What exactly remains after a wedding?
For eight hours, a shutter opens and closes, one-125ths of a second by the boatload. Five thousand images by the end of one night. And after the blurry pictures, the ones with people with their eyes closed, and the repetitious frames are weeded out, perhaps 1,200 pictures remain. The client comes in and chooses pictures for an album, 65 from the original 5,000. An album gets produced, along with a few five-by-sevens to be put in frames. And the album sits on the coffee table for a few years until it gets moved to the bookshelf, then into a drawer. Maybe a five-by-seven stays on the mantle.
For Julie Kluge, what remains is a framed butterfly on the wall, a ketubah, some photographs, and two beautiful children.
“When Bob died,” she says, “it was before we put on the addition. We had this porch on the side, and there was a butterfly that came in the porch. It wouldn’t leave. We tried to shoo it out—it came back. We got it out, and it came back. It eventually died on the porch that night. We found it there the next day.
“I don’t know if you noticed—it’s the framed butterfly in the kitchen. I was convinced that it was Bob. He didn’t want to go, and he came back here to die. And now I see butterflies around my kids all the time. It might be my own little craziness. Last week, I was at the zoo with the third-graders from Claremont Elementary, and we went into the butterfly exhibit. Two butterflies landed on Ethan’s head. Not one other kid or adult in the place but Ethan. And I was like, ‘I’ll bet that’s your dad.’ ”
Kara Simmons—the bride who carried a picture of her mother at her wedding—and Brian Johnston recently celebrated their ninth wedding anniversary on St. John, with their two-year-old in tow.
“We’ve traveled all around the world,” Kara told me over e-mail. “You have these little ways in which you know you and your spouse are soul mates. St. John is like that for us. We’ve been to Australia, Hawaii, and Fiji, but St. John has the most beautiful beaches. It’s like a spiritual awakening.
“To see Brian lying in the sand reading a car magazine with Evan on his back. It was perfect.”
For Courtney Watson, the last straw was watching Stephen conceal his sexual identity to a new woman. Courtney finally cut things off with him. He had set her up, making it look like she had abandoned him by running off to another country and getting married and pregnant, when he had engineered it all from the beginning. Yet she has few regrets.
“I would do it again,” she says. “He was so happy. He was so happy. I still smile when I think about how he got to be the superstar of the day. I know it’s usually the bride that gets to be the star, but I was married to a fabulous gay man.”
Stewart Brown and Stephanie Roma-Brown are finalizing their divorce. During a recent fight, Stewart took the three large framed wedding pictures hanging in their house, carried them to the garage, and smashed them. “Don’t take offense,” he e-mailed me. “It was nothing personal against you or your photos. They were great, hence why they were hanging up in our hallway. But it gets a bit difficult to see these pictures every day of us back in our happier days.
“You had asked what we remembered about our wedding day, and one other thing I’ll never forget is when Steph started laughing while saying her vows. While it was funny and cute at the time, in hindsight I should have seen it as a premonition for what would become of our marriage.”
For Cat Valcourt, what remains goes like this, an e-mail she sent me recently: “Joined an NF2 [neurofibromatosis type 2] group yesterday—it scares the hell out of me. Did you know the average life span of NF2 individuals has been about 15 years from diagnosis? My son was diagnosed at 32 days. I am so angry, and I don’t know at whom. My Cree has been given a death sentence, and there is nothing I can do except make his time on earth happy.
“It will pass. It’s just the first time I have understood how finite his life is. I have been grieving since yesterday, crying on and off. Once I finish my pity party, I can get myself together and focus on what’s really important.
A few weeks later, I’m sitting in the presurgical waiting room at Children’s National Medical Center again. Cree is here for surgery to biopsy tumors near his ribs.
Cat looks at Larry and laughs: “Should we tell him?”
“Tell him what?” I say. Then I remember she recently told me she was going in to have frozen embryos implanted.
“We haven’t told anyone!” Cat says, grinning. “You can’t live life based around sickness.” She’s having twins.
A few months ago, on a humid summer afternoon, I was walking back to my car after shooting a family portrait in the Bishop’s Garden next to Washington National Cathedral. Passing the gazebo, I heard something familiar: vows being recited. I peeked in and, sure enough, there was a wedding—a couple, an officiant, a few friends and family. No photographer. I wanted to keep walking, to get into my air-conditioned car and go home, but I couldn’t.
Claire Rose married Damon Bowe that day in a vintage dress she’d bought on eBay. She held flowers bought at the stand near her office. The officiant came courtesy of Craigslist.
As they finished and their friends clapped and Claire and Damon kissed, I did what I’ve done for 14 years—took pictures of a bride and groom. “This is your lucky freebie night,” I said, laughing at them, laughing at myself.
“We know that we love each other and want to spend the rest of our lives together,” Claire wrote me a few days later. “So what’s the importance of the food that you eat for dinner on that night or the color of the tablecloths that you eat the food on?”
She didn’t mention the photography part, but it was okay. Later that evening, I sat at my kitchen table and e-mailed the newlyweds a few photographs. A hundred years from now, I hope someone will still be looking at them.
Matt Mendelsohn (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a photographer and writer in Arlington.
This article appears in the December 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.