When I entered my 20s and many of my friends and acquaintances began getting married, there was a noticeable shift in the types of images I regularly saw on Facebook and Instagram. Every day, there was another photo featuring a white dress, elaborate flower arrangements, and family members in formal attire. It wasn't that there were that many weddings happening among those in my social media circle, it was that many now-married people were sharing a steady stream of pictures from their big days for weeks, months, and even years after they occurred. But, why?
Wedding photos have always seemed to me to be formal and personal keepsakes of a significant day in a person's life — the opposite of the casual photos most commonly shared on social media. To me, a wedding portrait was something to have printed on canvas or framed and hung up in a special place in someone's home; maybe copies would be given to various family members as gifts or thank yous for their support of the couple in question. I've never been married, but I see these photos as a token that only the married couple and those closest to them would regularly see and therefore treasure. Nowadays, though, I can't log onto Instagram or Facebook without seeing at least one wedding picture casually re-posted in celebration of some random occasion or just because. It's your friend's birthday? Post a photo of him next to you in your wedding gown with a happy birthday message. Your sister passed the bar exam? Here she is as your maid of honor with an attached note of congratulations. Your spouse had a hard day at work? Let's remind them (and everyone else) of a happier moment.
Don't get me wrong, after attending a wedding, I do genuinely enjoy looking through the digital album shared by the couple, and will maybe even repost a picture of myself having fun on the dance floor or downing a slice of cake. But the prolonged public preoccupation with one's wedding photos and the way they have become a default image for any moment deserving (or not) of a social media post is a strange phenomenon to me, reflecting how we have come to view weddings as an extended production — a performance not just for the people with whom we share our happiest moments, but for random followers, for strangers.
Anna-Rinna, a Malaysia-based wedding photographer, recently told Refinery29 that a good 80% of her clients opt for digital-only packages when they sign contracts for her to photograph their big days. Most of those clients end up posting the photos on social media. The same goes for clients who work with Connecticut-based wedding photographer Rachel Kimberly Varanelli. "Profile pictures, birthdays, anniversaries, milestones, you name it, there is always an occasion to use wedding photos," she shares.
Recently, though, Varanelli has been doing something a little different when it comes to making deals with clients. "I have been promoting albums a lot more lately because I believe that they are such an important keepsake," the photographer explains. "People rarely purchase a wedding album these days because everything is just posted on social media. I believe that albums are so important because they are what we pass down to the next generation. It's the beginning of a family legacy and it's the love story being told through images." COVID-19 has made more couples receptive to this suggestion. The pandemic has changed the way many couples think about and use their wedding photographs because, of course, the way we celebrate weddings has had to change. No one has observed this shift more closely than wedding photographers themselves.
Last year, Shelby Phillips, a queer artist and Manhattan-based photographer who specializes in weddings and equine portraiture, had 13 weddings postponed to 2021. Now, some of those are getting pushed back to 2022. Varanelli only photographed six of the 30 weddings that were originally on her books for 2020, and Anna-Rinna has been shooting about 20% of what she was shooting pre-pandemic. Margaret Wroblewski, a destination wedding and elopement photographer based in Washington, D.C., Oregon, and Colorado, lost 50% of her income and had to go on unemployment. Chicago-based photographer Julie Merica has had to decline more wedding gigs in the past year than ever before because the clients weren't planning to practice social distancing. It's been tough, but like so many others across industries, these photographers have adapted. They took on side-hustles, expanded their offerings to include family portrait and headshot sessions, and worked with some couples who have gone ahead with their weddings despite the pandemic. Wroblewski, who had switched to working full-time as a photographer in March of last year, immediately before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, especially, emphasizes how difficult this time has been, but even she says there's been some beauty to come out of it. "I think there's also an upside to it," she shares. "As an artist, I think being in a situation like this brings out a lot of creativity in order to make the most of everything."
"People are still getting married," Merica says. "So I've been actively working if they have accommodations in place that make me feel comfortable. I've focused on outdoor venues with smaller guest counts. I've shot several backyard weddings and even a few front yard weddings because Chicago is cramped." The other photographers I spoke to have also shifted to exclusively shooting "minimonies" that include no more than 25 people and are often held outside. Some have even been the only person besides the couple and officiant present IRL during Zoom ceremonies. These small celebrations not only allow for the two getting married to concentrate on their love, they also often make it even more straightforward for photographers to capture photos that reflect that love above everything else.
