Doug Boutwell the occasional odd thought or image

Anti-Documentary

Last November, I was looking for a few couples getting married in 2011 that would let me come photograph some personal work at their weddings.  Nick and Kate are the first of those couples that I’ve had the pleasure of photographing.

This project was inspired by thinking about doing things differently.  There’s nothing inevitable about the way most wedding photographers approach shooting a wedding.  The “bag of tricks” that they use to shoot weddings works, but it’s not the only way.  So my mind has been spinning for years with “what-ifs”.  What if we didn’t shoot 3000+ frames?  What if it was all black and white?  What if we didn’t pose anything or interfere in any way?  What if we posed EVERYTHING?  What if we lit everything?  No flash?  All flash?  What if it was all on Polaroid?  A Leica?  What if we shot it all on 8×10?  The interesting part of asking those questions, of course, isn’t just to ramble about what gear we could find an excuse to buy, or how we could make the job easier.  The point is to think more deeply about WHY we do things the way we do, and whether habits honed over years can be challenged to improve the craft of wedding photography.  It’s a journey to refine the definition of what wedding photography is about, and an attempt to explore the question of what’s useful and important.  That line of questioning can take you many different places, and last weekend, it took me to Anaheim Hills with a vintage Deardorff and an excitement for doing something new.

I’ve always liked the idea of shooting a wedding on 8×10 film – mostly because I just like 8×10.  Sometimes I wonder whether I like the idea of it more than the actual result and process, but nevertheless the view camera is always the devil whispering on my shoulder.  It’s challenging and impractical, but exceptionally rewarding when you can put the medium to use doing what it’s best at.  What view cameras are good at is taking beautiful photos of things that aren’t moving around.  At a wedding, that pretty much means scene-setting shots, and portraits.  So why not just shoot that?  Throw out the documentary aspect altogether.  Anti-documentary.

It seemed like a sensible thing to do.  After all, for the people that were there, years down the road, photos of the people and the places are enough to jog your memory.  The most valuable thing seems to me to create a record of the family at that moment in time.  The candids are nice, but sometimes they seem like superfluous snapshots in their casual haste.  It’s almost crass, in a way, to have 10,000 photos of every last moment of the day, in the same way that unedited video is boring to watch, and wedding video often is much less magical than the photography.  Less is more.  Sometimes just having a few amazing images as mental anchors lets your mind reconstruct the rest.  It allows the viewer to fill in the blanks with the fantasy.

So the idea, then, was see what a wedding would look like if I didn’t shoot anything that actually happened, but rather just shot some formal portraits and took some photos of the surroundings.  Instead of trying to construct some Universal Representation of The Truth™, just shoot a limited set of images and let the viewer’s mind fill in the rest.  As an artist, I liked that idea, because great art always meets the viewer in the middle.

8×10 seemed like a natural medium to use for this project then, because it played to the strengths of large format photography, instead of trying to fight them.  8×10 in particular can be unapologetically romantic in its dreamlike rendition of space (see the work of some of my heroes – Paolo Roversi and Sally Mann).  Focus, detail, and tones can swirl and dance around in mysterious and beautiful ways that no other format does quite as well.  8×10 images can be at once firmly specific and alluringly incomplete in the information they give us, and I’ve always thought it would be a great medium to shoot a wedding…

… except for the fact that it’s not.  Despite hustling around on an unseasonably warm day, I still managed to only shoot a total of 29 frames of B&W and 5 frames of color film.  I own 11 film holders, each of which holds 2 sheets of film.  I loaded 8 with B&W (for the portraits), and 3 with color (for everything else).  That means 16 portraits before having to go reload, which took about 40 minutes using a jumbo changing bag in the back of my car.  I had hoped to shoot many, many more photos of the guests and family, but 8×10 is too damned slow to shoot all that many photos in one day, especially when you’re trying to fit your shooting around an actual wedding, and not take time away from the hired wedding photographer (thanks Hugh!  You’re awesome!)  I was hoping for lots and lots of portraits, but after shooting each of the bridesmaids individually, I realized that was just folly.  And that’s even though I only shot one frame of each of them.

So even though I was only trying to shoot portraits and places, I still managed to do a fraction of the shooting I had hoped.  That’s the fault of the medium.  8×10 is horrifyingly slow when you’re used to 500 raw images on a CF card and 5fps capture rates.

And then there’s the post-production.  Developing large format film is either expensive or time consuming… sometimes both.  I did the developing myself, and in an attempt to get it all done in hours instead of days, ended up scratching the negs a bit.  Good thing we have scanners and Photoshop!  Speaking of – scanning 8×10 is slow, and it’s a pain in the ass as well (dust, newton rings, scratches… bah!)  I’ll take digital any day in terms of post-production.

So, having gone through the process, I can say that I’ve truly gotten that out of my system :)  I have to say that, in terms of the “experiment” I was doing, 8×10 is a beautiful medium for wedding portraits, but I think medium format would have done almost as good a job for a fraction of the hassle (with the added benefit that you can actually shoot things that are moving around).  I can’t say I’d ever do 8×10 at a wedding again, but every time I’ve looked at these images over the last few days, I’m glad I did… just once.  There’s just something special about big film, and I hope photographers continue to find excuses to do things the hard way until they stop making the stuff.  Different can be SO fun.

Thanks Nick and Kate for letting me come to their wedding to make art.  You guys were remarkably cool, your wedding was beautiful, and I hope you have an amazing life together!

Special thanks to Hugh Forte, who was the “real” photographer, for letting me be the worst Uncle Bob ever.  You kick ass, but my camera is still totally bigger than yours :)

PS – I still need to unload the color film and send it off for processing, but I’m pretty sure that these are going to be the most interesting of the group.  I’ll post the color stuff when I get it back, probably in a few weeks.

102 Responses to Anti-Documentary

  1. I was hoping to see some comments from Mike, Mary Kate and Alan. After they tried to “school” you in the comments for your ad. It was obvious they didn’t get what you were trying to do. I wonder what they think now.
    They were right about one thing: I’m sure you stole some thunder from the “real” photographer. I can’t image the couple would want to hang anything but your portrait of them.
    The images are beautiful. You can’t beat the bokeh on that 8 x 10.
    Kudos for stepping outside everyone’s comfort zone (except the couple’s).

  2. Monica says:

    Hi Doug! I am in awe of your images and of your insight on why we shoot certain ways every time we photograph a wedding…for the most part. For some reason I thought your images would be more photo-journalistic with crazy angles and blurs but I AB Love what you photographed. I was completely in shock by the certain few comments that were posted when you were telling of what you wanted to do. They weren’t the photographers that were going to work with you and I’m sure that when you sat down with the photographers you did work with that you All sorted everything out to where everyone agreed on timing, print prices, etc. Some people just have to have a pedestal! LOL!

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