Wedding photographs as a ‘natural form’ of communication
While I was scrolling through my timeline, I was noticing a couple of highly staged wedding photographs which all contained certain signs of romance, tradition and something which appeared to me as kitschy publicly flaunted love. To survey those photographs on a scientific level, I will refer to Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, Charles Lewis and William Mitchell in order to discuss whether or not wedding photographs are a ‘natural form’ of communication and self-representation.
How digital photography changed image production, consumption and distribution
A photograph provides evidence about a ‘scene, about the way things were’ (Mitchell 1994, 4) at a certain moment in time. When we are looking at wedding pictures our friends and so-called friends are uploading to facebook, we feel that the evidence their pictures present corresponds in a strong way to reality (Mitchell 1994). The photograph in its own staged artificiality tries to convince us that two people will live happily ever after by capturing the wedding-kiss scenery. The wedding album, whether it is kept offline or online, is composed of selected photographs, those two-dimensional representations that seem to be a ‘natural’ form of communication. These images appear connected to ‘real life’ as representing one’s family and closest friends during an important series of events, in case of this essay, a wedding (Lewis 1997).
Professional wedding photography, which is experienced by hundreds of thousands of American women and men annually, is more than the production of well-designed, innocuous images of a joyous ritual. (…) Wedding photographs are powerful because they are traditional, professional, personal and seemingly accurate renditions of reality as they help couples remember a key period in their social and personal lives. Lewis 1997, 167
According to Mitchell the photographic way of seeing the world has come ‘to seem transparent and natural to us’ (Mitchell 1994, 59), conferring photography a guarantee of realism. In 1994 Mitchell was writing about the post-photographic era and his assumption that family photo albums will be replaced by a collection of image CDs soon. Lewis, who spent years working as a professional wedding photographer and engaged in more than 140 hours of participant observation, says that wedding albums help couples to perpetuate a particular way of understanding and valuing their wedding experience. Their albums serve as an elaborate advertisement for this extravagant, once-in-a-lifetime experience, which is ‘centered around the bride’ (Lewis 1997, 169). Most of the couples Lewis interviewed during his research told him that they would bring the albums out, when family or friends visited (Lewis 1997).
Long before the social media era took over peoples’ perception of proper self-representation, Mitchell asked his readers, who will compile and control wedding collections in the future and who is going to have access to them (Mitchell 1994). The two last questions can be answered quite easily. Everyone of the more or less private facebook circle will be able to at least access the family album. Facebook-Friends can in fact not control the upload, but they can control the distribution and online likeliness of an intimate event. Of course digital photography with all its editing and sharing options gives photographs a whole new dimension and meaning. While photographs have been developed, touched and smelled 30 ago, they will disappear quite naturally through timeline actualization nowadays. There seems no need to save pictures for special moments any more. Before the electronic era images were laboriously handmade and their dissemination was limited. Photographs could be replicated quite hardly and only transported with considerable difficulty. In the industrial age the high-speed press and rapid mechanical transport allowed extensive reproduction and distributions of images. Nowadays social media platforms are fundamentally altering patterns of image production, consumption and distribution – even far more than Mitchell or Lewis might have expected.
Wedding photography in relation to death
Although photographs provide evidence about certain moments in time, Murray (2008) notes, that there is acknowledgement of the inability of photos to hold onto certain moments. While people are trying to tell their autobiographical narrative via facebook-albums and status up-dates, we must admit that every visible change in life is set upon old versions of ourselves, which can be easily accessed online. Rather than interpreting this as a type of death, Murray refers to the ‘already accepted temporariness to one’s sense of publicly presented self’ (2008, 156).
One can not talk about temporariness or the importance of death in photography without in-volving Roland Barthes, who claims that photography must be described in relation to death in order to be ‘discussed on a serious level’ (1985, 356). The famous wedding promise ‘Till Death do us apart’ is getting kind of a double meaning by referring to Barthes’ way of thinking. A photograph is always a witness. And even if the person in the picture is ‘still in love’, it’s ‘a moment of this subject’s existence that was photographed’ (1985, 356) while being in love. Barthes describes this as an enormous trauma for humanity, which is – especially in the era of social media – endlessly renewed. Although the fact that love is gone might be sad itself, we have to keep in mind that the former public visibility can add additional suffering. Since the option of burning or throwing pictures away is not disposable in the Web 2.0 era any more, humanity has to deal with the fact that family and friends had access to their wedding album and were therefore also able to spread its content beyond secure privacy settings of the pictured couple.
Sontag holds on that – ever since cameras were invented in 1839 – photography has kept company with death. When an image is produced with a camera it is literally ‘a trace of something brought before the lens’ (1979, 24). Summing up, photographs are not just witnesses of subject’s existences and therefore feelings, but also superior to any painting of a moment, which will still contain a supplementary message in addition to the analogical content itself.
