Recently, we got the chance to catch up with one of our favorite people to work with, the amazingly talented Michelle Frankfurter! Today, she's talking with us about her journey in the world of photography and what she's currently working on. Here's what Michelle had to say!
How did you get started in the wedding business? I moved to DC in 1992, after working in Nicaragua for three years - first for a human rights organization and then for the British news service, Reuters. After a few years of local freelance work, I got the travel bug again and took off to Haiti to work on a personal documentary project. I was away for part of 1993 and most of 1994. I won a couple of World Press Photo awards for the work on Haiti, but by the time I came back to DC, most of my freelance work had dried up.
By then I was feeling disillusioned and cynical about photojournalism. In Haiti, I got a taste of artistic freedom without the pressure of deadlines and the editorial constraints associated with working for news outlets. At that point, I decided that I would live and work as an independent documentary photographer, pursuing personal work on my own time and making a living through commissioned work such as weddings and portrait work. In the mid 1990's, wedding photography was stuck in an aesthetic time warp, a kind of chocolate bunny maudlin sensibility. In a city like DC with an internationally recognized symphony, galleries and tons of highly educated people, I figured my documentary approach would appeal to those searching for an alternative to the visual bromides that seemed to characterize wedding photography at that time. It was my Field of Dreams moment.
What do you do when you are not working? More than anything, I like being home with my dogs, plants, and aquarium. I'm a reluctant traveler. But it's as though I have a symbiotic twin that craves adventure. When I'm not working, I'm Working. Weddings pay the bills, but it's the personal work that I obsess about. In 2009 I began photographing the journey of undocumented Central American migrants throughout Mexico, riding on top of freight trains with them along their journey north. Called Destino, the project is shot entirely on medium format B/W film. I hope to have a book published in the next year or two about Central American migration.
How would you describe your approach to weddings? I take the same documentary approach to weddings as I do when working on my personal projects. The job of a documentary photographer is to fade into the background, to create a narrative, to convey a mood and to interpret events taking place. It's important for me to be able to recognize myself in both the personal and the wedding work - that the images have a similar sensibility and emotional integrity, despite the fact that the subject matter is different.
What inspires you in your work?Being able to work on personal projects so that my entire life as a photographer isn't based on shooting weddings for the sake of shooting more weddings. On the other hand, while the personal work is rewarding, it's often intense and grim. When I get back, I'm happy and excited to be shooting something joyous. I feel relaxed and grateful just to be there. I think of it as a kind of symbiosis: the personal work is like an itch that needs to be scratched and that fuels my enthusiasm and boosts my energy for weddings.
What do you find the most rewarding about your job?I like making pictures - seeing something I haven't seen before or seeing it in a different way. Weddings are extremely challenging technically to photograph - very gear intensive. You can't pick and choose the perfect time of day to work. You may get a few hours of nice, natural late afternoon light to work with, but once the party moves indoors and the sun goes down, the challenge is to create artificial light that looks totally natural. I'm constantly learning, experimenting and improving my skills as a photographer. It's extremely satisfying when everything works in the frame, including perfect light of your own making. But nothing compares to the email you get from the bride and groom after you've sent them a link to their images, knowing they're happy and that their images will only increase in sentimental value with the passing of time.
What's the one thing you wish everyone knew about you or your business? All of the above.
What do you think sets you apart from other photographers?My pictures. When I talk to couples and one of the first things they say is, "We looked at hundreds of websites. What's with the shoes?" I know we're going to work together. A lot of photographers call themselves photojournalists. Some of them actually are, but I don't really see a lot of that in their pictures - not a lot that goes beyond the expected wedding tropes.
What do you love about weddings?My clients. I have great clients. I think they recognize that photography is more than just an item you buy in bulk. I love receptions too - the music and the dance party, seeing three or four generations on the dance floor.
What do you hate about weddings? Hmm, where to begin the buzzfeed:
-The micro-managing event planner whose job it is to choreograph every second of the day with drill sergeant precision. A wedding day is already circumscribed by tradition that visually plays out as a series of contrived rituals. The more it's further chopped up and intervened with, directed and nudged, the less likely the elusive, subtle, intimate moments will happen, let alone be documented.
