The Wedding Photographer

Mallory Samson '77 wins praise for her artistic and thoughtful approach to a tradition-bound form

Mallory Samson '77, wedding photographer, lowers her voice to a whisper when discussing something unpleasant or distasteful, and it's with this tone that she addresses the matter of failing her senior exercise in photography at Kenyon. An art major, Samson was told by her advisor that she had fallen in love with her own photographs and that she should burn the negatives. Much to her regret today, Samson did.

The failing grade was a crippling experience. To this day, she's never told her parents about it. "It had such a negative impact on my life," says Samson. "I was so impressionable then." Passing her exercise on the second try with a series of self-portraits, Samson received advice from another faculty member, Professor of Art Martin Garhart that she carries with her to this day. "He came to me afterward and whispered in my ear, `Never stop taking pictures,'" says the forty-five-year-old native of Princeton, New Jersey. "Thank goodness he said that or I probably would have stopped. Those were just the words I needed to hear."

Garhart's advice has served Samson well. In only six years as a wedding photographer, she has broken the mold in that genre, entering the ranks of the country's most sought-after photographers. And her career is still very much on the rise. The year 1999 brought the publication of Real Weddings: A Celebration of Personal Style, her own book of wedding photography, with text by Sally Kilbridge, the managing editor of Bride's magazine. A recent special on the Arts and Entertainment (A&E) Network, entitled "The American Wedding," placed Samson and among the top names in the business. Her work can frequently be seen in such magazines as Town and Country, Bride's, Glamour, and Martha Stewart Living: Weddings. In January 2001, members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives took time from their busy legislative schedules to present her with a certificate deeming her the number-one wedding photographer in the United States.

Prior to her photography career, in a period that spanned almost twenty years, she worked as a fashion editor at J. Crew and on the editorial staffs of magazines such as Self, GQ, and Bride's and served as art buyer for Nike. As a freelance stylist, she could boast a client list that included Lancome, Perry Ellis, and Martha Stewart television, including two holiday specials. In 1996, her dream of photographing weddings came true when she founded Mallory Samson Photography.

Samson's work is remarkably fresh and unstaged, but she doesn't categorize her style as documentary photography or photojournalism. She doesn't waste time trying to place her work in any category at all, and rather than dwelling on her choice of shutter speeds or lenses, she talks more of such things as beauty, love, and truth. In the end, Samson says her work is simply about telling a story. As she tells her own story from her compact Sausalito, California, home and studio, complete with a lemon tree and a spectacular view of the sailboats on Richardson Bay, she reveals an intelligent woman with an artistic eye and an equally keen business sense. She is unaffected by her success, welcoming clients to her studio as if they are members of her family, even taking the time to dote over a client's dog. Dressed in black, without a trace of makeup, Samson is clearly at ease.

She thinks her early failure may have helped to develop a quality in her that's responsible for her groundbreaking photography. "To this day, I have no ego as a photographer," Samson says. "It's probably part of who I am, but I also think it goes back to failing comps. I have an approach to my work that's very quiet. I'm almost invisible when I take pictures."

It's this subtle approach that gives her photographs the beauty for which she says she strives. You won't find the usual cliches of brides tossing bouquets, groomsmen throwing garters, or couples cutting cakes in Samson's work. She documents each couple's wedding day as it unfolds, telling the story with the kind of realism not found in the fashion world of her previous career. Tightly cropped photos of the details-a groom's tie, a server's silver platter, a flower girl's bouquet-tell a bride-to-be inspecting Samson's work that these are not her mother's wedding pictures. Some of the best shots of family members and wedding parties are composed of such idiosyncratic views as a groom standing on the bride's train or a key family member whose face is partially masked in the crowd. "I'm not looking for perfection because I don't believe in perfection. I think imperfection is the charm of life," says Samson. "My photographs are about truth."

The recent A&E program, hosted by Joan Lunden, took a look at the history and big-business aspects of the wedding industry. The special featured Samson's commentary and photography alongside some of the nation's top wedding specialists, including such icons as designer Vera Wang. Katherine Drew, vice president of development for Luck Duck Productions, the company that produced the A&E special, says Samson's work is unique. "When we were looking for a photographer for the special, it was just a natural to choose Mallory. All of the other people in the special are at the top of their field, and we had to pick a photographer who matched," says Drew. "Mallory's taken an age-old tradition and made it look brand new. People choose to work with designers such as Vera Wang because they know they will get something beautiful. It's the same thing with Mallory. There's no leap of faith with her. People who can work with any photographer in the country are choosing to work with Mallory. That really says something."

Toward the end of the gaudy and excessive decade of the 1980s, Vera Wang entered the bridal-gown market and almost singlehandedly changed the look of the modern bride with her simple gowns. In a similar fashion, Samson is making her mark. "It took Vera Wang almost ten years to change things," says Drew. "Mallory is still relatively new to her craft, but like Vera Wang, she's making something new. Anyone who can do that is considered a pioneer. There are no rules with Mallory, but she honors the art form, putting her own style on things. She's absolutely fearless."

