I have my routine down to a science, I think.
I meet with the couple in advance. It’s usually a very relaxed interview. I ask them what type of schedule they’re looking at, if they have any particular moments they want caught on camera. It’s usually very standard stuff.
The first look.
The first dance.
The first cake slice.
The first middle-aged aunt to get drunk enough to begin loudly denouncing her siblings’ political views and parenting techniques in front of a crowd of onlookers.
This way, I know exactly when to be ready to take pictures and when to politely turn away and pretend to check my camera.
I arrive early on the day to set up my equipment, and since most people choose a date during the warmer months, I usually wind up spending the day outside circling amongst the guests, photographing the newlyweds as they parade through the revelry like a pair of monarchs, each riding the high of attention from their loved ones and adoration from each other.
The first thing I noticed about this couple was how stoic they were.
They sat across from me, the bride thumbing through my binder of past work while the groom met my eyes with the most intense gray eyes I’ve ever seen, regarding me in such a way that made me wonder whether I was photographing a wedding or a funeral.
The next thing I noticed was the sheer amount of space between the two of them.
There’s usually a certain degree of closeness between the engaged couple. I’ve spent many afternoons watching different pairs half-listening to my spiel about payment with entwined hands, trading amorous glances every minute or two. After each appointment, I always wind up having to reposition a set of chairs that have subtly scooted closer and closer to each other over the course of the visit.
It was clear to me that that would not be a problem with these two.
The bride had become fixated on one picture in particular. I watched her linger on it for a bit while I spoke, carefully examining the smiling woman in the picture, draped in a silvery wedding gown. She turned to her supposed fiance and picked up the binder, holding it in front of her body for him to see. I watched as she mimicked the head position and facial expression of the subject, with an accuracy that was uncanny enough to set my teeth on edge. I figured she was joking, and I expected some sort of amused response from the groom.
Instead, he silently nodded with that same stony expression and she replaced the binder on the table and they turned both their faces to mine, and I became acutely aware of just how much my voice was wavering.
I say the first thing I noticed about them was their seriousness, but retrospectively I don’t think that that’s true. I’d say the very first observation I made about this couple was that they had scheduled their wedding to be during my vacation.
Okay, that’s not technically true. I work year-round, and I only officially get a vacation when I give myself one, usually at the end of fall, when the temperature is dipping. You see, very few people schedule their weddings for the colder months, especially here. The winters are brutal, and while I’ve serviced plenty of indoor events, people tend to like to put things off until Spring at the very least, when they can enjoy the fresh air. I guess the winter wedding was the first surprise. The second was that they were planning an outdoor ceremony.
The third was that the paycheck they were offering me was significantly steeper than anything I’d been offered before, during winter or not.
So here I am, in January, bundled up in as many layers as I can put myself in while maintaining some semblance of movement and formality, clutching a camera and trudging through three inches of snow to take pictures of these weirdos in a park downtown.
None of the other guests are wearing coats. This struck me as odd when I saw them at first, all sweeping through the snow. This isn’t my very first winter event, however rare they might be, and guests typically wear some kind of fancy coat over their wedding finery. In this group, I don’t see a fur or a shawl in sight. They all arrived promptly at four o’clock, right when they were supposed to, and they formed a procession on the way from the parking lot. It’s an incredibly tiny group, only about fifteen people, so this is likely more of a photo op than anything else. After all, I don’t see a cake or a table of delicacies or a dance floor. They probably planned something elsewhere for afterwards. That’s not uncommon.
What is uncommon, however, is attending an outdoor winter wedding while wearing a short-sleeved knee-length dress and high heels that sink into the snow and no outerwear. The woman donning this garb is milling about, seemingly completely unbothered by the chill, which is slightly unnerving. While most people speak quietly to one another in small groups, she stands alone. Maybe that’s what compels me to speak to her.
“Aren’t you cold?” I ask her, as lightheartedly as I can.
She turns to me, her eyes suddenly animated with this particular type of intensity that I’ve gotten more and more accustomed to throughout the event.
“Should I be?” she asks. I think it’s a rhetorical question, but her voice is etched with a genuine curiosity.
“Uh, yeah. It’s the middle of winter.”
“I thought it was the beginning.”
“We chose this date because supposedly this is a time for new beginnings. Is that not true?”
“I mean, New Year’s was a couple of days ago.”
“Is it a new year?”
“Um, yeah. It’s the middle of winter, though. It’s freezing.”
She considers me for a moment before a spark of realization lights up her face.
“Thank you for letting me know,” she responds. There’s not a bit of snark in her voice.
This is weird.
As she walks off, I see her bring her shoulders inward, and she begins to rub her arms and breath into her hands before rubbing those together, too. I see her go to each little group of people, gently interrupting their conversation before speaking to them. She subtly gestures to me once or twice. After she leaves each group, they all begin to react to the cold in a way they haven’t been before. A couple of them glance at me here and there.
Once I begin to take pictures, the guests seem to relax a bit more. They begin having more animated conversations, and I even catch a few laughing raucously in the larger gatherings. This is a relief, as I would’ve thought from their initial behavior that I would’ve had to instruct them on poses or resorted to telling jokes to elicit genuine smiles. I have to do that sometimes, and it’s typically not an issue for guests, although with these people I was dreading having to instruct them.
