Photo Prose

By Gary Rabenko

Last week I wrote about a party planner. This week someone mentioned an orthopedist. It reminded me of an early headshaking experience. Susan (not her real name), whose husband was a renowned doctor, was planning his 40th-birthday party. She booked me last minute. I wondered why. When people book a photographer last minute, it often means something. And trust me, it is good to know what that reason might be. Susan and I knew each other from other events she had planned. So being in the business, I assumed she just had many photographers to choose from and did not make it a priority to book one far in advance.

Back then, we would do table photos. Experienced photographers know not to refer to them as such to the guests. Guests hate standing up. Referring to table photos, or that you are there to photograph the table, can result in jokes that you only photograph the table and not the guests! What we actually need to do is to photograph the people at the table! Today so many activities occur at bar and bat mitzvahs that aside from the few minutes one is actually eating, seats are rarely all filled and table photos have gone the way of VCR tapes. Religious weddings have such lebedik action from start to end that here, too, many table photos are not possible. Videographers often pan across the guests at each table to show in fleeting form those present. So tables are not essential.

Susan was having a luncheon. Table photos should have been easy. They could have been easy. But as we shall see, they were not.

Everything was impeccable. It was a beautiful luncheon. First, all the family members, including the orthopedist, enjoyed an outdoor photo session of stylish and glamorous poses. Back then, posing was more precise and classical than today. People wanted to look their best and trusted the photographer to know how to do it. That was before all the cosmetic treatments people get these days leading up to the big day! All the family seemed warm, close, and friendly to each other–which is not always the case–and they were nice to me. Three generations were playfully interacting and posing with each other in front of the muted New York City skyline on a calm but overcast day that made outdoor photography at high noon possible; on a sunny day it would certainly not be too pleasant or practical.

The lovefest continued into the smorgasbord, during which the rest of the guests arrived. We did lots of meet-and-greet candid shots, and many requests. This crowd loved photos and appreciated expertise.

There comes a point when a performer feels he has won the audience over. It’s the same with a photographer who is on stage working the crowd even when being unobtrusive and going with the flow. Such was the case at this event. I certainly had won them over. Perhaps that very success would become a problem . . . but you be the judge.

The 80 guests were seated. I thought the hardest part of the job was over, and prepared for the coming speeches and “table photos.”

One cannot photograph the people at the tables when they are eating or being served, or during the speeches, or if any of the guests are away from their table. But with only 80 guests and 10 tables, and it being only a luncheon, “this should be fun and easy,” I remember thinking, and never would have imagined otherwise despite one small detail.

When Susan booked me, she explained that she wanted everyone at her tables photographed. However, she did not want them photographed in the usual way, with, say, six people standing behind four who remain seated. She understood the reason we do this and liked that look. But her husband did not want any of his guests “disturbed.” He would, she explained, become very upset, agitated, and angry, and it would ruin his day. More than anything else, she cared about having photos of all her guests. Of course she wanted the portraits and candids, but photos of all her guests was the most important thing to her. She wanted to know if I could photograph people in place as they were seated. Not talking to each other or unaware of me; no, actually looking at me, as in regular “table photos,” but just not standing up. This would mean making three or four separate photos of guests, all seated, rather than just one in which a slight majority stood behind the ones lucky to remain seated.

The client understood that she would have to buy three photos instead of one and pay for me to put them together. But she did not want the guests to stand. Sure, that was fine with me!

So after a great portrait session and a well-covered cocktail hour, time to start photographing–in parts–those persons at the tables. Usually the challenge is to find everyone at the table and then to get them positioned around the large centerpiece. Being able to do it in pieces should certainly have been easier.

Using a slightly longer lens instead of the wide lens traditionally used for the “table photos,” I began photographing clusters of three to four persons. I noticed people shaking their heads, and making suggestions that everyone should be together in one photo! I explained I knew what I was doing and this is what the client wanted. But their early confidence in me seemed to vanish. Word spread from one table to the next. By the time I got to the third table, people were convinced I needed help! Without my telling them, some stood up voluntarily. Others explained while doing so, that this is how it should be done. “Ask people to stand!” one shouted out. They had been to many events and knew the deal. I knew one thing: The birthday boy would not be happy. He wasn’t. He bounded across the room and gave me a tongue-lashing. He was outraged and incensed. He did not want the guests disturbed. “Were you not told?!” Without letting me explain, he stomped back to the head table. I followed him, but he did not want to hear.

For the next table, I decided it best to speak to each and every person, explaining why I was not having them stand. Looks from the head table told me my interaction with the guests was deemed a disturbance as well. I made it through that table. Two guests had just returned to the next table, and were still standing so I decided to skip it and come back later. But “We’re all here–do it now!” they called. I gestured for all to be seated. They did not understand. Neither did Susan, who approached at that moment in a fit of pique. How could I once again be bothering people to stand?! I had ruined the party for her husband. Just what she feared and the real reason why she had considered not having any photographer. This had happened before.

I tried to explain that it was not I who requested that people stand, that they had wanted to on their own. But that didn’t matter. A guest was standing, and I was nearby. I was guilty–end of story. Before she could say much else, the doctor returned. He was livid. Now I was just a bystander as he and his wife argued in front of their guests. Their words were rapid. His were accusatory. Hers were apologetic. I could not get a word in edgewise. They were not listening anyway. I was embarrassed.

After their public display in that small intimate setting, the guests knew not to stand yet continued to assure me that it was no trouble at all. I believed otherwise!

Later, Susan did not like the tables in parts. She wanted to see a normal table shot and had imagined that by assembling parts it would work. It could work for a very different look but not what she expected. Even though I had explained it from the start. Imagine how much less of a disturbance normal table photos would have been. Sometimes being different is not being better and sometimes the cure can be worse than the disease. It was a happy occasion. Maybe standing up for a moment, when one is in good health, is not so much to ask for a nice memory. I am still shaking my head–must it be so difficult? What do you think? v

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


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