Recognizing that the photographs aren't about her but rather her clients, Samson does bow to some of the expectations that come with the genre. What she calls still-life portraits of the details-flowers, place settings, and cakes-are standard shots that most brides request and that she happily provides. But there are other places where she draws the line. "I'm not a party photographer," says Samson. "I photograph the intimate, private side of a wedding. I don't take table pictures, and I take very few shots at the reception because it's such a public part of a wedding."

Samson's opinions on the intimacy of beauty and love bring to mind the label "hopeless romantic," but it's not a term of which she's fond. "I think to be a true romantic, you have to be a realist," she says. "Otherwise, it would just be so sappy. I've never seen a wedding as an aesthetic. To me, it's a subject." Samson's realistic view is derived from her own brief marriage in her late twenties. She says her ideas about love and marriage have changed since she began her career as a wedding photographer. "I think I used to see commitment as a trap, but now I see it as an anchor," she says.

Perhaps it's Samson's photographs that are the anchor. Of the more than one hundred and twenty couples she has photographed, only two have separated. Of course, it's a stretch to say her photographs keep people together, but she does think truthful pictures can reinforce the feelings people have for each other. Samson believes most couples who come to her have solid relationships. "People who are attracted to my photography appreciate the intimacy," she says. While the opportunity has yet to arise, Samson says she wouldn't shoot a wedding if she didn't think the prospective husband and wife were right for each other.

Samson's work may serve as a catalyst to elevate the status of wedding photography, whose prestige, she admits, has often been at the bottom of the barrel. "I think there's always been this image of it that suggests that if you photograph weddings you don't have any talent," says Samson. But commercial photographer Tom Grimes '82, who has a background in fashion photography, says he's seen a change in the industry in recent years. "There's less of a stigma now. There's a lot of creative work coming out of wedding photography," he says. "It's a very pressure-packed business, and to do it well, I think you have to specialize in it."

Samson's schedule is full these days; she has already booked several weddings for 2002. With a specialty in outdoor weddings, she says her busiest months are between May and November. Samson shoots twenty weddings a year and commutes to New York City once a month, where she meets with clients and magazine editors. In between weddings, she produces freelance work for various publications. A recent assignment included a photo shoot with television and radio host Leeza Gibbons for the magazine Rosie, the new publication from Rosie O'Donnell, which made its first appearance on newsstands in April. While twenty weddings a year may not seem like many, Samson says each one is labor intensive. During the planning stages, she makes enough time for the wedding party that when the wedding day comes around, she's like a member of the family.

In June 2000, Samson photographed the wedding of Douglas A. Browne '97 and Eve Glazier in East Hampton, New York. Browne and Glazier first heard of Samson's work through Glazier's sister-in-law, who had seen Samson in action. "We heard how well Mallory was able to blend in at the wedding, and how she looked just like another guest," says Glazier. "When we went to meet with her, we could tell that she's passionate about her work, and she's so nice. Her photos are very intimate and up close. They aren't just careless snapshots."

Prior to the wedding, Samson met with the couple several times, learning just what they wanted and what kind of wedding they had planned. Browne and Glazier were not disappointed with the results. "The photos were just what we wanted," says Browne. "We knew that we didn't want formal portraits of people posing for the camera. Our pictures capture the intimacy of the day, and Mallory was so inconspicuous."

Dreams of becoming a wedding photographer began for Samson when she attended a wedding in the French countryside in the summer of 1979. During the wedding, she took some photographs and, upon having them developed, realized she had discovered a talent. "To this day, I think those are some of the best photographs I've ever taken," Samson says. "It was at that point that I said, `This is what I'm going to do some day-take wedding pictures all over the world.'"

During her tenure as the fashion editor for J. Crew, which was her last staff position, Samson's health began to falter, and her doctor told her she should change her lifestyle. Taking a brief retreat at a yoga camp, Samson was staring at the sky when she decided to "give the wedding photography thing a try." When she began her business, she didn't even own a camera. During the first two years, Samson did freelance work as a stylist to make ends meet, shooting weddings on the weekends and cultivating the business end of things by night. Her clients included Martha Stewart, whose base in Westport, Connecticut, and J. Crew wardrobe made her a perfect match for Samson, who was also living in Westport. When her photography began to take off, Samson gave up the freelance work and poured herself into her passion full time.

After getting onto her feet, she took her photographs to Town and Country, Martha Stewart Living: Weddings, and Bride's for feedback. "When I started, I didn't have a style," says Samson. "When I took my photos to Martha Stewart, the creative director told me I could tell a story better than anyone she had ever met. I thought, `That's it. That's my style. I'm a writer with pictures, a storyteller.'"

One of Samson's favorite pastimes is seeing movies. She's been known to see as many as three in one day. Her love of film translates to her work; Samson often thinks of herself as a movie director, visualizing the story in her head as she shoots it. "I provide general direction for my subjects," she says. "I might create a situation by telling a bride and groom to take fifteen minutes for themselves, and I'll just stand back and shoot them with a long lens."

Although grateful for her many recent accolades, Samson is a bit sheepish about basking in the glory. She admits that it's nice to be recognized for her work, however, and hopes that this is only the beginning for her career as a photographer. "I'm doing this my way," she says. "I have my own vision. I'm not a follower."

And for that, she gets a better-than-passing grade.

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