"What I have loved is that there are certain couples who push forward with their wedding date because they simply want to be married. Those intimate ceremonies are absolutely beautiful. They are so full of genuine love and affection," Varanelli says. "Smaller weddings and elopements mean more time to focus on the relationship… COVID has allowed me to work with couples who don't care as much about the celebration, they are just eager to belong to one another 'til death do they part. I think that's one of the most beautiful and powerful things of all." Merica has also seen a bit of a change that she's embracing. "I've honestly been enjoying the more focused and highly stylized weddings that are less about entertaining guests and more about celebrating the union of two humans," she shares.
Though giving up big wedding gigs has been a blow to the business side of things, many of the photographers I spoke to say they have always preferred shooting smaller weddings, so artistically speaking, this move to more micro-weddings is a welcome one. "My style caters to smaller and more intimate ceremonies in general, so honestly, COVID is bringing me more and more weddings in my wheelhouse," Phillips shares. "This is not to say that 300+ person weddings aren't intimate and that I won't shoot them, but I think my style, which is very photojournalistic, attracts couples who are having smaller parties because they value intimacy over grandiosity." Wroblewski feels the same. "I love small weddings. I could shoot on every single day," she says. "Small weddings allow the bride and groom or the brides or the grooms to really focus on each other and their relationship. They can take the time and space to be with one another. Big weddings can be so hectic: Getting-ready pictures are from 10 a.m. to noon, and then they have this amount of time to do this, and then we have to go take family pictures. It can get a little too chaotic."
As wedding celebrations have changed since the start of the pandemic so has some of what couples want out of their wedding photos. "Many of my clients are now asking for one photo in their masks because they want to remember that they got married during a global pandemic," Varanelli says. "They want to show their kids 'where they were' in 2020. I think a lot of people want to remember what it was that they overcame when the world was shut down."
Clients are also choosing to get those photos in different forms in order to make sure they don't forget their wedding that went down during these wild times. "I think there has been a shift in how important photographs are to people," Wroblewski explains. "I feel like the pandemic changed a lot of people's perspectives about life and how short it is, so people have been treasuring photographs a little bit more, which is awesome because I love clients who love pictures and print them and hang them up or curate physical albums." According to Merica, some are going even further to ensure their wedding photos stay safe. "My last two wedding clients ordered several backup USBs to store their photos. That rarely happens," she says. "I think it's this feeling of paranoia that 'anything can happen,' which was confirmed by COVID-19, so people are being far more security-based in their planning and finalizing."
This is quite a departure from the way many of Merica's clients have previously treated their wedding photographs. "Social media has become a highlight reel for so many, I find many couples have lost sight of the why. I have spent so many years following trends and watching clients cover my work in their favorite Instagram filters only to have them contact me years later in search of the original edits available on the USB they misplaced," she says. "The importance of a good wedding photographer isn't to look like you had a better wedding than everyone else, it's to capture the magic of your own for a lifetime." After a long period of that sentiment getting lost thanks to the wedding industrial complex and the pressure to show off on social media, the pandemic has caused a return to the way wedding photographs used to be regarded. Moving forward, though, it's unclear how permanent this reversal will be.
Wroblewski thinks many people's relationships with money will be forever altered by the hard times brought on by COVID-19 and that will have lasting effects on how they approach wedding budgets. "People will still get married no matter what, but it's changed a lot about the industry and what people will put their money towards," she explains. "Many people are now really tight on money and can't really afford a $50,000 wedding or afford to have 200 guests there. It's crazy how much people spend in the wedding industry, so I think it really has changed some client's perspectives about what they want to spend money on." Still, there will always be those who are set on big bashes. "I have clients who will keep pushing their dates back until they can celebrate it with all their loved ones, family, and friends."
It seems like small weddings with intimate photos that are truly cherished will remain the norm at least for the upcoming wedding season, but it's not the only trend photographers are seeing as a result of the pandemic. "A lot more people are reaching out now about elopements for 2021, and I'm not mad about it!" says Varanelli. "I can't wait for those elopements because I know that they're going to be such adventurous ceremonies." According to her, COVID-19 has pushed a lot of couples to think outside the box when it comes to wedding planning, and she's thrilled to be given the opportunity to discover new ways to capture these intimate weddings. "We'll get to venture out to locations that wouldn't normally have been thought of as options pre-COVID," she says. "Ski slopes, out of state, mountain tops, backyard weddings, you name it! Clients are coming up with fresh, exciting ideas, and it's giving us photographers life!"
And, after years of seeing the same old shots of rows of people dressed in coordinating outfits and matching stiff smiles, photos featuring a couple exchanging vows while skiing through fresh snow might even be exciting enough to warrant regular posts on main for years to come.