Sociologically speaking, there is a lot that goes on within photographs. Wedding photographs are no exception. We believe that wedding photos cause the viewer to use what we would call an intertextual gaze, meaning that they ignite fantasy (the fantasy of a fairytale romance and ideal wedding) much like the gaze in psychoanalysis. Wedding photographs in front of the Legislature specifically incorporates elements of intertextuality (images of an institution in front of an institution; photos of marriage in front of the legislature). Furthermore, wedding photography is used to solidify and support social norms and ideologies, while photographs in front of the Legislature add prestige and a personalization of the Government building. Finally, Barthes’ mythviewing wedding photos, as the representations of relationships that photos present are not always realistic or accurate.
In today’s consumer capitalist culture, almost every ritual, rite of passage or event that a person is expected to go through has been capitalized on. Marriage as a rite of passage has been commodified through the development of the wedding industry. In 2009, the average cost of a wedding in Canada ranged from $20 000 to $30 000, at times higher in major metropolitan areas such as Toronto.[i] The wedding industry thrives because of the diverse needs of consumers purchasing their way through the rite of passage of marriage. As Ingraham states, “Weddings are big money, and everyone wants to get in on the act”.[ii] The wedding industry has many different facets including bridal gown stores, bridal shows, wedding consultants, and bridal magazines. Weddings have even influenced toy production, as Hasbro, Mattel and Disney all produce toys that “…feature the same dominant images of the pretty white bride whose greatest achievement is in wedding her handsome prince.”[iii] The commercialization and commodification of the wedding industry has resulted in the alteration and change of some longstanding wedding traditions. Previously, it was seen as taboo for the groom and bride to see each other prior to the wedding ceremony; however, that tradition is starting to fall by the wayside for the convenience of wedding photography to take place before the ceremony[iv]. Thus, the commercialization of weddings has started to take priority over past traditions.
Although the tradition of the bride and groom not seeing each other before the wedding is losing strength, most wedding photos continue to depict traditional images of the bride and groom together in marital bliss. Often times, wedding photography focuses upon the bride, reinforcing the belief that women will take on a more dominant position in planning the wedding and will gain more pleasure from the experience.[v] The wedding album is expected to tell the couple’s personal love story, while also reinforcing that they have the ideal romance. [vi]The idealistic images portrayed in wedding albums allow couples to believe that “They were the stars in their own perfect production” and at least for that one day they lived a fairytale romance.[vii] Wedding photos are “…images of hope, prosperity, and order…” taken to capture the union of two lovers in time forever, whether the romance is as idealistic as it appears or not.[viii] Wedding photos make love appear glamorous although it often is not, therefore supporting Barthes’ theory of the myth of photographic truth.[ix] Furthermore, these highly idealized images create desire and fantasy in those that gaze upon them; viewers of wedding photographs often covet fairytale romances, the kind of relationship that is conveyed in the photographs, although it is merely an illusion.
In wedding photos, the bride most often appears in a white dress and veil that symbolize her purity, virtue and chastity. She holds a bouquet of flowers that suggest her virility and fertility as she embarks into marriage and her sexual awakening. These symbols provide a clear representation of the myth of photographic truth, as most women are no longer virgins at the time of their marriage.[x] A pure and chaste bride is an expectation and social norm. As Strano states “...news articles, film and television depictions, and interpersonal communication seem to indicate a widespread descriptive norm that says most women are not virgins on their wedding night (with the implication that if you are a virgin bride, then perhaps you are a ‘prude’ or a ‘tease’).”[xi]
There are three other types of photos the bride appears in: lingerie shots, transformation shots, and sassy photos.[xii] These shots occur less often, and are not as publicly shared as they show the “nonvirgin descriptive norm.”[xiii] Lingerie shots are photographs of the bride in her wedding night lingerie, transformation shots show the bride preparing and primping for her wedding day, and sassy photos show the bride having fun in her symbolic white gown. Although they most obviously challenge the social norm of the virgin bride, “Lingerie photographs...seem to be produced for the viewing privilege of the husband. This practice echoes the virgin bride injunctive norm (and pornography) by reinforcing a perception that the bride’s body is the property of the groom.”[xiv] Transformation shots display the nonvirgin descriptive norm as they capture the process of the bride transforming into the idealized virgin figure.
