In the Jewish East End in the 1930s people used to say that if you didn’t have a Boris wedding picture, you weren’t married. Boris Bennett was the celebrated photographer whose work is currently on display as part of the For Richer, For Poorer: Weddings Unveiled exhibition at London’s Jewish Museum.
Bennett arrived in the East End from Poland in 1922, and soon established himself as the go-to photographer for weddings in an area dominated by Jewish immigrants, many involved in the rag trade like my own parents. I still cherish their wedding portrait: he standing uncharacteristically upright with his bristling moustache, she with a dazzling smile and sparkling headdress, and both of them brimming with joy and optimism.
So I was startled to see that, far from being unique, theirs was practically identical to all the other photos on show: the radiant beam of the bride next to her morning-suited groom, her huge bouquet and trailing dress, all lit as if posing for a Cecil B. DeMille close-up. And that was no coincidence, since Bennett did all he could to emulate the starriness of the silver screen.
When my husband and I got married in Las Vegas - in a gondola at the Venetian hotel - the photographer insisted on portraying us as a starry-eyed young couple, despite the fact that we were both seasoned holders of Freedom Passes
In place of the painted backdrops other photographers used, he designed modern wooden sets with interchangeable components such as steps, fireplaces, pillars and windows. “Many of these people were very poor,” explained Bennett collector Michael Greisman. “But he made sure they looked a million dollars. He wanted them to have a dusting of Hollywood glamour in their lives for ever afterwards.”
And glamour, clearly, was what everyone craved. Dozens of wedding parties would line up outside his studio every Sunday. Bennett took about 30 pictures in a day, 150,000 in total, all bearing that unmistakable hallmark of soft lighting and glowing faces.
Unlike earlier wedding photographs which tended to be soberly static, his images contained emotion, drama, personality. They were not merely photographs, but intimate portraits. And it was a style reflecting the changing notion of marriage itself – from a financial to a romantic arrangement.
Which explains why depictions of weddings in classical art tend to concentrate on the symbolism of the contract rather than the feelings of the betrothed. In Rubens’ house in Antwerp, for example, are two rather solemn portraits of his grandparents on the occasion of their wedding. Bartholomeus Rubens, an apothecary, proudly shows off two hunks of gum arabic to demonstrate the prestige of his profession. His wife-to-be Barbara Arents is holding two violets in her right hand to symbolise chastity and, in her left, a rosary signifying godliness.
Probably the most celebrated wedding painting is Jan van Eyck’s 1434 work, The Arnolfini Portrait. Rich in symbolism, it emphasises wealth and well-being: fine, fur-trimmed clothes, gold jewellery, even the bowl of oranges in the background demonstrate affluence. There is much dispute about whether the couple were actually married already, and whether the bride is pregnant. But what is significant is that the surroundings are given far more attention than their faces.
By the 20th century, romance had replaced convenience as a motive for marriage. And it is this shift, so cleverly exploited by Bennett, that has influenced future generations of wedding photographers. They may no longer be confined to the artificial setting of the studio, but whether on the steps of the church or at the top of a mountain it’s the feelings and the characters that they must capture for eternity.
And, like Bennett, today’s wedding photographers need a considerable arsenal of skills and artistry to get it right. I once attended a wedding where the photographs took so long that one of the grannies fainted; at another, the best man was captured with his hand up the skirt of a bridesmaid for all to see. And at yet another, the bride appeared to have a nasty disease, as her face was dappled by the ill-directed shafts of sunlight filtered through stained glass windows.
When my husband and I got married in Las Vegas – in a gondola at the Venetian hotel – we were amused that the resident photographer insisted on portraying us as a starry-eyed young couple, despite the fact that we were both seasoned holders of Freedom Passes. There we are, kissing ecstatically, me with one foot girlishly kicking behind me, he looking down at me protectively under the false blue sky and the fake bright sun.
Nowadays, wedding photographs must also include those endless groupings: the bridesmaids, the cousins, the sets of in-laws, the slightly tipsy uncles. “Now everyone who’s slept with the bride,” calls the photographer in M. Canari’s delightful YouTube video. And then: “Let’s have all the people who were invited out of politeness but not expected to turn up.”
But even in this age of selfies and Instagrams, when every moment is recorded on video, and when Polaroid cameras are distributed at the reception so that everyone can snap their own shots, the formal wedding album still takes pride of place. And while its production may be commercial work, it is also a form of art – sometimes portraiture, sometimes photojournalism, technically demanding and often challenging.
So why isn’t it taken seriously by the myriad photography degree courses? These days, the curriculum will cover fashion or advertising, art photography and digital experimentation. But the practice of wedding photography is still looked down on as trite and unworthy.
Perhaps it’s time the photographic academy embraced this under-celebrated craft and properly considered its intellectual, historical, technological and sociological meanings. That way, many more brides would be blushingly beautiful, and many more penniless graduates would be able to earn a living.