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Remains of the Day
Comments () | Published November 28, 2012
In 1953, Life photographer Lisa Larsen’s image of Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy ushered in a new era of wedding photography. Photograph by Lisa Larsen/Getty Images.

Jesus, as wedding photographers are reminded each week, performed his first miracle at a wedding in Cana. Of course, there’s no photographic evidence. Probably for the best. Had there been a photographer that day in Galilee, the world might today be looking at a picture of a bride and groom posed sexily in some ox cart, lit from behind by a strobe hidden in the hay, holding balloons while drinking wine out of Mason jars and gazing adoringly at each other.

That’s the current state of the art.

It’s no longer enough to take wedding pictures that show a bride and groom in love—dancing, whispering during dinner, playing with a nephew or niece. These days, wedding pictures are elaborate, photographer-contrived setups that show the newlyweds kissing in a wheat field (as if it were a natural act to go wheat-harvesting on one’s wedding day) or aboard an old-time fire engine.

Weddings date back as far as civilization—it’s photography that’s had to play catch-up. In 1839, Louis Daguerre’s process of coating copper plates with iodized silver was announced to the world by the French Academy of Sciences. The next year, across the channel, Queen Victoria married her first cousin, Prince Albert. And if history tells us anything about that wedding, it’s that the bride wore white. As details go, it’s an important one.

Wedding pictures have become elaborate setups that show the newlyweds kissing in a wheat field or aboard an old-time fire engine.

Victoria and Albert’s wedding photographs made their way around the world. Like a kind of Pinterest for the Victorian set, those early daguerreotypes would influence brides for years to come, including the bride captured in the earliest known American wedding photograph.

It’s from the legendary Boston studio of Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, made around 1850. The picture shows a young man with a beard—think Abraham Lincoln, though slightly better-looking—his left hand tucked in Napoleonic fashion under his coat. Next to him is a young woman in an ivory dress with a rose on the bodice. Her arms are uncovered, a sign of the influence of Queen Victoria’s wedding pictures from ten years earlier. And like Victoria and Albert before them, neither bride nor groom looks particularly happy.

Not until 100 years later—September 12, 1953—did the next great American wedding photograph make its mark. And unlike so many wedding pictures that came before it, Life photographer Lisa Larsen’s iconic picture of Jackie Kennedy pushing her tulle dress out of the way so she can sit at a long table next to her husband, Senator John F. Kennedy, is anything but stiff and solemn. With one click of her Leica, Larsen forever ended the studio years and cemented the modern era of wedding photography, the one in which everyone looks happy.

“So what are you doing?” Stephanie Roma-Brown asks me as a recording of a mariachi band plays in the background at the Mexican restaurant.

I’ve asked Stephanie to meet me to talk about her wedding, the pictures she remembers from that day and her life after. I push the chips and salsa aside, clearing space for my laptop. On it is a spreadsheet showing 451 weddings—dates, venues, long obsolete e-mail addresses and phone numbers.

“Oh, so this is everybody!” Stephanie says. “Oh, my God.”

Scrolling up to 1999, we find her entry. “Yup, 10/10/99,” she says. “It rained. That’s the first thing I remember—rolling over, looking out the window.” And then hearing Stewart’s voice in her Capitol Hill house. Unbeknownst to her, Stewart had gone out with friends and family after the rehearsal dinner. “He came home and slept on the floor in the living room. There’s the whole taboo that you’re not supposed to see the bride. I’m thinking, What is he doing here?! And it’s raining! And oh, my God!”

(Later Stewart will laugh, too, as he remembers his hangover gaffe. “My drunken night—I think I was supposed to be at my parents’ house.”)

“I remember walking to the place to get my hair done with a big umbrella,” Stephanie says, “getting into the car and going to the church. I sometimes wonder how much is my memory and how much is photographs.”

What about that dress?

“I don’t even remember the designer’s name,” Stephanie says. “I just remember going in and seeing it and saying, ‘That is really different.’ I bought it in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, after thinking I was going to shop in Manhattan.”

“I saw the French cuffs and I was like”—she claps her hands together once—‘Done!’

“I’d do it all again. When we got out of the car, the rain parted and everything was fine. This big worry all morning and it never rained again.”

And things were great for a long time?

“Things were good for a long time.”

It’s 6:30 am, and the mood in the presurgical waiting room at Children’s hospital is cordial but quiet, like an elevator where people avoid eye contact. Every few minutes, the door opens and another family walks in, one parent pushing an empty stroller, the other holding a child you know nothing about except that in two hours the kid will be having surgery for something.

“This is now our 43rd day at Children’s,” says Cat. “When we get out, it will be 48. I wish they gave miles.”

You learn quickly that almost everything Cat says is punctuated by a joke. And that she has an uncanny command of medical lingo for someone who isn’t a doctor. When she can’t sleep, she alphabetizes her son’s specialists.

“Let’s see,” she whispers, “we have audiology, cardiology, epileptology, gastroenterology, genetics, neurology, ophthalmology, orthopedics, pulmonology, and urology. Then we have his pediatrician. I think that’s 11. I may have missed one.”

Cat, who oversees publications and development at Gallaudet University’s Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center, is moderately deaf. Her husband, Larry, who played football at Gallaudet and, at six-foot-one, stands almost a foot taller than his wife, can’t hear at all, his deafness a result of spinal meningitis when he was a baby. He’s a researcher at the National Cancer Institute, studying how the body reacts to pain. The couple’s first child, Cole, was born in 2008, Cree two years later.

In 2001, when I was photographing their wedding and they were signing their vows in the grove at Woodend and the deer were watching from the meadow—“I can’t promise you that our life together will always be easy, that we won’t argue or fight or feel like quitting sometimes”—I would have put deafness higher up my list of things you notice about Cat. But that’s a silly thing hearing people do.

“Deafness for me was actually a blessing,” Cat says. “It’s defined my life. I never considered myself deaf when I was growing up. I was always fascinated by sign language. I found Gallaudet’s name in a book, found out it was for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, and that’s where I decided to go. I fell in love with it, and I’m still there. It’s been 20 years.

“If not for the deafness, I wouldn’t have met Larry. It’s amazing how things go. Larry and I are a good balance. He’s pessimistic and I’m optimistic, so it works out all right. Between us, we worry just enough and not too much.”

They have much to worry about. Cree was diagnosed with a kidney problem in utero. Right after his birth, his hands and feet were blue. A specialist was called in, x-rays were taken, and a more serious complication was diagnosed in Cree’s heart. Two months later, on June 10, 2010, Cree was being prepped for open-heart surgery.

The night before that operation two years ago, I got a message from Cat asking if I wanted to stop by the hospital: “You documented some of the most important moments in our lives—our engagement, our wedding, my pregnancies, Cole’s birth. If you want to photograph Larry and me with Cree tomorrow before his surgery, come by CNMC room 335 in the heart and kidney unit between 7:30 and 8 am.”

The next day, I photographed Larry and Cat as they quietly cried over an empty hospital bed, having just handed their child to a team of doctors for open-heart surgery.

On this day, Cree is back for an operation on his bladder, to address the first problem he was diagnosed with in utero. And yet neither of these two problems—and for that matter neither of the two surgeries, two years apart—are at the core of what ails Cree. What ails Cree Pearce can’t be corrected by surgery. “That was really the age of innocence,” says Cat, “when it was only a heart issue.”

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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