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Getting the Picture


After hundreds of vendor meals, I know I will survive

Story and Photographs by Matt Mendelsohn

Originally published in the Washington Post, September/2008

It was 10:15 p.m. and the band was already halfway through Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," a song I've heard so many hundreds of times in the past nine years that I think I should start earning some sort of secret ASCAP royalty, when the tiny phone in my pocket began to vibrate.

My cellphone, like any good wedding photographer will tell you, is always on vibrate, even when I'm not at a wedding. Just one of those silly things, really, but I don't take any chances. I never trust traffic on the Beltway, even on a weekend. I don't eat strange foods on Friday, lest I become sick on Saturday. And I absolutely cringe at the thought of my phone going off during a wedding.

I cringe because it's my job as the photographer to document the nuptial events unfolding in front of me -- from the hushed nave of St. Matthew's Cathedral downtown to the Potomac overlook at George Washington's River Farm -- not become part of them. I'm hired, of course, to chronicle, but after nine years and some 400 weddings -- think Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day," but with a lot more salmon -- one can't help just plain observing. And so, here is observation Number One: On average these days, one and a half guests will receive a phone call during a wedding, often smack during the vows, the inevitable tinny strains of Beethoven's Ninth emanating, just as I'm sure Beethoven himself would have wanted, from the circuit board of a Motorola RAZR.

One and a half guests. Welcome to my world. This is what I've become after all these years, a deranged comic book character: mild-mannered wedding photographer by night, captive observer of the human condition by day. Who could pretend not to notice, after all, when a mother's very first words upon seeing her daughter in a wedding dress are: "Your earring is crooked." And who could look the other way when a priest tosses the couple he's married only three minutes earlier out of a warm and dry church and into the pouring rain because he has a confessional schedule to maintain? (Though not Christian myself, I've heard Paul's letter to the Corinthians about charity -- the one with the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals -- enough to appreciate the rich irony.) Or when an orthopedic surgeon, minutes away from his own marriage, takes time to treat the leg of one of the waitstaff who, while setting up tables, has slipped on a wet floor and happens to speak not a word of English.

I witness acts of incredible tenderness -- a bride quietly pinning a photo of her mother who died of breast cancer into her dress; acts of incredible joy -- just about any father dancing with his daughter; and acts of questionable sanity -- a group of adult groomsmen allowing an 8-year-old to pilot a golf cart into a lake comes to mind. And each Sunday morning around 2 o'clock, as I collapse into bed after another wedding, I'm convinced that I must be part of some kind of clinical trial, with no end date in sight.

And so, on this particular June night, it wasn't until a few more songs had whizzed by -- I can't be sure if it was "Mustang Sally," "Shout" and then "Love Shack" or, more likely, "Love Shack," "Shout" and, finally, "Mustang Sally" -- that I had a chance to look at the flashing display on my phone, a strange number with a strange area code. I put down my cameras, walked outside to the patio of Vienna's Meadowlark Botanical Gardens and dialed in the dark.

"Hi, this is Matt Mendelsohn. Did someone call this number?"


Wedding photographer.

What is it about those two words together that seems to evoke so much pity? No one thinks twice if you say that you're an architectural photographer, or a photographer who shoots nudes, or a globe-trotting photojournalist. Friends will feign interest, at least, on the architectural front; be really excited about the nudes; and ask you again and again if you've ever been shot at as a news photographer. In fact, for years when I was a photojournalist, I went to parties where I was the only non-attorney out of 30 guests -- attorneys making a jillion dollars a year more than I -- only to be told that I had the coolest job.

You've shot Michael Jordan?!?!

What was Nicole Kidman like?

How long were you in the Gulf War? Have you ever been shot at?

Wedding photographers, needless to say, have never inspired such levels of envy. Instead, they reside in a category usually reserved for car salesmen and stamp enthusiasts, a little bit of Willy Loman with a pinch of Charlie Brown. Adam Sandler already made the movie about the wedding singer. Is there any doubt that the movie about the wedding photographer would star anyone but Albert Brooks? It's the reason that, even today, when the guy sitting next to me on the Delta Shuttle asks what kind of photography I do, I have a tendency to say, "Well, I worked for USA Today for 10 years, and now I have my own business." Move along; nothing to see here.

Then again, maybe I'm just missing something. In the past few years, a whole new breed of wedding photographers has emerged, particularly on the West Coast, determined to give the musty reputation a makeover. They share ideas on message boards ("Show us your cake pictures!!"), pat one another on the back ("You're a rock star of photography!!") and spend much of their time hawking seminars as if they're selling Herbalife products. They also conveniently sidestep the fact that shooting a wedding is a bit like taking an SAT in which you've been given all the answers in advance. I feel certain James Nachtwey, the legendary war photographer, would find life much easier if he knew where the bad guys were going to start shooting week in and week out.

This is why none of this was supposed to happen. Like all good young photojournalists, I was raised to mock wedding photography and all that it represented. I wanted to be a photojournalist, not some dork schmoozing up Aunt Alice. "I don't shoot weddings," the standard response of any self-respecting White House news photographer, was always more mantra than simple statement of fact. And in the late 1980s, when I was establishing myself here in Washington as a photographer, first at United Press International, with its constant going-out-of-business sales ("No, Pat Robertson was last week's buyer; this week it's the Saudis"), and then at USA Today, it was a badge of honor not to shoot weddings, and, by golly, I wasn't about to let the side down.

All of this was understood those many years ago. My photographic dreams lay in the desert, as in Kuwait, not in dessert, as in chocolate-covered strawberries. And I was well on my way to fulfilling them. I was five feet from Rodney King when he stammered, "Can't we all get along?"; 150 feet from President Bill Clinton as Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands; and 27,000 feet above Earth, lying on my belly in a flying gas tank, photographing one stealth fighter after another as they refueled en route to the Persian Gulf. I was shooting cool things and loving every minute of it.

By the mid-'90s, I had crawled around newly discovered tombs in Egypt, photographed huge celebrities in tiny hotel rooms and been splattered with blood -- curiously, something that is a badge of honor in photojournalistic circles -- while covering boxing title fights in Las Vegas. Everything seemed to be going according to plan, though as the years went by, little by little, I began to feel pangs of ambivalence.

Where you once asked a band for permission to photograph a concert, now you navigated a phalanx of lawyers. A one-on-one shoot with Jennifer Aniston in a hotel room had become a one-on-eight shoot, if I were to include all the publicists, with their little black dresses and walkie-talkies, breathing down my neck (and repeating the words "Three minutes, three minutes!" within the first 33 seconds). And, lastly, and perhaps most important, I began to grow tired of chasing people.

Chasing people is a staple of a news photographer's diet -- you can't claim conscientious objector status and elect to shoot the pet of the week instead. I spent a lot time chasing people (though "chase" is a misnomer because the actual act involves mostly walking backward, throwing elbows and focusing at the same time) at courthouses around the country: U.S. District Court (Marion Barry, Ollie North); the U.S. Supreme Court (pick an abortion case); Simi Valley (the LAPD/Rodney King trial); Los Angeles (O.J. Simpson); and, though she had no court to call her own, the chase of all chases, Monica Lewinsky.

For weeks and weeks in 1998, as that scandal broke, I chased Lewinsky for USA Today, with limited success, if one can even use that word. Though tame by Hollywood paparazzi standards, my Lewinsky chases became increasingly fraught with doubt and regret. Then, one Sunday morning, while walking with my wife and my dog in Georgetown, I found myself, sans camera, holding the door for Lewinsky at Starbucks on M Street -- like a hunter accidentally bumping into the stag he's been stalking for days. As she brushed by me, balancing a couple of lattes, she smiled and said, "Thanks so much!" and I said, "Soy-tinly!" -- for some odd reason playfully playing up my New York accent. And I thought to myself, What am I doing chasing this poor woman?

Perhaps it was coincidence, or maybe kismet, but the more the journalism ennui began to set in, the more it seemed people were asking me to shoot their weddings. Like a parent who is asked by his 9-year-old "Are we there yet?" 900 times, I couldn't seem to shake this damn question. And none of these people were looking for a dork in a tux: They wanted me to cover their weddings no differently than if I were covering a White House event or a rally on the Mall. With each wedding I photographed, I realized that there actually existed events in which people wanted you to take their pictures, where there was no yellow police tape and where the only lawyers present were the ones getting married.

And that's when I did it. There came a day several years back when, with reckless abandon, I decided to leave the noble pursuit of journalism, with its Page One budget meetings filled with smart people discussing Saddam Hussein or the latest North Korean standoff, not to mention the not-so-noble pursuit of, well, pursuits. I was ready to throw myself down a most unusual rabbit hole, reemerging into the bizarro world of Weddings, where family relationships can often be broken into the in-laws and the outlaws, where self-absorption can be raised to an art form, where a Jewish guy can recite the entire Catholic Mass by heart, as well as reel off, like an idiot savant, the date of every Saturday for the next year and a half.


