The Formals

When I was younger and just starting out shooting weddings, like many of my colleagues I took a somewhat dim view of “the formals.”  The group photographs at weddings, save for the occasional “rockstar” bridal party shot, were typically something of an assembly-line affair.  These shots couldn’t claim the drama possible in the individual and couple’s portraits, and lacked the raw emotional impact of well-executed documentary work.  Large group portraits were simply a check-the-block item, to be accomplished as efficiently as possible.  This view was reinforced by the fact that many young couples took a similar view: these group shots were a “necessary evil” to placate older relatives.  

One day, I was speaking with a wise mentor about a recent wedding set, and I made a statement articulating some version of the sentiment above.  I will never forget what he said to me in response:

"Evan, abolish the word 'formals' from your vocabulary.  Rather, you should strive to make warm-hearted editorial family portraits."

I remember thinking to myself that this was certainly an ambitious goal for most weddings where numerous circumstances (often including, as noted above, client indifference) conspire to make this a lofty standard indeed.  However, the thought certainly spurred me to apply increased planning, effort, and care to the production of these images.

I have almost a decade of water under the bridge since then, and quite a bit more gray hair.  I’ve spent time in the intervening years studying my family’s geneology, and I’ve had to say goodbye to friends and relatives.  My tastes in photography have shifted, and I’m far less interested in flashy, dramatic images than I once was.  I have come to believe in the warm-hearted editorial family portraits Bruce told me about all those years ago, and to recognize their importance.  I believe that there is no need for or benefit to making these shots “cool.”  I believe that producing a simple, adequately composed, pleasantly lit, nicely arranged and posed group photograph requires a special skill that is often distinct from other sorts of photography but no less valuable.  

A well-executed group photograph is a valuable document of family history, and the best of these exhibit restraint on the part of the photographer.  The most profound manner in which a photographer can respect his or her subject matter is by refraining from subordinating it to his or her “artistic” impulses.

 My Father's 60th Birthday Party, Stratford-on-Avon, UK.  2015.

My Father's 60th Birthday Party, Stratford-on-Avon, UK.  2015.