Photo Prose

By Gary Rabenko

I have been recording events for 40 years. I started very young. Problem-solving and good advice have always been my goals. Things happen. I have read many advice articles and written some over the years. Advice articles are often written by editorial persons who poll a variety of experts and then attempt to distill the advice based on the majority of opinion, or on common sense. Neither approach sounds too good. Should not the real expert be in the minority, and not share everyone’s less informed view? And even assuming common sense was common, real experience and expertise in something trumps the often un-“common” sense.

No doubt you have keen insights and opinions developed from firsthand planning and making simchas. That is why your opinion counts and I would like to hear from you about what I should have done in these situations.

Here in a series of articles, I will share a variety of situations that have come up, and ask readers to e-mail me what they think I should have done in that situation. So without further introductions–Your Opinion, Please.

Brooklyn 1997. A chassidishe wedding. The groom’s mother was very particular. She was not at all happy with her two previous wedding photographers. Mostly it was about how she looked in the photos and the lack of style or personality in most of the portraits. Friends recommended me, and I was looking forward to the opportunity of thrilling someone who respected that photographers could be more than button-pushers–or, as some say, pushy buttons. We spoke in advance of the wedding. She had no specific requests or instructions. Her concern was that I know how to photograph her own face, which, although beautiful, after a number of kids was in need of special angles, lighting, and treatment. She explained she likes dramatic shots, not just dumb smiles. No problem. That’s me!

I arrived early to a venue in Williamsburg. It would have been easy to set up by the kallah’s chair. That way I would be ready for the bedeken and have my gear nearby for later use. All the photos would have the wall background with brown boxed moldings. Some would show more of the wall. Some would show less. There was that floral treatment people expect. It is easy working there, as I can concentrate entirely on camera angles, with little thought or technique on the background–which is what it is.

But I have always preferred the challenging, interesting, and artistic approach.

Here this would mean working in the lobby. Multi-shaped corridors and some large leather chairs, a few tables, and some stairway treatments made this lobby much more interesting. Furthermore, this environment would be more appropriate for both the chassan and the kallah. While I brought a second photographer, I always try to do some of the key shots on both sides. Shalom bayis.

I paced back and forth a long time, evaluating the situation and looking at all options. Those were pretty much it.

Where should I set up? Where should the second photographer be?

Both fathers showed up together. Did they have any preference to where I work?

“No. Just do what you do. I am sure you will do your best. We trust you!” I made sure to explain my concern in not working by the kallah’s chair with the flowers, explaining that once I set up, I would not be able to switch with my other photographer, who would be working there, and that perhaps the ladies have a preference. They cut me off, but not before assuring me in unison that whatever I want to do is fine. They lived nearby. After paying the caterer, they left to get dressed at home.

In the next hour, I set up, piling the extra gear neatly in a concealed corner. Cables were run neatly. Switches set appropriately. Connections were tested and prepared safely; deployed and ready for action. I wait. The bride arrives with her sisters. She is dressed. She is excited. She is already in her bridal gown and just needs a few minutes. I say, “Perfect. I am right here, ready to begin.” Then mothers rush in, eyes darting about . . . Had I seen the bride? So happy to see me. Ready soon. Be right down.

I thought we were doing well. Cameras were double-checked, meter readings taken, and I inspected my other photographer’s setup as well. With everything in its place, I used the last few moments to visualize shots I might do for this client who wants great imagery, finding many ways to use the lobby creatively.

Soon the mothers and bride came to me. But before I could take a single photograph, the mothers in unison asked why I was “here.” They insisted that they want the photos by the kallah’s chair. That is why they bought those flowers. Of course the fact that I had spoken to the fathers meant nothing. And the fact that I had another photographer there was no good either. They wanted me personally, myself, doing the photos, in the spot that I could more easily have set up for, with décor that was nothing amazing or even impressive. Now with both photographers completely set up, they want us to switch!

We each use our own gear. I am meticulous in my gear selection and design modifications. It feels foreign using other equipment. I would be slow and awkward. He too. He also would be ticked off at me, not a good thing going into a creative venture. We arrived early and planned carefully. Switching now would mean rushing and technical chaos. It would delay things needlessly, stress and tire us. Cables and connections would be thrown together hastily with cases of gear still at the other location. Assistants would be gathering and swapping backup gear for a while rather than assisting in the photo session. It would take 15 minutes to switch, and it made no sense. My photographer could do excellent photos upstairs. I would do inspired and superior photos downstairs.

The fathers admitted that I discussed it with them. The mothers understood. The bride did not have her own opinion. The chassan hadn’t arrived. My photographer waited for instructions. I tried to do some good photography. The backgrounds were classy. The furniture and thus my posing was elegant and grand. The lighting was dramatic and purposeful. The subject popped from the background in some photos and fit perfectly in the environment in others. I commented aloud how good the stuff looked and that the other photographer would do all the photos they like with their flowers–so they had the best of both. But I could tell that they were not happy.

They wanted my photography because they respected that I knew what I was doing. But they did not want me to work where I felt I could do the best job for them, because they did not respect the fact that I knew what I was doing. They wanted what they wanted. Later, they could say, “Gary, you are the expert, if you knew it would be better, you should have done that!” So I made sure to do some photos of the parents, particularly of the groom’s mother. I sent the bride’s family to the kallah’s chair, while I did a dozen shots of the groom. I wanted to do more photos of his mother. She hired me for those. But her mind was on the flowers–her body was not following my direction. Then I gave the order my crew feared: let’s switch!

I knew my client would never be happy otherwise.

The kallah’s area was nothing special–much easier to work but boring and basic. To me it never made sense to hire an expert but refuse his advice. Surely you must express your concerns and preferences. And a true professional should respect that. I never refused to give her photos with her flowers. And I never refused to personally photograph her. My goal was to give her great imagery. The lobby offered me the most potential to please her. My photographer preferred not working in the lobby with all its challenges. My approach would allow the best use of the collective talent of both photographers.

The couple loved the photos. The groom said his mom did not. The bride’s mom was happy.

Ten years later, in 2007, the groom visited. His family had another wedding after his, but did not call me.

Mom really hated that photography. Now they appreciate me!

Normally I work by the chuppah, leaving other photographers for the kallah’s room. The chuppah tells a story for the bride and the groom, and when used later for the couple’s photos, it provides a common thread in the albums. But some venues have other beautiful options. Sometimes a chuppah is just a tallit. Sometimes the client cares more about the backgrounds than the subjects. Now: Your opinion please? v

Gary Rabenko may be reached at Rabenko Photography & Video Artists is located at 1001 Broadway in Woodmere.

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