"Matt, it's Missy Langert, your neighbor Joel's daughter, calling from Dallas. Mom's had a massive heart attack while attending a wedding here, and Dad is home all alone. He didn't come out for the wedding. Is there any way you can go over and sit with him? He's all by himself."

Taken by surprise, I tried to process all of this information in a room filled with happy people having a wonderful time. She was at a wedding in Texas. I was at a wedding in Virginia. And Joel was all by himself.

My 85-year-old neighbor Joel Langert is one of my favorite people, a curmudgeon's curmudgeon with a soft spot he guards fiercely. One minute he's grumbling about how movies used to be two for a nickel, and the next he's leaving a beautiful orchid -- a phalaenopsis or perhaps a paphiopedilum, a lady-slipper, grown lovingly in his backyard greenhouse -- on my kitchen counter. He just walks in, puts down the flower and berates me later for leaving the front door of my house unlocked. Without asking, he once planted a fig tree on my front lawn, a tree that now yields succulent fruit by the hundreds and a tree that I adore. And he'll often ask me to buy him packs -- he doesn't drive anymore -- of his favorite Dutch cigarillos, Schimmelpenninck, even though he knows he shouldn't be smoking them. When I took him to his first Nationals game, Joel didn't stop complaining about the noise -- the constant stream of musical snippets aimed at inciting the crowd -- for the first eight innings (we didn't make it to the ninth). I asked him when was the last time he was at a baseball game, and he replied, "Lou Gehrig was playing at Yankee Stadium."

Joel and his wife, Eileen, had been married for 55 years, 11 longer than I've been alive, and enjoyed a beautiful relationship. "It was love at first sight," he remembered of their meeting at the Gertz department store on Long Island where they both worked. "I wrote up a petition that she should marry me, and I took it to everyone in the store to sign." After their wedding in New York, on January 29, 1950 -- "I remember the church was candlelit" -- the newlyweds drove with another couple down to Fort Lauderdale. Joel laughed as he recalled the two songs that played on the car radio nonstop that trip: "Ghost Riders in the Sky," a cowboy's lament, and "Sixteen Tons," a depressing number about the perils of coal mining. Not exactly the most romantic driving music. (I laughed, of course, because Gloria Gaynor was only 4 months old at the time, and it could have been much worse.)

But it was a fitting start, as driving and travel would play a huge part in their lives, on trips over the years from Finland to Singapore, and in cars such as their 1956 pink T-Bird, the 1957 Jaguar Mark VII Saloon ("It looked like a Bentley," Joel says), the 1972 E-Type Jaguar ("Eileen was never into the shifting thing") and, finally, the S-Type he bought Eileen for Christmas in 2002, parked in the driveway with a big red bow tied to the front.

After decades in advertising with the Hecht Co., Joel now spends much of his retirement tending to his beloved plants. Eileen, on the other hand, was always abuzz with activity, always off, it seemed, on one of the many trips for senior citizens she organized and chaperoned for Arlington County. When a mutual neighbor on our block gave birth to triplets, several of us chipped in for a night nurse for a couple of evenings. We felt rather proud of our gift, not realizing that, for months and months, Eileen was baking the family fully prepared dinners with no fanfare.

Despite Joel's faux crankiness, his most endearing trait, it was easy to see how much he loved Eileen, and how proud he was of her. I asked him recently what made his love for Eileen so special, and without even a second to ponder, he replied, "She was two-thirds of me." Two-thirds of me. I tried to soak that one up. "We never once said no to each other," and then, reverting back to prime Joel form, "except the time I wanted to pull up the grass and replace it with those small paving pebbles."

So now, as I stood in the darkness, the band's music coming through the windows in that muffled way, where you only hear the bass, I knew I had to act quickly. I collected my cameras, two Canon EOS1 Mark IIs, my bag filled with lenses and my very sweaty suit coat, and headed for the parking lot. I would have left in half an hour anyway, and I had already taken more than 1,500 images that day, starting with the "getting ready," as it's referred to in wedding speak -- the ceremony, the family pictures, the dancing, the cake-cutting. I tucked my little pouch filled with identical, neatly stacked 2-gigabyte memory cards -- memory cards, how apt, I always think -- into the bag and headed back to Arlington.


