In conversation with Pavel Kounine about his style of photojournalistic wedding photography and his experience documenting the wedding day of Catherine and Mike in particular their wedding reception at Aiship37 wedding venue Toronto.
Catherine and Mike had a very unique day. What elements of the wedding made it such a great experience for them?
The most significant factor that contributed to this, perhaps ironically, was their determination to make it about the experience. I’d like to think that their day panned out how it would’ve had photography not existed.
You write beautifully about the importance of a couple’s wedding day being precious and how a photographer can use a documentary approach so as not to disrupt their day. Can you elaborate on this?
For many people, the wedding day is a significant life event. It’s a milestone loaded with many social and personal expectations. As such, couples invest a lot of time, energy, and resources into planning the perfect day. Wouldn’t it be great if they could enjoy the fruits of their labour with the people they love instead of striking derivative poses with their wedding photographer for one, two, or three (!!!) hours?
With a few notable exceptions, most weddings are confined to a single day. The actual ceremony and celebrations are restricted to mere hours of that day. So it stands to reason that the couple should savour every minute. Couples that choose documentary wedding photographers understand this. They decide to respect their guests and their efforts by being present for the occasion.
“I make every effort to be as unobtrusive as possible, which means that my subjects are never prompted or directed to pose unless a request is made to do so.” During the wedding of Catherine and Mike did you spontaneously follow along as the day unfolded? At what point did you change your technique throughout the day?
I was with them from start to finish; it was a busy day. I started by parking my car in the lot behind Airship37 and taking a taxi to their place in midtown Toronto. When Catherine and her crew were ready, we all hopped into a waiting limo that took us to Enoch Turner Schoolhouse for the ceremony. From the ceremony, the wedding party, now doubled in size because of the guys, was loaded into two Escalades that drove everyone to La Maquette for beverages and light snacks. After that, we walked along King St. to a gourmet hotdog place where the wedding party had beers and franks surrounded by inconceivably yellow walls.
And finally, the evening concluded with the main event at Airship37. So yes, you can say I followed them along as the day unfolded and they didn’t pose for more than a handful of pictures.
What questions do you ask a couple when deciding on a shared vision for their day?
As a documentary photographer, the goal is to have my lens and mind’s eye be imbued with the couple’s vision without introducing my biases into the planning and design. This allows me to capture and preserve an honest photographic representation of their wedding celebration.
With that said, I typically get the ball rolling by asking couples to describe their primary wedding location, why it was selected, and to what extent they’ll be customising it (if possible). The location is the single greatest influence on my photography because it’s the backdrop to every picture I produce. Wedding venues are both inspiring and challenging. They can have great personalities, offer architectural surprises, shape light in beautiful ways, and at the same time, they force you to work within the rigid layouts of their structure. Doing the latter, and succeeding at it by creating something beautiful is both tremendously rewarding and helps me grow as an artist.
How has your photography evolved throughout your career?
My level of confidence in my abilities has seen a significant increase over the years. I no longer experiment to the degree that I used to—not so much because I’m less adventurous, but because the desired results no longer require experimentation.
In the past two years, I’ve made a conscious effort to shoot fewer photos during a wedding. I still deliver a similar number of photographs; I just do it with fewer total frames captured. It didn’t start as a client-facing benefit—I just wanted to reduce my editing workload—but the effort has evolved into a better technique in general. Shooting less doesn’t mean working less; it means being a perceptive observer and capturing the moments that matter as opposed to seeing something remotely interesting and releasing the shutter fifteen times in the span of two seconds. I can still do the latter, and I’m glad I have cameras capable of such performance, but it’s something reserved for moments that I anticipate will be too brief to capture with the more deliberate approach, such as the couple kissing, someone jumping into the air, or the bride tossing her bouquet.
What experiences in your life have enhanced your skill set as a professional photographer?
Studying cinematography in film school and working on several no- and low-budget short films. If you think wedding photographers have long days, try breaking into the movie business. The standard for most productions is a twelve-hour workday. But I’ve digressed; the experience has enhanced my capacity for making effective decisions concerning composition and light, and to do it quickly, because time is money and you never have enough of either.
What criteria do you look for in choosing whether to present a photograph in black and white or in colour?
I’d love to say that it’s an incredibly involved and intricate process that makes me an artist with an e, but… it’s mostly intuitive. That is probably the case for most experienced photographers, whether they’re professionals or serious hobbyists. It’s a skill that’s developed and honed with experimentation over time. Some photographers even learn to pre-visualize the final treatment of a photo before taking it.
If I were to be introspective about it, I would say that my criteria involve consideration of composition, contrast, colour, emotional content, and luminosity (light levels).
For example, I prefer a black and white presentation for photos featuring dramatic compositions that have a lot of contrast (such as silhouettes) or interesting graphic elements (converging lines, large monolithic shapes, etc.) or both. At other times, I opt for black and white because I feel that the colours in an image are either too pale and insignificant that they create a sense of incompleteness, or are so wild and uncoordinated that they become visual distractions that compromise the emotional content. To do this subject any justice would require a separate article of at least a couple thousand words, so I’ll leave it at that.
If you could spend the day out shooting with any photographer that has existed who would it be?
I’m going to cheat and provide you with three names from three fields of photography. For landscape work, I would select Ansel Adams. For wedding photography, I would pick Jeff Ascough. For everything else, and especially for his understanding of colour, I would choose Steve McCurry of “Afghan Girl” fame. The latter two are very much alive and working, so perhaps one day I’ll get such an opportunity. (Fingers crossed!)
“Catherine and Mike opted for an extended cocktail party with many appetizers served throughout the evening by the wait staff. The night came to an end with a dance and hundreds of flower petals scattered about the poured concrete floor.” How did you highlight these choices the couple made?
[Note to Editor: I didn’t capture any of the flower petals on the floor because they had quickly turned into a slippery mess; I’ve got an image of a bridesmaid throwing them at Catherine dancing with her father]
The cocktail reception is one of my favourite parts of a wedding, so I’m quite excited when it’s extended to replace the more traditional sit-down dinner. Standing receptions present more photographic opportunities because they’re inherently more dynamic. Since the food and beverages are constantly making the rounds among the guests, everyone is always in a different stage of eating, drinking, or conversing, and I don’t find myself in a photographic slump. This is the time during a traditional dinner reception when everyone has received their food and is eating all at once. It’s a slump because people prefer not to be photographed while eating.
“My aim is to document authentic wedding moments as they unfold, while doing so humbly, without influence, and with the respect the occasion deserves.” How did this philosophy of photography affect your Airship37 shoot?
As a documentary photographer, my aim is always to minimise guests’ awareness of my presence. It’s easier for me to roam the floor and blend into the crowd at a standing reception than blending into a seated one. This allows me to capture the candid moments of guests caught unaware much more efficiently.
Also, it’s very convenient that Airship37’s layout lends itself so well to walking a long and elaborate loop without doubling over the same path more than twice before completing the circuit. It permits me to cover a diverse range of guests.
What is your favourite photograph from this unique wedding?
Now that I look back, there are quite a few. But if I can only pick one, it would be the photo of Catherine with the makeup artist as seen through the doorway of her bedroom and juxtaposed to a painting of “Scot on the Rock”, mirroring her sitting posture.
What experiences lead you to your unique perspectives on photography?
From the time that I took up the camera and started producing photography of a measurably good quality, my parents suggested that I consider wedding photography—at least as a side-gig while still attending university. For better or worse, traditional wedding photography didn’t appeal me, and so I resisted their suggestions. Instead, I pursued the craft as a hobby, honing my eye during personal experiences travelling, on the streets, in the home, among friends, and everywhere. My camera was always with me. As a photographer, I didn’t shy away from the weird and absurd, the ironic, and the unconventionally beautiful.
When I discovered wedding photojournalism, I brought these artistic sensibilities along for the ride. And while they certainly have to be tamed for the market—no one wants weird wedding photos exclusively—the clues are there.
Where do you go for inspiration for you photography?
I find inspiration in the British style of “reportage” wedding photography. It’s measurably more popular there than in Canada, so it’s easier to find exemplary work to browse through. Moving beyond the wedding industry, I’m fascinated by photojournalism in general; whether it’s presented as photo essays or as glimpses of current events (or historical documents thereof), it’s never short on captivating glimpses into the lives of people across the world. Lastly, I’m inspired by cinema. Cinematography was my focus in university, and I have tremendous appreciation for the craft, especially when directors and cinematographers who excel at visual storytelling helm a motion picture.
What are your go-to cameras for a day of shooting?
I photographed Catherine and Mike’s wedding with Canon cameras and lenses. I’ve since switched to Fujifilm’s system. The cameras are significantly smaller than Canon’s, and this allows me to carry three on my body at all times and still benefit from the reduction in weight. Why three cameras? I’m one of those photographers that prefer fixed focal length lenses. They are more capable in low light conditions and can provide me with better subject isolation by throwing the background out of focus. Unfortunately, they don’t zoom; that’s why I have three cameras with three different lenses that cover my most frequently used focal lengths.
Wedding Ceremony : Enoch Turner Schoolhouse
After Ceremony refreshments: La Maquette
Wedding Reception: Airship37