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Remains of the Day
A wedding photographer sets out to learn what happened to the couples who hired him for their big day. By Matt Mendelsohn
Comments () | Published November 28, 2012

K Street was deserted at 8 on a Sunday morning, as you would expect it to be, and as my car idled at a red light, I looked over at the tiny cooler on the passenger seat containing an even tinier plastic bottle. Nuzzled up against a blue ice pack, the bottle looked empty. But when I held it up and tapped it in the morning sun, tiny drops of breast milk clinging to the sides popped into focus.

It was April 18, 2010.

For a moment, I thought about the oddness of the situation. I wasn’t the father of the two-day-old infant tethered to wires and tubes in a room at Children’s National Medical Center, the one for whom I was transporting these droplets of milk—a child who in just two months would already bear the scars of open-heart surgery. Nor was I married to the woman I had just left behind at Sibley Hospital, who was unable to join her newborn as she recovered from a C-section. I wasn’t even distant family.

I was just the wedding photographer.

But the light changed and I drove on, completing the six-mile trip between the two hospitals and delivering my cooler to the nurses’ station at Children’s. What had started that morning as a routine job, photographing the birth of Cree Jordan Valcourt Pearce, son of Catherine Valcourt and Larry Pearce—whose wedding I had photographed on September, 8, 2001—was ending in a much different fashion.

I walked into Cree’s room and stood over him. He was sleeping, wrapped in a white hospital blanket with pale blue and red stripes. There were no doctors or nurses, no crying, just the occasional beep of a monitor.

I knew Cat and Larry would want some reassurance, but calling them wasn’t practical—Larry is deaf, Cat half deaf. So, ignoring the gear I’d brought to shoot a happy family portrait back at hospital number one, I reached into my pocket, grabbed my phone, and took three quick, grainy pictures of the baby. “Mission accomplished,” I texted Cat, accompanied by a smiley face and a photo, then drove home.

But something lingered beyond the time it took to take that fuzzy iPhone picture, more than just another one-125th of a second to a photographer whose life has been full of them. One-125th of a second is all it takes to make a photograph of a bride signing her marriage vows—“You make me crazy and you make me laugh, normally at the same time”—or of a mother kissing her child before handing him off to a surgical team. It’s the time in which it’s possible to capture the laughter of a groom during the best man’s toast or of a family, ten years after that toast, chocolate running down children’s faces.

And for me, a blink of an eye as I stood over this child in a hospital room was all the time I needed to realize I wasn’t so much interested in wedding photography as I was in wedding anthropology.

I began to wonder about the other brides and grooms whose weddings I had shot. Were they facing the same kinds of challenges as Cat and Larry? Were they still married? Wedding photographers tend to assume we have the best clients—impervious to things like divorce and disease. But despite the unending blog posts by photographers about the “honor” of shooting so-and-so’s nuptials, we know about as much about our clients as they do about us.

Which is another way of saying not much.

By the time I photographed Cat and Larry’s wedding at Woodend—the Chevy Chase home of the Audubon Naturalist Society—in September 2001, I had already shot 115 affairs. Since then, I’ve done 335 more. In all, 451 couples spread out over 14 years. Flipping back through a particular year’s desk diary—I’ve kept them all—I see one unifying bond: the word CONFIRMED! scrawled in Sharpie over each wedding date.

When she tells me she hasn't looked at her wedding album in probably seven years, I'm reminded of how fleeting it all can be.

A couple stands under a wrought-iron chuppah. A bride clutches a photograph of her mother. A blizzard wreaks havoc on a wedding. I remember them all.

The farther back I go, the more likely the memory takes the form of an actual photograph. Like this: On September 9, 2000—a year before Cat Valcourt and Larry Pearce were married—a bride is putting on earrings. The light by the front door is beautiful. On June 24 of the same year: A couple parades through Georgetown with a New Orleans jazz band. The first week of that June: A bride dresses herself. She has no attendants.

Back one year still, on October 10, 1999, Stephanie Roma and Stewart Brown got married inside the tiny, historic St. Ignatius church in Oxon Hill.

If I close my eyes, I get: French cuffs.