My own best man didn't show up for my wedding.

Nine years ago, my younger brother, Eric, was directing his best friend and unknown actress, Edie Falco, in a tiny independent film he wrote specifically for her. Filming was scheduled for the day of my wedding, and Eric bowed out. I was devastated, having shared a room with him for 16 years while growing up on Long Island. My older brother Daniel, an esteemed critic and classics scholar, came to the rescue, with a lengthy toast about the differences between ancient Greek -- my wife, Maya, is Greek -- and ancient Jewish traditions. Given that I had rarely been inside a synagogue, except for weddings, since I was 13 and am decidedly non-religious, the toast struck me as wonderfully intellectual and, not surprisingly, impersonal.

Eric went on to win best director at Sundance the next year, and Edie went on to become the most famous mob wife in television history as Carmela Soprano, and all was long forgotten years ago. Truth be told, we don't really discuss it very much, and that seems to work pretty well. We all serve some kind of penance, and maybe mine is having to listen to touching best man speeches every week of my life. Ironically, it would be Daniel, with whom I was never close growing up -- he, spending much of our childhood reading about pharaohs and Greek gods; me, worrying how the Mets could possibly survive without Tom Seaver -- with whom I would, years later, travel all over the world, tracking down Holocaust survivors for a memoir he was writing. The emptiness that I felt during his stand-in toast -- I kept hoping for some funny little anecdote about me, until I realized that my own brother didn't know me well enough to have any funny little anecdotes -- would be replaced by the camaraderie of many, many long trips together, from Australia to Ukraine, just me and Daniel on very long plane rides.

This is why we all love weddings so much -- decades of family history rushing to the surface, like a submarine after nine months under the ocean. Of course, it's usually just minutes after that spectacular arrival that you want to run for cover yelling, "Dive! Dive! Dive!" A tug of war between a bride and her mom over something as simple as where to place the headpiece can get to Defcon 1 remarkably quickly, as this exchange I recall hearing at a Georgetown church illustrates:

"Mom, it should go here."

"Well, I just think it should be back a bit."

"Mom, please let the hairdresser do her job. She knows best."

"I know. It's just that I think it should it go back a little."

"Mom, please! You're making me really stressed out. Please don't say another word, and let the hairdresser do her job!"

(Dead silence in the room. Now, count to 10.)

"Fine. It's just that I thought it should go back a little."

These are the things I witness weekly. No catastrophes, no disasters, just little glimpses into family life, 2007. Without a doubt, the question I'm asked most often is, "What's the worst thing that ever happened at a wedding?" It's also the one that always makes me laugh, because it precludes the obvious converse, that is, what's the best thing that's ever happened at a wedding? In all these years, no one ever has asked me that one, despite the fact that, last I checked, and with the possible exception of a handful of dour church ladies I've come across, weddings are tremendously happy events. But let's face it: We watch NASCAR for the crashes, despite our protestations to the contrary, and we follow celebrity romances so that we can get to the celebrity breakups.

And, of course, it would be overly simplistic to single out mothers and daughters as the source of all wedding drama, my favorite fake Freud quotation notwithstanding: "If it's not one thing, it's your mother." More often than not, the drama that we all expect to see played out at weddings is just a byproduct of the bridal-industrial complex, a perfectly evocative moniker bequeathed to me by a bride many years ago.

Weddings long ago migrated from traditional daytime affairs -- where the men looked dashing in their morning coats, the women had dresses with (gasp!) straps, and the nonstop giggling of flower girls could be heard wafting though the air -- into lavish evening extravaganzas, where children are not even invited. They've gone from the simplicity (and, to be fair, dullness) of the "chicken or the beef?" into menus that boast medallions of veal with a port peppercorn reduction. Today's weddings have price tags the size of a small mortgage (something for which I clearly share responsibility), time schedules that would make a railroad proud, golf outings, spa retreats and 19-seat minibuses taking bridal parties on magical mystery tours around Washington. Things have gotten so bloated that I was actually taken aback when a bride once said to me, "I'm so excited to be marrying Derek today."

