John Dolan stresses gently that he is not 'a wedding photographer' but 'a photographer who shoots weddings'. But despite that, and despite the fact that marriages represents only a minor part of his business, he is one of the most distinguished practitioners on the east coast of the United States. 'I've always had the idea of dividing my work between one third weddings, one third advertising and one third editorial,' he says. 'The proportion shifts around at times. I took a few years out of the wedding world when my kids were a certain age and got tired of me being away at weekends.
'The main reason why I apply the one-third rule is that each category helps the other, so if I'm doing some fashion the fashion helps the wedding photography and the people helps the editorial and so forth. You learn something from each job. It seems that if I get a little too much work in one category things get a little stale. I'm doing under a half dozen weddings a year - for me the ideal is about six to 10.'
As if to prove the point, Dolan was in London as we spoke, on a commission for American Express, before travelling on to the company's European headquarters in Brighton. 'We're shooting real employees so to put it simply we're trying to make working for American Express look cool,' he says. 'We've shot in New York and now were here in Britain and it might go global in maybe six months to Japan or Australia. We've literally been dropping into people's lives for an hour. W we're trying not to make corporate portraits, we're trying to make human portraits. It's a sort of a-day-in-the-life thing.'
It's clearly not doing his wedding photography any harm at all - a regular at A-list celebrity weddings, he's shot for Ben and Christine Stiller, and Will and Jada Smith. 'I've come back into it slowly for people who find me,' he says. 'I don't advertise. I charge a lot, and people who are prepared to pay that much usually have wedding planners. This is a much more efficient system.
The event planners are the matchmakers. They know that I like outdoor weddings, and I like people who are sophisticated about the aesthetics of photography, people for whom photography is high up on their list of priorities and who don't care as much about the flowers. Those are the people who are coming to me to make beautiful photographs, and not necessarily get a picture of every person at the wedding.'
For Dolan, good relationships are essential. 'Shooting great wedding pictures requires a sense of gracefulness, a sensual core and the ability to take the emotional temperature of a situation very quickly,' he says. 'You must know how to act appropriately, as opposed to being a bull in a china shop. Sometimes you need to be a fly on the wall, sometimes you need to be a little more out there, more of the court jester.
'A lot of fashion photographers have difficulty at weddings because they can't stop the action,' he continues. 'Shooting weddings has been an incredible training ground for getting pictures very quickly. My central metaphor for shooting a wedding is going on a river-raft trip - it starts quite slowly, when you're paddling together, then when you meet the rapids all your forward planning goes out of the boat and you hang on. Then it comes to a kind of climax - the waterfall. Some people come to wedding photography thinking it's a nice way to make a living, but it's much harder than it looks.
'I don't find it effortless, but it is a job that comes quite easily for me. I like trying to be the easiest thing on people's lists. I like to be a stable force at the wedding, like the vendors - me, the florist, the caterers, we have all done it before. The bride, on the other hand, is probably doing it for the first time. I always try to protect her by saving her from people saying "I don't know what table I'm supposed to be sitting at" or "I don't know where my shoes are". I try to keep it all positive so that my subjects don't get turned off or self-conscious or insecure.'
Dolan also shoots editorial and advertising work, winning editorial for himself and ad campaigns through his rep. Either way, he shoots 'real people in a beautiful way', and he has an interesting theory about what makes his work popular. 'As administrations change advertising and editorial photography changes, and as the economy changes there's this trend away from 'beautiful',' he says. 'The recession kind of suits my style - show people who they are, and let them to be happy in themselves.
'Over the years I've found over the years that I've done better under Democratic administrations,' he adds. 'Bill Clinton's tenure in office was very good for me, initially at least. George W Bush wasn't a terrible time for me, but the Ronald Reagan era wasn't good at all. When Clinton came in, that was my rise. 1992 was a dramatic time for me.'
The theory isn't as barking as it perhaps sounds - when the mood of the nation is conducive to sending a Democrat to the White House, it's also receptive to Dolan's gentle style. When the Republicans are in office, the photography is brash, harshly lit and Hollywood-influenced, and an anathema to Dolan.
But whatever job he's on, it is Dolan's ability to empathise that really counts. 'I have a personal project going on where I live [in the countryside 125 north of New York City] - I got a grant to photograph the area for a year, shooting 8x10 portraits,' he says. 'I have a friend who acts as assistant and we could have the camera up and ready to shoot in a minute if we needed.
'But what I've found is that when I'm stopping at the side of a road and talking with a farmer, say, taking the picture is the last thing on the agenda. Five years ago I would have been much more direct - I was much more shy and I used to hide behind the camera. It's much easier for me now. The trick, whether you're being the fly on the wall or the court jester, is to know when you're invited. That's the meter you really need.'
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