At one point, one of them walks up to me and gestures to the camera.
“How are we doing?” he asks cheerfully.
“I’m doing great, thank you.”
“No, not you. Us.” He’s chuckling a little bit, a vacant sound.
“Oh! Sorry, yeah, you’re doing great. All of you look wonderful.”
He grins at this. I can’t help but notice that something about his expression is slightly off. It almost looks like he’s grimacing as opposed to smiling, but there’s genuine happiness in his eyes. It’s as though there’s been a miscalculation in the geometry of his face.
The ceremony is strange, too. One of their friends got ordained online or something, I think. It’s not a priest, for sure. Just a guy wearing a suit and a pink dress shirt. He makes the same awkward grin-grimace as he watches the bride approach. She’s wearing a gorgeous long-sleeved gown, and it almost looks like the snow is a part of her train. The groom approximates what I think is affection in his gaze as she trudges towards him, clearly unaffected by the cold. The vows seem normal enough, except for the guest officiating the wedding occasionally interrupting himself to say the same sentence over and over again, with the exact same intonation and phrasing every single time.
“It’s pretty cold today. Isn’t it cold today?”
I keep my mouth shut and keep clicking away on my camera.
After the event, everyone circulates around the park. I don’t see many decorations. They dragged the picnic tables over beneath a tree for the ceremony, so there aren't any pews or chairs to pack up. I continue snapping a couple of pictures. I’m supposed to be leaving soon, but typically I talk to the couple before I pack my things up. There’s a nice restaurant nearby, so I assume that’s where they’re all heading next.
“Are you leaving soon?”
I turn to the direction of the voice. It’s an older guy, wearing a dress shirt and a sleek vest. His sleeves are rolled up to his elbows and he carries his jacket in his arms. His voice isn’t polite.
“Yes, my time’s up in a little while.”
The man nods.
“Nice ceremony,” I say. He nods his head again. He isn’t smiling. After a pause, he speaks again, quietly.
“Thank you for telling us about the cold. Sometimes it’s hard to gauge these things.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a lot colder where we’re from. We’ve sort of lost that sensitivity. You understand.”
“A lot colder than this? Where do you live, Antarctica?” It’s a joke. I can’t make that any more clear.
Instead, he knits his brow at me.
“Yeah, y’know. The South Pole?”
His face lights up with recognition at this.
“Ah, the rotational axis site. Yes, I’m familiar.”
“Uh, do you live nearby?”
He finally smiles. It’s the most accurate I’ve seen all day.
“My friend, we're about as far from ‘nearby’ as you can be.”
The next day, I review the pictures I’ve taken. They’re all excellent quality, of course. In fact, you’d think from the looks of them that this was a perfectly normal wedding. There are stills of the bride and groom having their kiss, images of guests mingling with one another, a beautiful shot of the groom watching the bride sweep through the snow.
Then I get to a picture I took of the bride. I smile a little bit to myself. She looks genuinely happy, beaming with her head tilted back and one arm placed on the shoulder of the groom.
Then I stop smiling. I pull my desk drawer open and shuffle through the things I’ve haphazardly tossed in there, rifling through several folders and piles of papers before seizing my portfolio. I’ve looked through this thing dozens of times, and I can practically remember each and every picture that I’ve included. They were all chosen carefully, glowing examples of my very best work. I flip to one picture, the one that initially caught the soon-to-be bride’s attention during our initial meeting. My eyes sweep over it, and I begin to glance back and forth between the picture in the binder and the picture I took yesterday. I do this for about five minutes before leaning backwards in my chair.
No, not perfectly, of course. The angle’s different, as is the time of day and the setting and the subject, but the two women are making the same exact facial expression, their hands positioned at the same place on their spouse’s arm, their head tilted back at what looks like the exact same angle. I look at the recent one more closely. Out of the corner of her eye, the bride is glancing right at the camera.
Immediately I go through the rest of the pictures, and it doesn’t take me long to realize that they all feature the same exact thing.
Perfect mimicries of pictures from my portfolio, from different angles. The number of people in each group talking is exactly the same, their gestures and smiles are the same, and they’re all standing in the same exact places as in the binder I’m cradling on my lap.
One thing is different in each one, however.
In each picture, there is at least one person whose eyes are caught on the lens of the camera, staring straight at me.
This revelation shouldn’t spook me very much. Realistically, I know that it’s coincidental. After all, most pictures taken at weddings look relatively similar. I could probably compare my portfolio to every set of pictures I’ve taken and find at least one look-alike, one set of pictures where both feature a group all talking animatedly and gesturing like mad, one where both subjects are smiling adoringly at one another. One with a drunk aunt who needs to go home. It shouldn’t be enough to set me on edge.
It does, though. Something about the way they glanced at me more often than guests typically look at the wedding photographer, the way that they were all still there when I left, patiently waiting for me to finish packing up my things. The way that the older man who’d spoken to me had discarded his jacket entirely on a picnic table by the time I was wrapping up, and the way that many of the other guests had followed suit, littering the park with jackets that should’ve been deemed incredibly necessary for a winter day in New England.
I begin uploading the pictures. In spite of the paranoia that the couple of days has elicited in me, I do hope that the newlyweds enjoy the pictures.
I also hope that I’ll be able to stick to summer weddings for the foreseeable future.