Between the countless reality shows with names such as "The Real Wedding Crashers" and "Bridezillas," (Episode 10: When Kristina's sisters show up late for a nail appointment, the bride is furious!), it's no wonder people focus on the negative -- or bizarre, or just irritating -- aspects of weddings. The myriad wedding magazines on the newsstands, and the thousands of wedding blogs, don't help much. Consider this easy-to-follow advice from aboutWeddings.com: "Transition of color in the wedding is 'hot.' The color and theme of a wedding is first seen with the save-the-date card. At the ceremony, the colors are different than what was seen in the save-the-date card/invitation. At the cocktail reception, the colors are different from the ceremony. At the dinner reception, the colors are a combination of all colors previously seen. More than just two colors and no matchy-matchy!"

See? Simple.

Luckily, that kind of silliness isn't ever enough to trump the genuine moments of love and the celebrations of great happiness I'm often privileged to witness: I cried like a baby when a 5-year-old flower girl, blinded by the brain tumor growing inside her head, was led down the aisle by the little ring bearer at St. Aloysius years ago. But I must admit that the moment is annoyingly linked in my memory with the posting, around that same time, on theknot.com, a wedding message board ("Driving Brides Crazy Since 1996!"), by a bride who sought advice on what to do about one of her bridesmaids who, as a result of a worsening muscular disease, was now in a wheelchair, something that would potentially ruin her wedding photos.

(The Knot can be a great source of amusement. My sister, Jennifer, a "Knottie" herself, once related to me an e-mail exchange she had with a woman who had been told, as a Jew, not to use Mendelssohn's "Wedding March," because the composer had famously converted from Judaism. She had instead settled on Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." When Jennifer, with tongue in cheek, suggested that perhaps -- just perhaps -- that one wasn't exactly kosher either, the woman responded, "Why? It's about Jesu, not Jesus!")


At first I was afraid, I was petrified,
Kept thinkin' I could never live without you by my side.

As I sat across from Joel on that June night, I realized the song I had come to hate so much, the song that, perhaps more than any other, constantly reminds me that I have become a wedding photographer, shooting the same thing week in and week out, was now racing through my groggy brain. This time, though, it was reminding me of why I am a wedding photographer. My years of downplaying what I did for a living seemed silly as I sat on Joel's sofa. How bad could it be to be around people who are desperately in love, all the while surrounded by friends and family who love them desperately. Yeah, big deal, they all go crazy when "I Will Survive" or "YMCA" starts playing, but they haven't heard those songs thousands of times; I have. And when I think that I could be tallying billable hours, or working in a cubicle in E Ring, or selling widgets, I think my life is pretty darn okay.

Just the other day, I received an e-mail from a photographer looking for an internship. His short note almost brought me to tears: "I come from Sarajevo, Bosnia, and my life has put me though many challenges. I am saying this because I have had the chance to see the worst in humans and was lucky enough to survive it. Since then, I have made it my goal to help people record their happiest moments, because those moments are rare and precious, and one never has too many of them."

I kept Joel company for hours, long into the next morning, information coming in very slowly, and me, still in my sweaty wedding clothes, nodding off occasionally. Around 4:30 a.m., the phone rang, and I could hear the voice through the receiver telling my neighbor and friend that the woman he had been married to for 55 years didn't make it.

I felt so out of place, so not the person who should have been there at that terrible moment. But looking back, two years later, it almost seems as if Eileen was just being her usual giving self, not just allowing me to see how much she was adored, but allowing me to see marriage in its barest and most naked form. For nine hours that day -- nine years, really -- I had watched a marriage begin, and, now, for nine hours, I would watch one end. I wanted to turn away as Joel shook uncontrollably. I tried so hard to soothe him, but I knew there was nothing I could really say. Though I was in the presence of profound loss, all I could feel was love. This wasn't about linens and party favors, or caviar stations and big bands. There were no toasts and no blessings, no Bible readings, no clanging gongs or blaring trumpets. At long last, I was seeing the embodiment of marriage itself, the very reason man and woman have been wed from the beginning of time.

Something else floated through my brain, this time decidedly more literary than Gloria Gaynor. In my days as an English major, some 20 years ago, the book that had the most profound effect on me was Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel," a tattered paperback edition of which is never far from my grasp. Now I could hear my favorite line, the book's second sentence, coming through: "Each of us is all the sums he has not counted. Subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas."

It was 8 a.m. when the little cellphone in my pocket began to vibrate. My wife was calling, and I told her the news. I gave Joel a hug, grabbed my jacket and my cameras, and walked across the street and into my house, where, unable to sleep, I went downstairs and began to download, with newfound respect, memory cards from the previous night's wedding.