Anna Kuperberg has been an artist since childhood. But for a long time she didn’t know that she was destined to be a professional photographer, let alone an award-winning wedding photojournalist.
She shot her first wedding while still in college, yet resisted actually marketing herself as a wedding photographer for several years, even when clients were seeking her out—the victim of a self-described “bad attitude.” Fortunately for hundreds of brides and grooms, and for the rest of us, there came a point when even she couldn’t resist fully committing to the craft any longer.
Now she is an acclaimed eight–time WPJA contest winner, and some of her photography resides in the permanent collections of the St. Louis Art Museum, the Philadelphia Art Museum, the Portland Art Museum and in numerous private holdings.
Kuperberg’s family immigrated to the United States from Poland, by way of Sweden, when she was three years old. “I think in order to assimilate I needed to become very observant of people’s cultures and mannerisms, and their speech and accents,” she explains. “So I think I became kind of a people watcher early on. I’ve always been fascinated with conversations at the bus stop or whatever, so it’s not just visual.”
And there was always a strong creative element at work in her, as well as a childhood fascination with photography that competed with her equally strong interests in painting and sculpture.
When she was 10 years old Kuperberg received a Kodak Instamatic, which took square pictures—a characteristic she loved. “I was always turning it diagonally, to get a diagonal horizon that went corner to corner,” she recalls. “Or I was doing experimental composition where there’s one element on the far right of the photo, another on the far left that was in the background, or taking self-portraits in the mirror with the flash popping in the photo. I was experimenting and I loved it.”
The only problem with the camera was in buying film because her allowance would only go so far. And she was really thinking about drawing and painting and clay, chalk and crayons. So, she decided she was going to be an artist, but not necessarily a photographer.
PURSUING “RESPECTABLE” PHOTOGRAPHY, AND FINDING IT
Kuperberg attended Washington University in St. Louis. “I was interested in all kinds of art—drawing, sculpture, graphic design, video and other stuff too—so I enrolled as an art major,” she says. However, she switched her major to photography after taking a class that reawakened her innate interest and talent in capturing people and events on film.
When she was 20, the summer between her junior and senior year, Kuperberg photographed her first wedding for a woman who had contacted the photography school looking for a good deal from a talented student. “I told her I had never shot a wedding before, but she was fine with that, liked my portfolio and hired me,” she remembers. The client was extremely happy with the results and referred Kuperberg to a friend who got married the following year. Two additional referrals sprang from that.
Still, Kuperberg eschewed wedding photography as a career, preferring to aim for pursuits at the time considered to be more respectable for a talented photojournalist, such as free-lance editorial photojournalism. Remember: This was the 1990s, when wedding photography was still largely known for its cheesy, clichéd posed shots. “The artists I hung out with really pooh-poohed wedding photography, as did the photojournalists, so I was really trying to get out of it,” she notes.
“My goal was to be a free-lance editorial photographer and also have a fine art career, kind of on the level of Mary Ellen Mark or Elliot Erwitt, where they’re well known in both the fine arts and photojournalism,” she explains.
Two years after college she moved to San Francisco and in 1996 earned her Master of Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute. For the next 10 years she continued to do freelance editorial work while pursuing fine artsmuseums and galleries as a fine art photographer.
“The whole time I was doing weddings on the side, but I wasn’t telling people—I would just tell them that I was a photojournalist. I have to say I was a bit of an art snob about it.”
It wasn’t until 2004 that she decided that was a “really bad attitude” about the wedding photography thing, and dropped everything else to focus on weddings as her main business.
Kuperberg says that the career adjustment was a big psychological hurdle, but what helped her make that leap was when she saw other respectable news photojournalists leave the dailies they were working for and dedicating their time to weddings. As she puts it, “I thought ‘All of these people who had been working for the Philadelphia Enquirer and the Dallas Morning News; they weren’t having a problem with it, so why should I?’”
