Wedding Photo Follies in China

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For that once-in-a-lifetime memory, follow suit with all the other young couples in China and strike a pose!

Couples in China these days love or loathe certain stages of the marital process.  There’s the exhaustive planning and preparation that go into any wedding; the wedding day itself can be quite trying if done in accordance with traditional marital rites of passage in China, such as contesting the groom’s access to the bride.  There are fireworks, wardrobe changes, a long and winding procession from one family’s home to the next, with meals and drinks along the way as well.  Even if the ceremony adopts more eclectic or western themes, no bride will settle for haphazard execution.  Everything must be perfect.

A near universal prelude to the wedding ceremony is the wedding photo shoot.  Couples go all out to create a unique and professional quality photo album to commemorate their civil union.  They don’t merely don the formal attire and snap a few basic portraits, they venture out—sometimes going great distances—in search of that special moment, hoping to immortalize it on film.  The ubiquity of the wedding photo business shouldn’t be underestimated.  Every city has a thriving population of studios that specialize in wedding photo albums.

And given how popular the whole process has become among newlyweds, it should come as no surprise that it’s a vibrant and lucrative market.

Scenic parks double as sprawling studios for would-be couples that indulge photogenic fantasies

We waded into the tea fields and postured this way and that at the whim of our overly enthusiastic photographer. We put on airs while we posed at the corner of a nondescript building. We vogue’d at the marvelously decrepit and picturesque iron gate. Then the rain came and we huddled in the rickety van to do a quick wardrobe change. The handmaids fussed over Julia’s hair. Then they spirited us away to the next location.

Picture it: the idyllic shore of a placid lake nestled between the gentle hills. A young couple takes a moment to gaze meaningfully over the water.  Snap the shutter at the right time, and you’ve got a lifetime’s worth of precious memories condensed into one frame.  One problem though, it’s early March, the temperature is barely above freezing, and the rain is coming down. Nevertheless, like true artists we must suffer for our moment and strike poses; all this with just a thin layer of casual eveningwear as cover from the elements. After wrapping up phase 2 of the outdoor shoot in rapid fashion, we clambered into the van and headed back to the studio.

Along the way, our photographer shared some insight into his profession. He’s out nearly every day of the year doing these wedding photos. I wonder if the whole concept seems drawn out to him. He says that whether it’s the rain or the temperature, the couple or what-have-you, there’s always a challenge to overcome in this profession.

“Yeah,” I add, “the couple you’re photographing could be downright hideous.”

Hold that pose, just a bit longer…a little bit longer…

I learned by and by what each stage of the marathon photo shoot would entail.  By the 7th hour, I learned to shelve my curiosity and bite my tongue when I felt a question coming on.  During one of her outfit changes and makeup sessions, Julia casually mentioned that her parents would be joining us for the formal pictures.  A family portrait of sorts was on the agenda as well.  So I threw on a heavy jacket over the shiny ensemble that I was sporting and went outside to get some air while I waited for mom and dad.

While I ushered them into the spacious photo factory, they volleyed the usual barrage of questions that I’ve come to find so typical of my Chinese in-laws.  “Are you cold?” or “Have you eaten?” and “Would you like to eat?” and other such doting inquiries that make you feel pestered and loved at the same time.  I gave them a brief tour of the studio.  After seeing Julia and a handful of other ladies getting made-up in the front room, we walked back to the indoor street with all the various theme rooms.  No joke, this was actually a narrow cobblestone street with different rooms cropping up on either side, all done with makeshift storefronts and plywood marquees and the like.  It looked like the back lot of a movie studio.  There was the elegant room with the chandelier and the fake grand piano (actually an electric keyboard housed in a piano-shaped shell), the nostalgic room with the vintage television set and radio, the playful room with plush chairs and stuffed animals, the ballroom, the dining room, the grand hall and the room with the spiral staircase that leads nowhere.  A couple has their pick of the litter when it comes to these settings and their costumes.  While mom, dad and myself were waiting on Julia to finish in make-up, we saw couples pass by in traditional Chinese costumes, prince and princess garb, and a number of other imaginative and playful getups.

I looked at Julia’s parents, and registered the bewilderment on their faces.  “Did they have operations like this when you two got hitched?” I asked.  They stared back at me with blank expressions, glanced at each other for a moment, and then smiled broadly.  “No,” they both said with a chuckle.

Later, fatigue started to set in. We were both dog-tired and our facial muscles were starting to ache. It came down to the last outfit; for Julia it was a stunning white wedding dress with tapered shoulder straps and a lengthy train; for me a black tux with tails.

I felt like maybe I wasn’t up to the last leg of the photo odyssey.  But then, from behind the floodlights I watched my bride. I looked at her, and granted I’ve looked at her plenty of times, but this time in that dress and with her and makeup done in a style that usually only movie starlets can indulge in, I was taken aback. I was literally stunned by this beauty. I know there are a lot of beautiful women in the world, but at that moment there was NOONE more beautiful than my wife. My heart swelled, and I dug down to find the energy to finish these photos with a flourish.

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