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Planned Spontaneity — Mary Virginia Hall

Planned Spontaneity

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I recently photographed a wedding. As an art photographer who rarely photographs people, this took me out of my usual comfort zone for sure. While going through the work of editing the photos and putting them up on this site (an all-consuming pastime lately), I asked a friend to look at them to tell me what she thought and see if everything on the website was easy to find and worked properly. As expected, she loved them but she had one critique, “This is far too serious for me. It looks like planned spontaneity.” My first reaction was… well, that’s pretty much the backbone of event photography. My second was, too serious?! If anything they’re far less serious than the wedding photographs of yore! Planned spontaneity. I don’t know of a single modern wedding photographer that doesn’t shoot for that perfect stolen kiss shot or intimate smiles shared among bridesmaids and bride as they prepare for the wedding. The formally staged portraits of the wedding party are now mostly pass√©. It’s all part of the goal to show people as they are in their natural states, ostensibly to make the photographs more meaningful and beautiful. But is this actually the case? Somehow this comment reminded me of what I’ve read of the negative effects of social media and happiness. People obviously tend to promote an idealized self to the world. The result is more and more we feel less satisfied with our own messy lives because everyone around us seems to lead such perfect ones. So was that kiss really spontaneous? Probably not. Even if you have a photographer who likes to observe and shoot spontaneously, the couple knows to perform. It’s their big day and they’re all dressed up. It’s anything but natural. So is it really a celebration of a beautiful relationship or a promotion of the ideal: the fictional, perfect wedding they want people to believe actually happened? While I’m not cynical enough to believe that the former isn’t still part of the equation, the social media effect seems to be increasingly at play here.

While I think “planned spontaneity” is here to stay stylistically (at least for a while), I offer up the photograph above for contemplation. It is by far my favorite of all I shot. The only spontaneity here is my quick assessment of the background at hand and insistence that we try this one shot. It is an obvious homage to “American Gothic” and expresses my artistic humor far more than anything about the couple, but it also shares similarities to the serious wedding photographs seen hanging in your grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ houses. Couples in stiff poses staring, often unsmiling at the camera. Serious photographs commemorating a serious day. Perhaps the stiff portraits were closer to expressing a truth than their modern trendy counterparts.*

*This is not meant to disparage the wedding I photographed in any way. They are a wonderful couple and good sports to pose for the “Matrimonial Gothic” shot. It is merely the thought process and ramblings of an art photographer given a critique by a friend and an observation on stylistic changes in event photography. :)