Inside the Spirit of the Ceremony – Review of “The Perfect Imperfect: The Wedding Photographs of John Dolan”

To be honest, certain types of photography frighten me.

Not because of personal risk, like falling off a mountain or being an appetizer for something red in both tooth and claw. Not because the content might be disturbing. And not because the work might exceed my technical skill.

The Perfect Imperfect: The Wedding Photographs of John Dolan
Published by Damiani Editore, 2021
review by W. Scott Olsen

The work that frightens me is demanding, unforgiving, only one chance to get it right. The work is expected to be spontaneous fine art, a celebration of life, a documentation of the inherent nobility of the human spirit. The work is done in an emotional maelstrom, too.

In other words, I am frightened by wedding photography.

The bride and the groom and their two families want a record of the day. In truth, though, they want a lot more than simple documentation. They want evidence of the ineffable. They want evidence of unblemished love and joy and celebration and the attention to detail that both sides of the family have put in.

Each wedding is unique and yet, at the same time, each is absolutely the same as every other. Here’s the shot of the bride’s mother walking down the aisle. Here’s the shot of the groom’s mother walking down the aisle. Here is the shot of each and every bridesmaid and groomsman walking down the aisle. Here is a shot of the dress. Here is the shot of the couple at the altar. Here’s the shot of the couple smiling as they leave. Here’s the shot of the wedding cake. Here’s the shot of the wedding cake being stuffed into the other person’s mouth. Time and time and time again.

I would imagine that for the men and women who are engaged with wedding photography, the routine and the sameness would be at the top of their list of professional hazards.

Or at least that’s what I thought until recently.

Long Beach Island, New Jersey, 2012 / © John Dolan

I have on my desk a book called The Perfect Imperfect: The Wedding Photographs of John Dolan. This is a brilliant book.

This is not a collection of the wedding photographs most people want to have in a small frame on some mantlepiece. The majority of the photos in this collection are black and white, though several are in color. And they are not posed; they are not staged. These are candids, yes. But so much more than that. They are often times blurry, frequently grainy, sometimes out of focus. And every single one of them is spot on true.

John Dolan, of course, is one of the definitions of contemporary wedding photography. His website lists wedding clients such as Will Smith, Ben Stiller, Kate Bosworth, Bridget Moynahan and Gwyneth Paltrow. He lists advertising clients such as American Express, Boomingdales, Lexus. Tiffany & Co., and the list goes on. His images do not rely on the stereotypes and tropes of most wedding photography.  Dolan simply sees a wedding differently.

Maplecrest, New York, 2017 / © John Dolan

In an afterword titled “A Photographer at a Wedding,” he writes: “Midwife. Funeral Director. Wedding photographer. You meet them once on a delicate day. They quickly slip into the inner circle of a family to perform their role during this rite of passage, and then they are gone.

“From this intimate POV, I have photographed more than 350 weddings over the last 35 years. Anticipation, jubilation, jitters, radiance, hilarity, euphoria, tenderness, butterflies, bliss, melancholy, tension, and relief. This book is a collection of these potent slivers of emotion gathered from unscripted, perfectly imperfect moments.”

Potent slivers, indeed. There is so much history and desire built into every wedding that the gravitas of the event is most often perceived viscerally yet also invisible. Dolan has found a way to capture those fleeting moments when the spirit is visible.

New York, New York, 1988 / © John Dolan

Later in the afterword he writes, “Weddings exist at the crossroads of everything I love to photograph: families, lovers, nervous people. I knew where I could find that intersection each weekend. The chaos of a bride’s house on a wedding day felt instantly familiar to me. Crowded bedrooms full of people in various states of undress was my normal morning growing up with five siblings. A camera is invisible in the middle of bedlam and that frees the photographer to record quietly.”

New York, New York, 2017 / © John Dolan

Dolan is not there to document an event. He is, instead, there to document, to provide evidence of, the soul of people involved in an event. He does not seem to be photographing weddings. He is photographing people, wonderfully noble and flawed people, involved in a wedding. It’s a small but important difference. 

As he says in his essay, “The role of photographer requires versatility – court jester, cat herder, bride whisperer – but mostly I am an intimate chronicler. A curious photographer at a wedding who uses the camera to notice tiny moments of big meaning: evocative, unpredictable, joyful, perfectly imperfect scenes at the start of a marriage.”

New York, New York, 2018 / © John Dolan

The Perfect Imperfect is a large book. A bit more than 260 pages long, it covers a long career. Divided into three sections which Dolan calls Acts, a nod to the theatrical element of every wedding, the book “follows a predictable dramatic arc: Act 1, Preparation. The couple readies themselves separately, each with their kin. Act 2, Union. The two sides come together to join hands, relieved, and separate from their birth families. Act 3, Celebration. Both sides break bread and sing and dance and become a wedding party.”

The Perfect Imperfect is not the kind of anthology that would sit next to a catalogue of wedding dresses. This is not a book for clients. It is, instead, a book of insight and revelation about one of our personally and culturally defining moments. Every page is a powerful moment in a narrative we all recognize and share.

Telluride, Colorado, 2019 / © John Dolan
Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1991 / © John Dolan

A note from FRAMES: if you have a forthcoming or recently published book of photography, please let us know.

Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *