When David Benthal and his future wife, who live in Jamesport, hired a photographer to document their North Fork wedding last summer, they didn’t issue many directives. As a first-rate portrait photographer who covers weddings and other events with uncommon flair, Benthal didn’t try to orchestrate the production. He knows that the most powerful images come about when a good photographer is given complete creative freedom.
Going by his own work, this precept is hard to refute. Benthal is the one to call if you don’t want fluffy, idealized photographs. He’s partial to unconventional backdrops, choosing wide open fields and isolated clearings in the woods over beaches and vineyards. His most memorable images are not only formally inventive but they also tell a story. Moving backwards and forwards in time, they leave it to the viewer to fill in the narrative gaps.
Take, for example, his picture of a bride and groom in a hotel lobby. The bride, perched on a chair, clutches a bouquet as though she were about to cast it to the ground. She looks away from the camera, away from the new life that awaits her with her husband-to-be. The groom is hunched down in his chair and he looks away, too. Neither subject is smiling. Benthal has arranged the scene so that the groom’s black striped socks and his checked trousers enter into dialogue with the black herringbone pattern on the floor. It’s as though the objects and patterns in the room are in communication with each other while the bride and groom are silent, each lost — or locked — in the maze of their own thoughts.
“When I took that picture, the couple were getting ready at the Gallery Hotel in Greenport, and the pose suggested itself,” says Benthal. “I wasn’t consciously trying to make a statement about marriage, but I did want to create something different and the bride and groom were game to try something new. Plus, it was such a funky, unique space with lots of different patterns and textures that it seemed to lend itself to a bold gesture.”
Not all of Benthal’s photos are posed. Many are candid and others are what he calls “semi-staged.” For the latter, he spends time letting the couple “relax into the space,” as he puts it, before he takes a single shot. “Sometimes we’ll walk around and at other times, we might grab a beer and talk. Wedding photography is an incredibly intimate thing. In one way or another, I take pictures every day, but for most of my clients, it’s one of the few times in their lives when they’ll hire a photographer. So, for me, it’s not enough to create a dynamic image. Each picture has to reveal who my subjects are as a couple.”
Asked about his preference for images that convey emotion and hint at hidden depths rather than surface prettiness, Benthal laughs. “A marriage is about so much more than the flowers and the food and the cake,” he says with all the wisdom of a newlywed. “It’s about life, for better or worse, and I hope my photographs convey that.”