Exposed: An Interview with Superstar Wedding Photographer John Dolan

I am fascinated by the art of wedding photography and have seen it morph from very formal and super staged — as in very often: “OK, grandma stand over there” — to having a photographer take a more casual or natural approach. John Dolan’s style approaches wedding photography from the perspective of an involved documentarian interested in the emotional experience.

As the introduction to John’s new book states, “The wedding is one of society’s last and lasting ceremonies―universal in its presence, comprehensive in its emotion.”

I have never photographed a wedding. I’d imagine a world of serious pressure and angst as a photographer “must’ capture the essence of someone’s most personal experience. To go a step further, I’d add the anxiety of making sure I’ve saved all the great shots. In an age of digital, which should solve this issue, John still shoots film. And as he says below, he trusts himself and his skills.

From John’s Amazon book page bio:

John Dolan is a pioneer in contemporary wedding photography. For over 30 years he has redefined the genre, blending the honesty of documentary with the grace and beauty of a fashion photographer. His photos featured prominently in the inaugural issue of Martha Stewart Weddings in 1995. His wedding clients include magazine art directors and editors, as well as celebrities Will Smith, Rosanne Cash, Ben Stiller, Kate Bosworth, Bridget Moynahan, and most recently, Gwyneth Paltrow.

John is about to publish his new book The Perfect Imperfect. The Wedding Photographs. Purchase details follow this interview.

Peter Levitan: I must start with what I’ll call the most obvious question. How do you become a celebrity photographer? Was it luck or marketing – or both?

John Dolan: I wouldn’t describe myself as a celebrity photographer. I get hired by people who love photography (some of them well known). I see myself as the opposite of a paparazzi. I shoot things as they happen, not imposing myself on the subject. One celeb told me that they only had two kinds of photos of their family: iPhone pics and paparazzi shots. They needed a photographer who they could trust.

Do celebrities look for a different outcome than, well, let’s call them regular folk? Is there a PR element that a celebrity looks for?

A lot of the work I do for celebs never gets seen. It’s for them, not for their publicist. They hire me to photograph them as they are instead of as the public sees them. I usually shoot solo, not overproducing the images.

How did you get started in wedding photography? And why have you specialized in weddings?

My goal when I started out in New York in the ‘90s was to be an editorial photographer. Along the way, I ended up getting hired by art directors and photo editors who did not want a wedding photographer. They just wanted me to come to their wedding and shoot it like a story.

What planning role do you play? Do you act like a stage director or are you an observer – or to put it another way, a photojournalist?

I arrive at a wedding without a plan, intentionally. My magazine work trained me to feel the flow of a wedding and know when to be invisible and when to play court jester. I can wrangle a group photo when needed to but I also am sensitive to the psyche of a couple under the pressure of a wedding and I try not to boss them around. I get my photos in between moments without directing. Some photographers are directors. I’m a collector.

What kind of conversations do you have with the couple to determine their expectations before the big day?

It’s all about trust. I tell them I have no expectations of them to model or pose, rather, I want to feel whatever they feel and embrace that. I make it clear that this is their wedding and not about me.

I am fascinated by the wedding ritual. Do you see a consistent, as you call it dramatic arc?

The arc goes from nervous preparation to ecstatic celebration, with everything in between. There is a broad range of emotion that gets overlooked in traditional wedding photography. I think of it as the mixture of salt and sweet. You need both to get the full flavor. I see a lot of younger clients and photographers embracing this approach.

You define your work as delivering: Beauty; Truth and Bliss. What are the key elements of each of these?

This is the variety of moments I have observed over the years. The beauty is everywhere, but the moments of truth can be subtle and surprising and easy to miss. The reality of the solemnity of the ritual hits people, often when they least expect it. Bliss comes as a sense of relief when the wedding reaches a peak. There is a sense of accomplishment near the end of a wedding, on the dance floor, or in a quiet moment.

Do you have a personal style? When I look at your work, I see that you really think about the light (mostly natural light), use motion and you shoot around the edges. Is this a fair assessment?

Light certainly inspires me, but I think my work is defined by my intimate connection to my subjects. I shoot from the inside of a wedding, almost as if I was a cousin. I feel the flow of the day and use that feeling to tell me how to photograph. There is motion when things get chaotic, not as a trick but because that is my only choice. I can’t press pause at a wedding and rearrange everything. I make photographs of what it felt like that day, not what it looked like.

How do you ensure that you get the right shots? Do you ever work with a second shooter?

My clients expect me not to play it safe. They encourage me to make art, not follow a checklist of expected images.

I love shooting solo. It keeps me more involved with the couple. For weddings over 250, clients sometimes ask me to bring a second.

Since a wedding is a very important one-time event, how do you ensure that you’ve taken and can guarantee that you’ve got the files in a safe place? Are you more confident being digital than when you shot film?

I still shoot 70% film. Film has taught me to have faith in myself and in my lab. My philosophy is this: Weddings are too important to play it safe. As you say, this is a one-time event. To make art you have to take risks. I turn the risk into adrenaline to power my creativity.

What kind of camera equipment do you use? I’ve heard that you mix up your formats.

I use Leica, Rollieflex, and Holga.

You just published the new book THE Perfect Imperfect about your wedding photography journey. Give us a bit of background on the why and how of publishing what seems like a life’s work?

This book is a 30-year tour of the emotional landscape of weddings. The imperfect, the unplanned, the unexpected, these are the moments that feel more real to me than the perfect moments that are staged and controlled.

My hope is that I open the door to a wide range of approaches to photographing at weddings. Each wedding follows a similar script, but each one is a unique study in human nature under pressure. There are so many stories to be discovered by curious photographers.

The Perfect Imperfect. The Wedding Photographs is available from the publisher and on Amazon. It spans 268 pages, weighs 2.5 pounds, and costs $90. A limited number of signed copies are also available through Dolan’s website.

About the author: Peter Levitan began life as a professional photographer in San Francisco. He moved into a global advertising and Internet start-up career. Peter photographs people around the world using a portable studio. This is his excuse to travel and meet people.

Image credits: All photographs by John Dolan and used with permission