Arranged wedding photographs as a natural illusion
Let us have a semiotic reading of this wedding picture from my timeline.
According to Lewis wedding couples tend to prefer arranged photographs. But they should also not look too arranged, in order to keep the illusion natural. The bride and the groom, together and separate, are ‘the center of most photographic arrangements’ (1997, 169-170).
In order to analyse and decode specific signs in wedding photography, I want to briefly sum up what Roland Barthes considered the Photographic Paradox (1977). The Photographic Paradox can be seen as a co-existence of a message with no code (analogues) and one with a code (the ‘art’ or the treatment, ‘writing’) (1977, 19). If we are connotating parts of the analogon above in a cognitive way, we can clearly see that this is an arranged wedding picture because of certain signs.
Any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all these, which form the content of ritual, convention and public entertainment: these constitute, if not languages, at least systems of signification.” Barthes 1967, 9
‘Ideal’ body language is constructed by the photographer, whether it seems natural or not, in order to indicate order and harmony. Flowers are held at a particular level. The couple is holding the wooden frame together with their hands, while kissing inside of it. A photograph might be a good photograph, when it ‘plays with the supposed knowledge of its readers, by choosing the greatest possible quantity of information’ (1977, 29). It is easer for the viewer, at least when we are discussing standardized motives, to have certain signs – as in this case romantic codes – to refer to (1977, 29). Through the representation of formal wedding, professional photographers ‘conventionalize our conventions, stylize what is already a stylization’ (Goffmann 1979, 84).
Most photographers follow the ‘script’ in order to satisfy their customers. The wedding album is not only triggering memories; it is also prized because it is expensive and unusual. Couples won’t spend hundreds of euros to get standardized portraits done, in an era where nearly every smartphone has a high-resolution camera. The roles in wedding photography are pre-defined, as the photographer plays the role of a ‘director’ and the wedding couple plays the ‘stars’. The representation of the ideal couple requires detailed work (Lewis 1997).
Although this essays is not focusing on gender subjects the reader has to keep in mind that – whether recognized or not – there is no doubt that gender stereotyping is a factor in how people are posed in professional wedding photographs. Bridal magazines and directories are a thriving source of modelling conceptions of how people should look and appear in their own wedding photographs (Lewis 1997).
When I am observing wedding photographs in my facebook timeline, I can clearly recognize the unnatural posing and the way things are arranged, from the couple in the front to the family crowd in the background. Lewis (1997) describes the convention of posing in his article about Wedding Photography, Consumerism and Patriarchy. A natural pose that may occur occasionally in a particular ‘real life’ situation becomes standardized once it is adopted by photographers.
The occasional pose that is stereotyped becomes a convention used repeatedly. Such repetition leads people to see the pose as normal and perhaps even something to emulate in social situations when they are trying to present their ‘best social selves.’ Lewis 1997, 178
Through the endlessly reproduction of the happy wedding couple and the publication of those natural appearing, though still posed photographs in social media (such as facebook, twitter or instagram) and bridal magazines, people get a sense of how a successful wedding should look like.
Hand-holding, also prominent in wedding images, is another traditional scene. Even before humans are able to come up with their own wedding ideas they get infiltrated by all kinds of media which shape their perception of the term ‘romantic’. The romantic ideal is permanent in photographs, advertising, entertainment and news (Lewis 1997).
Wedding ceremonies and their photographic documentary are indeed no exception.
Barthes, R. 1967. Elements of Semiology. New York: Hill and Wang
Barthes. R.1977. ‘The photographic message.’ and ‘The rhetoric of the Image’ In: Image Music Text. London: Fontana press. p. 15-51.
Barthes, R. 1985. ‘On Photography’ In: The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962–1980, trans. Linda Coverdale. New York: Hill and Wang p. 353–60
Goffman, E. 1979. ‘Gender advertisements.’ New York: Harper and Row
Illouz, E. 2003. Der Konsum der Romantik. Liebe und die kulturellen Widersprüche des Kapitalismus. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag
Lewis, C. 1997. ‘Hegemony in the Ideal: Wedding Photography, Consumerism, and Patriarchy.’ In: Women’s Studies in Communication, 20:2, p. 167-188
Mitchell, W. J. 1994. The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-photographic Era. ‘Introduction’ and ‘Electronic tools’. MIT Press. Mitchell. p. 3-8; 59-86.
Murray, S. 2008. Digital Images, Photo-Sharing, and Our Shifting Notions of Everyday Aesthetics. In: Journal of Visual Culture 2008 (7) p. 147 – 163
Sontag, S. 1979. Ch 2 ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’. On Photography. London: Penguin. p. 18-39