Who sets the stage for wedding photos? The couple? Photographer? Or tradition?

Whatever possessed me to agree to stand by my new husband’s side while he SAT for our wedding portrait?  I can still hear someone yelling out “don’t smile!”  And another saying “put your hand on his shoulder!”

 Unbeknownst to me in 1967, those wedding guests who happily barked out instructions were honoring a century-old custom.

 Photographer’s choice

 It would take weeks for an artist to paint a bride and groom, but a photographer could make a nearly-instantaneous wedding day image.  Laramie photographers at the turn of the 19th century posed their subjects—often with a standing bride and seated groom.

 The Laramie Plains Museum has no early photos of an actual wedding and no pre-photography oil paintings of a bride and groom posed like my husband and me. But it does have a dozen turn-of-the-19th-century wedding photos with that pose.  One anomaly in the collection is a 1904 image with the bride sitting as the groom stands.

 So if they weren’t copying the way professional artists posed the happy couple, what made photographers of the 1860s and on decide that the bride should stand while the groom sat? 

 New theories

 Here are three theories I have about this pose. First, the 1860s was the age of women’s hoop skirts (think “Gone with the Wind”) that created a problem for photographers. Her skirt was so wide at the hem that the man couldn’t stand very close.  And if she sat, there was always the danger that the stiff metal hoop would spring up in front, exposing way more than was proper, not to mention obscuring all the decoration on the dress.  When standing, the bride’s skirt could billow out to the sides and back and still allow a pleasing composition.

 Secondly, it was the Civil War era in America. Perhaps many a young groom was wounded and found it difficult to stand, but having both seated seemed too informal. Third, even after the clothing excuses vanished, it had become an American wedding tradition.

 Also, with the long exposure time required, smiles were out of the question, lest the subject’s mouth become a fuzzy blur, like the head of many a dog in old-time family gathering portraits. 

 Styles evolve

 As the 19th century went on, styles changed, and by the 1880s, women were wearing “bustles.”  This was padding at the back below the waist, which gave women a pronounced rump.  They too caused problems with sitting, maybe perpetuating the old custom of the groom sitting while the bride stood. 

“It’s hard to drive a car while wearing a bustle,” explains Nancy Chase of Laramie, who has been portraying Laramie pioneer Sarah Montgomery at various Laramie sesquicentennial events this year. She has given up the bustle in her otherwise spot-on costume. 

 By the turn of the century, both the bustle and the hoop were out of style, so there was no good reason for the old-fashioned wedding portrait pose—except tradition.

 The custom has long been burdened with all kinds of symbolic interpretations, most pointing to the subservient role of women in the union.  Thus the chair becomes a throne, with the groom as the “chairman” in the marriage.

 Happily, the stiffly posed standing bride and seated groom of past wedding photography has all but vanished.  Laramie wedding photographer Anne Brande says “never in 32 years of wedding photography has a couple asked me for that pose.” 

 To explain her philosophy Brande says:  “Today’s couples want a more natural, organic approach. The wedding portraits I create are in beautiful, emotional settings and reflect the love between bride and groom. This is a theme that is timeless and will be cherished as an heirloom for generations.”

By Judy Knight

Caption: Judy and Dennis Knight, Sept. 2, 1967 in Pitman NJ. Photo taken by Donald Eddy.  Courtesy photo.