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The Kiss and the Cake

Two key wedding moments, through the photographer's lens



When Oscar Rajo, an experienced New Orleans' wedding photographer, puts together a couple's wedding book, he isn't merely placing photographs in an album, he considers it "telling a story." For most couples, that story would be incomplete without pictures of the kiss at the altar or the cutting of the cake. The kiss is the story's climax -- the culminating moment of the couple's first of many journeys, and the cake cutting is a chance to see the couple doing something together as husband and wife. Consider the cutting of the cake the denouement, the winding down, or, as one photographer suggests, foreshadowing of the couple's future.

There is a trend in wedding photography toward a more a journalistic or candid approach. Couples want to spend as much time as they can with family and friends and not being positioned for formal portraits. When meeting with the bride-to-be, Bob Bradford, a wedding photographer since 1979, says the bride usually will request that the majority of the wedding be unobtrusively photographed. Bradford says that for the most part, that's what he does, but there is another person usually present at these meetings who wants some formal pictures.

"Mom wants the pictures with the families, the wedding party and the bride and groom," Bradford says. "That's tradition." Moms almost always get their wish for a few formal portraits, he says. Brides stay happy as long as the posing doesn't cut into their reception too much.

"It's pretty impossible to get completely away from a traditional wedding, even when a bride says that photojournalism is all she wants," Bradford adds. Sealed With a Kiss The kiss itself is a combination of formality and spontaneity. The tradition dates back at least as far as Ancient Rome, when most marriages were arranged. The wedding formalized an agreement between the two families and included gifts and a dowry for the husband. A contract was drawn up and signed, but was officially authorized when the couple kissed or, in other words, sealed it with a kiss. Since the wedding might have been the first time the couple had actually met, the kiss was likely quick and dispassionate.

Today's couples probably have spent a lot more time practicing for the kiss than their ancestors. Even with practice, however, the pressure is on. Everyone is expecting a great kiss; all eyes are on the couple and, of course, someone is taking pictures of this spontaneous "moment." They have to get it right the first time, and most couples do. But the kiss doesn't usually last very long.

In fact, because the kiss takes only three to five seconds on average, the bride and groom aren't the only ones under stress. At best, there will be only five photos taken of the kiss -- that's with two photographers -- so the shots have to be planned carefully. Some photographers, like Bradford, will position themselves at the altar for the shot. Bradford, holding the camera in his hands, will be on the groom's side, facing the bride, so he can catch the bride's expression as she kisses her new husband.

Roja prefers to be out of the action, or as he puts it "working in the shadows." Before the ceremony, he asks the couple to face each other when they exchange their vows, so they're still facing one another for the kiss. With a telephoto lens, Roja will be centered in the aisle in the back of the church, focusing his shot on the couple's faces with the reverend, priest or rabbi behind them and the altar as the background.

Celeste Marshall, a wedding photographer with a degree in photojournalism, combines aspects of both Bradford and Roja's techniques.

"I'll stay in the back until I see that it's coming," Marshall says. "I'll shoot up the aisle and crouch down, so that second it's happening, I'm shooting it from a respectful place. It's unforgivable to miss."

Professional wedding photographers don't miss. Even though there are only a few seconds of opportunity, it's more than enough.

"I don't need more than that for the perfect one," Rojas says.

Perfection doesn't always mean the perfect setup -- sometimes it takes place when the couple doesn't even know the camera is on them. Not every ceremony includes THE KISS, but a kiss will come, and the photographer has to be there.

"The real first kiss happens 20 minutes later," Marshall explains. "The couple is alone and maybe I'm lurking in a bush or something. It's that silly wonderful kiss of 'Omigod, you're my wife!'" The Cake, Take Two By the time the cake cutting comes, everyone has settled down a little. The couple has had plenty of kisses, a dance and maybe even a little time to visit with their guests. The mothers are satisfied because they know they will have a photographic record of everyone who did (or didn't) attend the great event. The bride's father is happy because he hasn't seen the bill yet, and the wedding photographer is stealthily moving through the crowd snapping away, capturing unforgettable moments like great-uncle Teddy trying to score a dance with the maid of honor.

The last thing anyone wants to do is take orders, but the show must go on. That huge confectionary matrimonial memorial is sitting there, and someone has to take charge. If there's no wedding planner and no one from the reception staff does it, that person will probably be the wedding photographer.

Unlike the recent past, when photographers would try to see how creative they could be around the cake with tight wedding ring hand photos, candlelight shots and exact positioning, Bradford says most brides prefer a little coaching, but few set poses.

"Brides don't want that anymore," Bradford explains. "They want a couple of shots around the cake and that's it. So I've cut my time in half around the cake."

Less time spent on setting up the shots translates into more actual photos. Roja says he will get the couple started by asking them to pick up their glasses for a toast, or even cutting a piece of cake for each of them, but then he invites the guests to join him in a circle around the happy couple. Roja then uses one camera to focus on the bride and groom and another camera with a wide-angle lens, so he can work off the sides of the crowd to shoot pictures of family and friends.

"Their expressions are timeless and real," Rajo says.

In the past, those expressions might have contained some envy. The cake became part of the wedding tradition when the ancient Romans started making wheat or barley cakes to symbolize future prosperity and fertility. The cakes were very small, not enough to cut or pass around, and, in fact, only the groom took a bite. The groom would then take the rest of the cake and break it apart with his hands over the bride's head, ensuring many years together and numerous children. The guests would then dash about looking for crumbs so they could get some of those blessings.

There's plenty of cake to go around these days, so no one is scouring the floor searching for crumbs. That doesn't mean the tradition of breaking the cake over the bride's head has completely died. What in modern times grew into an informal ritual of the new couple feeding each other a small piece of cake -- symbolizing their mutual commitment -- can quickly become a very sticky situation. Yes, that tender moment is sometimes thwarted by a messy little stunt -- one that is reviled by most brides, and one that grooms should fight the "but it's funny" urge to try. We're speaking, of course, of the much-dreaded smashing-the-cake-in-the-face maneuver.

Rojas, Bradford and Marshall have all seen it happen, and they wholeheartedly recommend no groom consider it. The bride has spent the majority of the day getting her makeup, dress and hair lavishly prepared so she can be her best for her guests, herself and her husband. To have the groom push cake into her face, spoils the day and makes the bride realize she didn't marry a man -- she married a troglodyte. According to Bradford, the hurt and loss of trust can last for years.

"I saw it on a Dr. Phil episode the other day," Bradford says. "This couple had been married 18 years. The day they were married the wife asked the husband not to smash cake in her face. He said he wouldn't, but he did anyway. Now, 18 years later, she still doesn't trust him."

Careful with that cake, guys. Nobody wants one stupid slipup to determine the future of your marital bliss. Marshall says the potential threat to the bride, however, does make for a good photo during the cake cutting. "My favorite shot is the bride's warning look of 'don't shove that cake in my face,'" she says.

Rojas says that the kiss and cutting the cake are high points in a couple's wedding day story. They also are planned moments and are a part of nearly every wedding, just as every story can be broken down by a beginning, middle and end. That doesn't mean each story can't be unique, because the main characters -- the bride and groom -- are always different. Rojas says all these characters want is a little guidance and room to be themselves.


Celeste Marshall:

Bob Bradford:

Oscar Rajo: 837-6611

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