That’s mostly what I recall. Stephanie wore a dress with French cuffs, the only one I’ve ever seen. Is it my memory telling me this or the fact that every once in a blue moon, while searching for some file on a backup drive, I might skim past something called “0289_Roma_99.jpg,” a digital scan of a print showing a woman with a broad smile sitting in a big wooden chair on a church altar, French cuffs adorning the sleeves of her wedding dress?

Stephanie and I met recently at a Mexican restaurant in Ballston, and though we’ve kept in touch over the years—I photographed both of her pregnancies—it’s the first time we’ve discussed life after her wedding. She, of course, remembers the dress with the cuffs, the rain that morning, her giggly vows.

But when she tells me she hasn’t looked at her wedding album in probably seven years, I’m reminded of how fleeting it all can be. The bridal industrial complex, in which I’ve been a cog for 14 years, desperately wants couples to believe that it’s all about Your Day!—the emphasis firmly on the “your” part—that if you throw enough fondant and tulle and calla lilies at one eight-hour event, newlyweds might forget about the 438,000 hours yet to come.

Wedding photographers now spend almost as much time shooting pictures of things like hors d’oeuvres, place cards, and rings—“details,” they’re called, a deliciously ironic term—as they do the bride and groom, the meaningless detail shots only masking the fact that there are precious few real details yet.

So much energy for just one day, one blip on a graph that will go on for years, decades, half centuries. Or not. Go to enough weddings and you realize that photographing one is like photographing the coin toss before a football game: Nothing’s actually happened yet. Cat Valcourt had no special wedding-day insight into what her future held, no inkling that 11 years later her Facebook statuses might toggle between “My Cree rolled over!!” and “God and I are no longer on speaking terms.” Nor did any of the others: the couple under the wrought-iron chuppah, the bride clutching her mother’s photograph, or the one who asked me to zip her up because no one else was there to help.

I’m telling you this now because there’s one detail Stephanie Roma can’t forget, though it came long after her wedding. It was March 3, 2008, a day after she discovered her husband, Stewart, disoriented in the bathroom with what would be diagnosed as a brain aneurysm.

No longer giggling on a tiny church altar, the pair was sitting in a room at Washington Hospital Center going over routine preop questions, the calm before 14 hours of surgery the next morning. And in this calm, one tiny detail bubbled to the surface.

“Do you do drugs?” Stewart was asked.

No.

“Do you drink?”

No.

“Do you smoke?”

This time he chimed in: “A pack, pack and a half a day.”

Remembering this, Stephanie—who had been married to Stewart for 8½ years at this point—looks at me and, over the muffled chatter of people enjoying frozen margaritas in the Mexican restaurant where we’re sitting, says: “I didn’t know that.”

Stewart would survive the aneurysm, but their marriage was beginning to flatline.

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  • Erich

    Loved reading this! My wife and I were pretty poor when we got married. Her dress was purchased from a local discount store, my "tux" was simply a nice jacket I'd had since high school. We were married with about 60 other couples on the bank of the beautiful San Antonio Riverwalk. One of my sisters, a shutterbug herself, took pictures of us on that day. While some of the pictures she's taken of things make me question whether or not the shutter button works her photos of that day in particular are some of my absolute favorites.Being a graphics designed I immediately requested the raws and keep them stored digitally. It's my hope to one day have them properly printed and framed.

    Thank you for this excellent set of stories.

  • Kate in New Hampshire

    I found my way here after hearing you on Word of Mouth. Thank you - I really enjoyed the piece & agree with others - a book, coffee table sized with your photos and the true stories, not the bridal industrial complex version.

  • Damon

    My wife and I are the last couple who Matt talks about. We were chased around by security who thought we were taking engagement photos, our officient from Craigslist and our friends and family all met us like a flashmob at the Bishop's Garden. Including dinner we spent $150 on the wedding and haven't looked back. But I would recommend doing some photography because it's just fun to have some photos to cherish. Having Matt give us, for free, a couple of candid shots is really special to us.

  • Christina L

    Powerfully beautiful story! Thank you for sharing such a deep raw look at life beyond the wedding day.

  • What a great story! I'd love to know the stories of the couples I've photographed. We talk about fleeting moments, but the single day in the life of a marriage even if it is the first day is a fleeting moment by definition. The first of hopefully 10,000 days.

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Posted at 11:00 AM/ET, 11/28/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles