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Something old, something new

by Andrew Mayo, 6 March 2017

Untitled, 2011 © Kelly Tunney
Untitled, 2011 © Kelly Tunney

Photography is everywhere. Modern technology and social media has made the medium pervasive, sometimes invasive, and enabled all of us to be photographers. However, on-line photo sharing, combined with the relative ease and accessibility of image-making, has also played a significant role in driving change and development across a range of genres. And nowhere has this progression been more evident than in wedding photography.

In recent years, a push towards insightful documentary photography and creative portraiture has raised the bar significantly, rapidly dispelling any lingering misconceptions about wedding photography being formulaic or clichéd.

Dan O’Day and Kelly Tunney are two wedding photographers who have helped shape the recent advances in style and creativity. They’re considered by many, including their peers at the Australian Institute of Professional Photography, to be among the country’s finest wedding photographers. In 2015, Tunney became the first woman to win the AIPP’s prestigious Australian Wedding Photographer of the Year award, while O’Day was runner-up.

And in 2016 they switched dais positions, with O’Day taking out top prize and Tunney close behind.

The pair, both from Canberra, have certainly earned their success. Over the last ten years they’ve shot more than five hundred weddings each, everywhere from suburban Canberra through to New York, Tuscany and the Greek Islands. It sounds like an exciting lifestyle, but make no mistake – wedding photography isn’t for the faint-hearted. The days are long, emotions run high and there’s almost always a curve ball thrown into the mix – it could be the weather, a last-minute change of location or ‘less-than-cooperative’ guests. Even when everything goes according to plan, the one-off nature of a wedding, combined with the chaos of the day, makes for challenging, high-pressure work.

‘My fight or flight [instinct] probably gets me through it!’ O’Day laughs. ‘Your brain’s “on” the whole time. You’re looking for everything, at every second, for ten hours or more. That’s a lot of mental exertion. It’s physically demanding as well … being on the floor, up on ladders and generally running around like a crazy person!’

When I spoke to O’Day before Christmas, he’d shot a ten-hour wedding in Byron Bay on a Friday and followed that up with an eleven-hour shoot in Sydney the following Sunday.

‘After a weekend like that, you’re knackered … Most of my weddings are away from Canberra, so I have to travel a lot.’ And that includes overseas, for commissions from couples all around the world. Of the forty weddings O’Day shot last season, eight were international jobs.

Tunney photographs an overseas wedding most years as well, but having a young family means she tends to travel less than O’Day. Both photographers have reduced their wedding commitments in a bid for better work/life balance, and to focus on the collective of like-minded wedding photographers the pair recently established.

It’s worth noting that a wedding shoot isn’t a one-day job. When the party’s over and the couple are relaxing on their honeymoon, photographers have the arduous task of sifting through thousands of pictures for editing and processing. While digital technology has opened the door to new imaging opportunities, particularly in challenging, low light conditions, it has also significantly increased the workload.

However, despite the long, adrenalin-fuelled hours, O’Day and Tunney thoroughly enjoy their work. After all, it’s a setting infused with heady emotional intensity; few events bring people together to celebrate – to laugh and love, and to cry – quite like weddings. And that rich social tapestry presents a feast of imaging opportunities for photographers.

For O’Day, one of the main attractions lies in shooting a new body of work every weekend, in his own style, which has value and significance to others.

‘There’s a lot more meaning in the work for me if I know that it’s affecting other people’, O’Day explains. ‘I get that back from most clients — the work affects them and their families deeply … and that’s pretty rewarding as far as commercial shooting goes.’

‘It’s also really challenging as a creative. I love shooting documentary; I love shooting street as well, and in many ways wedding [photography] is no different to shooting street work … People are still walking around being crazy in front of you — they’re just dressed up a bit nicer!’ O’Day laughs.

Tunney enjoys the energy and unpredictability that weddings provide, too. ‘They’re addictive’, she enthuses. ‘I think there are two types of photographers — ones who like control and can manipulate and change things, and others who work best on the fly, in unpredictable situations. And that’s why I think weddings appeal to me … because you never know what you’re going to get … and what you’re going to open the door to. And as frightening as that is, it’s exciting.

‘But what excites me the most is creating art. People think you can’t do that with weddings, because you’re there to document what’s happening, but you can do both … You need to show people a different take and a different angle.’

Unsurprisingly, couples who commission O’Day and Tunney tend to be on the same page artistically, and happily give the photographers creative autonomy. O’Day revels in the freedom and flexibility: ‘When I started out, it was “two for them and one for me”. You know, two [pictures] for the couple to make sure they’re happy and they’ve got all the safe stuff they need, and one [creative] image for me … That soon became two for me and one for them. And now it’s ten for me and none for them!’ he laughs. And his clients couldn’t be happier.

In many ways it’s a dream scenario for O’Day, effectively allowing him to merge his personal and commercial work. ‘I get to execute all the styles of photography that I really like — portraiture, art photography and street or documentary stuff … I get to do all that in one hit at a wedding.’

Tunney enjoys a similar free-wheeling arrangement with her clients. ‘Having creative freedom’s great! You may not necessarily have that flexibility in other fields or genres of photography, but weddings are looser … And I try to be as creative as I possibly can.’

By way of example, Tunney describes an occasion when she created, quite literally, a wall of Post-it notes for a couple — a writer and a sculptor. ‘There were hundreds and hundreds of them on a wall. It was basically an installation piece that was full of poetry from him, and music lyrics … things that were relevant to them.’

Tunney then photographed the couple, using the wall of yellow as a backdrop. ‘We created something really unique and different. I don’t do that type of thing at every wedding, but it’s nice to be able to offer a client a point of difference that’s special to them.’

That ‘point of difference’ is a recurring theme in the pair’s work. A quick glance at their portfolios reveals a diverse array of styles, from astute documentary photography and contemporary portraiture through to fine art imaging that challenges people’s perceptions of what wedding photography is, or can be. Much of their work has a natural, almost effortless feel to it. The compositions are clean and compelling, often with clever use of negative space. Many of the portraits are beautiful in their simplicity and use of gorgeous light. And there’s a refreshingly healthy dose of humour as well, particularly in the documentary images.

Take, for example, O’Day’s striking, minimalist picture of a couple and their perfect reflection, taken at James Turrell’s Skyspace at the National Gallery of Australia. It’s as much about light and shape as it is love and romance. And it’s hard not to smile at Tunney’s irreverent image of curious cats watching a bride disappear down a Greek alley.

When asked to describe his style and approach, O’Day pauses for a moment, contemplating his response. ‘I separate my mind into two spaces’, he eventually says. ‘One side focuses on documenting the moments between moments – the stuff that happens so quickly it can’t be seen again … It’s more photojournalism or reportage. And the other side of my brain is focused on creating something different, or creating a really stunning, high-impact portrait.’

Tunney works in a similar fashion, with a strong emphasis on documentary photography — teasing out the threads of the story, and shooting the day as it felt — combined with creative, considered portraits. When pressed to describe her style, she keeps it simple: ‘Natural and uninterrupted. I tap into the emotive stuff … I still love to photograph a bride as beautifully as possible.’

In many respects, wedding photography can be considered a form of portraiture. Weddings are about people, after all — the couple, their family and friends — and creating portraits of those people is an intrinsic part of documenting the event.

O’Day agrees: ‘Many of my [wedding] images, when they’re considered on their own, are portraits that I’ve put a lot of effort into.’ Often that effort aims to push the boundaries; to show people something they haven’t seen before.

‘A picture that, if you saw it on a wall by itself — and if they weren’t dressed in wedding clothes — it could be something you might see in a portrait prize … just a really interesting, contemporary image.’

The recent, seismic shift in style and standard of wedding photography, typified by the likes of O’Day and Tunney, has been astounding; it has radically changed our ideas and perceptions of what is possible, and indeed expected, of modern wedding photographers.

‘There’s been so much progression’, O’Day muses. ‘The benchmark is so high now; it’s amazing. You can’t afford to relax or be complacent … but I like that because it forces you to make sure you’re always pushing forward, to be as good as you possibly can.’

Looking to the future, both photographers have noticed a resurgence of interest in cinematography and film, and predict the momentum will continue to build in coming years. ‘People are doing some amazing stuff with video’, says Tunney. O’Day agrees: ‘It was off the grid for so long … Nowadays though, there’s often someone doing film at the weddings I’m shooting – and they’re doing it really well, too.’

O’Day doesn’t hold any fears for the future of stills photography, though. ‘Moving forward, I think there’s going to be an even-greater emphasis on photojournalism and reportage styles of shooting. I don’t think good documentary’s ever going to go out of fashion – I think that’s always going to be the one consistent aspect of wedding photography. If people can do that well, they’ll be able to stay in business.’

‘Good documentary’ is instructive, if understated. In the case of O’Day and Tunney, it means an innovative, left-of-centre approach to a familiar scene that consistently sets them apart from other photographers. They also have an enviable ability to create pictures that not only appeal to their clients, but also resonate with complete strangers who have no emotional attachment whatsoever to the images. And that’s almost always the calling card of exceptional photography, regardless
of the genre.

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