-The territorial officiant who thinks that stopping the ceremony to chastise the photographer is somehow less conspicuous than the photographer stealthily moving along the periphery to take pictures. News flash: no one has ever noticed me taking pictures or commented that I was being disruptive, but they were taken aback - appalled, actually by your histrionics. Or the officiant who predicates the litany of conditions and restrictions under which photographs may be taken with a statement about the importance of photography. OK. How about you perform the ceremony using only adverbs.
-The oblivious videographer. Contrary to myth, we are not working as a team. We're often at cross purposes. A still image has three components: some kind of decisive moment that takes place at between approximately a 30th and a 500th of a second (in other words, in a never-to-be-repeated instant), nice light, whether ambient (natural) or manufactured and clean composition. You have to wait for everything to converge in one single frozen frame. Early in the day, for example when people are in the hotel suite getting ready there is a great opportunity to capture some of the more nuanced interactions between people. The rooms are often cluttered, making it hard to maneuver and compose an image around the archipelago of small tables, big white lamps in the background, and sprinkler system nozzles on the walls - a pastiche of distracting elements that aren't that noticeable to the naked eye but are glaring in the frame. Adding another photographer with even bigger gear not only makes the space smaller, but more importantly, it changes the chemistry in the room: it's difficult enough for people to get comfortable with one interloper taking photos at close proximity. Two changes the dynamic from one of intimacy to a media event. People seize up or worse - they perform. I have absolutely nothing against videographers personally. I'm sure I'm getting in their way as well. However, the videographer/photographer pairing would work better with the more conventional wedding photographers who are following a script - shooting a lot of still life of shoes and rings instead of painstakingly waiting for a perfect moment.
-Anyone shrieking, "Oh, look honey! The camera lady is trying to take your picture. Smile!" This is probably the mother of all photo bombs - the foot ploughing through the sand castle.
-The guest who thinks the camera is a microphone. Dude, you just grabbed my $1500 lens and sang into it.
Having a few nicely composed, well-lit portraits of the most important people compliments the less predictable, on-the-fly moments captured in the hands-off documentary approach. For a portrait to be successful, you need a certain amount of space per person - kind of like the ratio of water per fish in an aquarium. People must be far enough away from the background so that the background doesn't become a distraction. And the photographer needs enough space to be able to work with a longer lens in order to make people stand out from the foreground/background. If the space is tight and the background cluttered, it's not going to work very well, especially not with large groups of people (that's why many portrait photographers have studios, so they can control the background and the lighting). A long list of village size group shots with every conceivable permutation is a giant time hog; what inevitably eats up the clock isn't taking the picture but arranging the individuals in a way that conforms to the 35mm frame. If you can't see me, I can't see you. Invariably, Uncle Joe's trip to the Men's Room will hang up the shoot. Then it's like a horror movie: someone is dispatched to search for the missing relative, who in turn goes missing. In the pre-digital era, the official photographer was the sole gatekeeper to the images captured at an event. Nowadays, between the point-and-shoot cameras and smart phones, people can arrange and take their own photos - something they can easily do because that's exactly what those cameras are designed for: arrange, point, shoot. It's a better use of limited time on a hectic day to concentrate on making the requisite portraits look like portraits instead of rushing through a long list or spending a long, long time getting through posed shots that depending on the space available, aren't going to look very good anyway.
-The passive-aggressive head of catering who thinks photographers don't deserve a meal, even though it's probably been about 8 hours since you've last eaten and will be at least another 4 before you get home. And the client paid for a vendor meal.
What is the coolest thing you've ever seen at a wedding?Rea and Emmett's Soul Train line dance. Total blast.
What's the best piece of advice you can give to couples planning a wedding?Well, I would say a documentary approach isn't for everyone. I consciously built a website that says as much by what I omit as by what I show. But if it is what you're interested in, then my advice would be to promote conditions and logistics that will help your photographer create the kinds of images you were attracted to in the first place.
Who is your favorite artist or band?Oh, there are lots. Unfortunately, I'm terrible about remembering names. Years ago, I shot a wedding way out in Virginia where the couple hired Last Train Home. They were so good, I stuck around just to chat up the band. I was the Last Vendor Home that night.
What is the worst song of all time?The Macarena. It's like a mental burr that sticks in your brain, taking days to work out.
Open mic, final thoughts:Oh, I think I've pretty much covered it.