Finally, “...the bride undermines the virgin bride norm by juxtaposing the symbolic dress of virginity with the posture of a sexual tease” in sassy bride photos.[xv]
While the bride is expected to be virginal and pure, the groom is expected to be committed and prepared for a life of monogamy. Social norms seem to more readily accept deviation from these norms for grooms however, as many wedding shoots include playful shots of the groom in poses that are not characteristic of a faithful or prepared future husband.[xvi] Strano suggests that men are allowed to deviate further from the expected social role of a doting husband because they are also expected to be “‘bad boys’ who do not behave as they should, that is they defy injunctive norms.”[xvii]
Thus, both brides and grooms face opposing expectations and images regarding their roles in marriage and their wedding photographs. Societal norms for masculinity and femininity are supported and challenged through wedding photos, specifically by the way they are posed. As Strano states, “Women must negotiate the competing images of whore and prude, much as men must negotiate between playboy and pussywhipped.”[xviii]
When photographs are taken in locations like the Alberta Legislature, they take on an intertextual meaning. Wedding photographs in front of the Legislature depict the institution of marriage in front of the institution of the government. Haldrup argues that by taking photos in front of institutions and attractions, like the Legislature, photographers “…inscribe places with fresh cultural meanings.”[xix] Because of its notability as a respected location for wedding photography, the Legislature has taken on a new cultural meaning rather than its original purpose as a governmental building. Furthermore, the photographs taken at the Legislature gain a certain amount of perceived prestige as they have been taken in front of a respected governmental institution and reflect the “attraction’s socially constructed aura.”[xx]
Photography of weddings is an obvious and longstanding tradition. As the institution of marriage has proven its longevity as a ritual and rite of passage in Western culture, wedding photography will most likely continue to be a profitable and important industry within our society. While viewing wedding photos however, one must think critically about the realities of marriage and relationships rather than the idealizations that are presented to them. Because of the impact of the gaze, wedding photos have the power to create desire in an individual, or a sense that they are lacking something because they are not currently in a monogamous relationship. This is simply the maintenance of social norms and Western ideologies. By posing wedding photos in front of governmental buildings like the Legislature, this message is only conveyed more powerfully as the message seems to be reiterated through the authority of the government within the image. The prestige, respect and notoriety that accompany the government then accompany the institution of marriage. Hence, it is up to the viewer of wedding photographs to determine to what extent the idealized image of romance they see in a photograph is fabricated through the commercialization of the wedding industry, a perpetuation of social norms and ideologies, or genuine true love and happiness.
Photo Credits: McMaster Photographers, courtesy of Kurt and Angele Puhlmann
[ii] Ingraham, Chrys. White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 1999. 4.
[iii] Ibid. 97.
[iv] Lewis, Charles. "Working the Ritual: Professional Wedding Photography and the American Middle Class." Journal of Communication Inquiry (Sage Publications Inc.) 22, no. 1 (Janurary 1998): Par 51.
[vi] Ibid. 114.
[vii] Lewis, Par. 74.
[viii] Ingraham 35.
[ix] Illouza, Eva. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.110.
[x] Strano, Michelle M. "Ritualized Transmission of Social Norms Through WeddingPhotography." Communication Theory (Blackwell Publishing Ltd.) 16, no. 1 (February 2006): 38.
[xii] Ibid 39-40.
[xiii] Ibid 40.
[xiv] Ibid 41.
[xv] Ibid 40.
[xvi] Ibid 41.
[xviii] Ibid 42.
[xix] Haldrup, Michael, and Jonas Larsen. "The Family Gaze." Tourist Studies (Sage Publications Ltd. ) 3, no. 1 (April 2003): 36.
[xx] Ibid 32.
Haldrup, Michael, and Jonas Larsen. "The Family Gaze." Tourist Studies (Sage Publications Ltd. ) 3, no. 1 (April 2003): 23-46.
Illouza, Eva. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Ingraham, Chrys. White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Lewis, Charles. "Working the Ritual: Professional Wedding Photography and the American Middle Class." Journal of Communication Inquiry (Sage Publications Inc.) 22, no. 1 (January 1998): 72-93.
My Canadian Wedding. http://www.mycanadianwedding.com/wedding-articles/expenses/average-cost-of-c*/777anadian-wedding/ Accessed April 6, 2010.
Strano, Michelle M. "Ritualized Transmission of Social Norms Through Wedding Photography." Communication Theory (Blackwell Publishing Ltd.) 16, no. 1 (February 2006): 31-46.