Elopement may call to mind a bold couple sneaking unencumbered to city hall. But what her company, PopWed Co., offers is something more along the lines of a DIY wedding. It’s a way to skip the trappings of traditional weddings — managing guest lists, renting a venue, worrying about whether Uncle Frank will make one too many trips to the open bar — while still preserving the romance of the day. Gaudaen, who is a registered humanist officiant, conducts the ceremony and organizes the paperwork, while Winters photographs and takes care of aesthetics. The results have the same self-conscious whimsy as something you might find on Pinterest.
Winters and Gaudaen have also cornered an unexpected niche in the Washington wedding market: organizing same-sex weddings. About half of their clients are gay couples, many of whom come to D.C. from states where same-sex marriage isn’t legal. Though the partners don’t market themselves particularly to these couples, Winters says she’s happy to fill that need.
Winters and Gaudaen, now 23 and 24, grew up together in Arlington and have dated since their freshman year of high school. They’ve been photographing weddings together for only slightly less long — they had their first gig when they were 16.
“We had just bought our first DSLR cameras with all of our money, and we didn’t really know what we were doing,” Winters says.
But the pair was drawn to the romance of weddings, so they kept at it. By the time Winters finished college at the Corcoran College of Art and Design last spring, she and Gaudaen were shooting marriage ceremonies almost weekly. Many were big, traditional weddings that took place on boats and in hotel ballrooms, but every so often they found themselves photographing smaller events.
Winters remembers vividly the first time she’d shot this kind of wedding: a ceremony for two women who had traveled from Ohio with just 11 guests.
“This experience of not having a plan and not having a schedule. . . I just loved it,” Winters says. “That’s the type of wedding experience that I chase as the most meaningful to me.”
After graduating, Winters began working full time at a digital strategy agency, but she found she missed photography, and she especially missed weddings. She knew she wouldn’t have much time to shoot, but fitting in an hour-long pop-up ceremony or two seemed plausible. The only trouble would be finding couples who wanted that kind of wedding.
It was Gaudaen who came up with a plan for launching their own business — setting the tone for the rest of their partnership.
“Maggie is always coming up with the super fun ideas. . . and she turns to me to figure out how to get it done,” Gaudaen says.
The two balance one another well. Gaudaen — a management student at George Mason University — is tall and reserved with a ministerial sense of composure. The petite Winters sports a shock of bright pink hair and boundless energy that puts newlywed couples at ease. During the post-wedding portrait session for Miller, 40, and Bennett, 33, she called out encouragements such as “Everybody say, ‘Yay, marriage,’ ” and “Just talk to each other and look married.”
Her enthusiasm is especially handy when a ceremony doesn’t quite go according to plan. Though she and her clients exchange e-mails to decide on a location, they never reserve spaces in advance and rarely meet before the wedding day. This minimalist approach to planning can get a bit dicey, as the security issue at the Museum of Natural History showed, but Winters feels it’s important to the ethos of a pop-up wedding.
“It’s just showing up and having a wedding wherever you want to have one,” she says.
For his part, Bennet, was happy to be married in front of just a handful of guests and not his extended family — “I don’t like to be the center of attention,” he says, though he hadn’t quite anticipated the crowd of strangers that gathered around them at the museum.
“It turned out to be a little more than we expected,” he adds.
For Amanda O’Briant, 39, and Liz Broyles, 49, a wedding wasn’t anything they expected to be planning — at least not until “we were old ladies,” O’Briant says. But the couple, who have three children and have been together for more than a decade, decided they wanted to wed after the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned last year.
“We’re people who I think went a long time feeling like [marriage] wasn’t something we really needed because it wasn’t possible,” O’Briant says. “And we did just fine without it for 15 years, but somehow the idea of having that wedding was just wonderful.”
Since same-sex marriage isn’t legal in their home state of North Carolina, O’Briant began researching other options and found the PopWed Web site. She e-mailed Winters to arrange a wedding and surprised Broyles with a proposal — and plans for a 12-hour trip to D.C. — on the night before Valentine’s Day. The two were married in March on the Spanish Steps in Kalorama.
O’Briant says she feels grateful to Gaudaen and Winters, for helping her to get married in the first place and also for documenting the day in a way that made it feel more special than a simple trip to City Hall.
“I remember looking at my parents’ wedding photos and sort of seeing my parents frozen in time,” she says. “Now I feel like that’s something my kids will be able to do.”
Gaudaen and Winters keep careful notes on each of the weddings they orchestrate, because they are in the midst of planning their own elopement.
Not too much planning, though.
The date is still up in the air — they’re waiting for their favorite band, the Pietasters, to announce when it will be playing at the 9:30 Club — as is the location.
“We’re not worried about it,” Gaudaen says. “We just want to show up and get married.”