She had always shot weddings in the photojournalistic style anyway, going back to those very first gigs in college. “I never did it traditionally or shot medium format,” she says. “I was always shooting 35mm and a lot of black and white. And I switched to digital about the time I decided to take wedding photography more seriously.”
So it turned out that weddings offered the respected photography career she had been seeking all along, with the market simply catching up, and catching on, to her style.
ENABLING DECISIVE MOMENTS
Kuperberg brings a photojournalist’s skill and artist’s eye to every aspect of a wedding. She is especially adept at capturing great moments during engagement shoots, where she employs what she characterizes as a hybrid portrait-photojournalism approach.
“Of course it’s a portrait shoot and the couple is camera aware, but there’s this decisive moment where they’re interacting with their environment, or they might be moving,” she notes.
A case in point is her Fall 2005 award-winning portrait of a couple in the booth of a restaurant. It’s a memorable shot that clearly transmits the sparks that the young lovers were throwing off that day. “There’s that spontaneous moment,” Kuperberg points out. “They know I’m there, but it’s a real moment in that they’re interacting with each other, and they’re in love, and it’s their life! They’re not models not pretending to be in love.”
She believes a skill that every good photojournalist has is the ability to interact with people so that moments like that can happen. She doesn’t necessarily spend a great deal of time with couples before the shoot, but makes them comfortable relatively quickly—an atmosphere that further develops over the course of the session.
As she explains, “It’s an approach that is sort of the way children approach people, where you’re totally non-judgmental, you’re not trying to assume who you think they are or stereotype them, but rather this very open, curious sense of wonder. That makes people feel safe and comfortable.”
Kuperberg notes that because most people tend to feel self-conscious when cameras are around, you need to make them feel safe. “It’s important that you as the photographer are not nervous or self-conscious,” she states. “If you’re enjoying the people and spending time with them, they’ll pick up on that vibe. I crack a lot of jokes and I’m kind of goofy. I figure if I’m goofy and willing to make fun of myself, then they let down their guard and they don’t feel that they have to act any particular way. It lowers barriers.”
The same approach also works for Kuperberg in non-portrait scenarios that are pure wedding photojournalism, when a bride is getting ready, for example. “I’ll stay quiet, but if they catch my eye I’ll still smile at them,” she says. “I still manage to try to have a reassuring presence that doesn’t cause people to become self-conscious or self-aware.”
SEEING PAST THE SYMBOL
Kuperberg sees the primary creative challenge in wedding photojournalism as transcending clichéd imagery in order to get to the essence of real feeling. Being a trained artist, it’s not surprising that she sees an analogy between this concept and the lessons provided in basic drawing classes.
“You’ve probably read these books where they tell you if you want to draw a face or a hand, what really gets in the way is you have this cartoony symbol of what a face or a hand should look like,” she explains. “And that symbol is getting in the way of you actually seeing it in the real world and drawing it accurately, or drawing what you see rather than the way you think it is supposed to look.”
She describes the mistake she sees most people make: “They’ll say ‘here’s a beautiful location; we’ve got the paint peeling on the wall, and there’s a doorway, and it’s backlit, and we have this beautiful flare,’ so they will put people in that doorway and then they will say, ‘go over there and kiss,’ but it’s a fake kiss.” And so the guts of the photo, which is supposed to be a relationship between these two people, is basically a cliché.
“I think this is where a lot of photographers drop the ball,” Kuperberg says. “They set up everything perfectly, but the emotional content is based on something that they have seen before—almost a caricature of it, rather than what is the actual chemistry between these two people.”
What is actually going on between a couple that’s natural and real? Kuperberg has found that she can discover that essence a lot better if the couple is not kissing, noting “What really shows love in a photo may be the expression on their face when they’re looking at each other, or their hands, or their body language.”
So maybe it’s good that Anna Kuperberg searched for her true muse for so many years without realizing that she was indeed a wedding photographer. Searching may be just a part of her nature as a creative artist.
Certainly, it has allowed her to transcend all of those clichéd notions about where the real story is, keeping her looking and exploring—finding and capturing the essence of love.
—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association