Shintoism meets Shutterspeed

by Allison Valencia

Tracey Taylor + Dee Green/ 37 Frames Photography

March 11, 2013

Aussie photographers Tracey Taylor and Dee Green love a challenge, and a good love story. Combining their passion for beauty, superior people skills and the ability to capture exquisite moments, it’s no wonder they’ve carved out a special wedding niche in Tokyo, their home-base for 37 Frames Photography. Born and educated in Australia, Taylor and Green have 20-plus years of experience as photographers. They met in college and, upon graduating, spent a few years in Australia starting their photography business before taking off to see the world together. As Taylor explains, “We wanted to pursue our dreams, see the world. Asia was an easy first base; Japan had us at Nikon. Plus, it was 1997, and we were just seeing the end of the bubble period in Japan. Money and jobs were plentiful and we could get work easily while we figured things out. The plan was to stay one year and move on to the next place. But 16 years later, we are still there!”

Forging a New Path
Remarkably, the duo is relatively new to wedding photography; since their move to Japan, Taylor and Green were best known for their colorful, light-filled landscape and nature images. But at their first WPPI experience (at WPPI Asia in 2009), they had the great fortune of attending a seminar and meeting Jerry Ghionis. Ghionis turned them onto the idea that wedding photography was an art form itself, and, eager for a new challenge, they decided to give it a try.

“Naively we thought we could make the change-over easily. We were fine-art/landscape photographers...weddings were going to be easy! How wrong could we be!” admits Taylor. As they quickly came to learn, “wedding photography is one of the most difficult genres of photography. With split-second decisions, having to have knowledge of all weather conditions, all lighting, and have the technical know-how fused with the creativity all in the moment. We would take hours, days and sometimes weeks to plan a specific shot for our landscapes. Sure, we had to work fast when the golden light hit for those few minutes. But you have those moments [and] that pressure a thousand times a day during a wedding.”

Boundless Beauty
As it turned out, the country—with its breathtaking scenery—that had given them so much during their 15 years as landscape photographers would also offer them an endless palette on which to hone their skills and artistry as wedding photographers.  

To Taylor and Green, it was a delightful collision of artist and muse: Japanese weddings offer stunning details, color, energy and epic stories for a photographic duo with a knack for highlighting the unique details and fleshing out the narrative of an epic day. Japanese weddings usually fall into one of two categories: traditional Shinto ceremonies, and modern Western-style weddings, and the weddings 37 Frames shoots are often a combination of the two.

Green and Taylor say they are “endlessly captivated” by the beauty of Japanese weddings, as well as the “onlyinjapan” moments they endlessly offer: “From the intricate layers of priceless kimonos where the bride always carries a dagger, to grooms on roofs, stoic emotion (no matter the occasion), couples bursting out of giant balloons, historical shrines, and emcees who magically re-appear as Geishas, we know we have never seen it all.”

Crossing a Cultural Divide

Perhaps what sets 37 Frames Photography apart in the “Land of the Camera” and world-class photography—a very competitive and closed market—is their unique vantage point, as Westerners enthralled with the exotic rituals of the Japanese wedding day, coupled with their determination to capture these previously impenetrable moments.

Traditionally, a Japanese wedding photographer is limited to a short session for portraits at the beginning of the day. And, traditionally, such photographs are void of emotion, perhaps due to the high value placed on stoic discipline in Japanese culture. Taylor and Green’s photojournalistic style, however, is catching on within the conservative island, and Japanese brides are starting to demand what they’re offering: a beautiful, romantic, emotion-filled story in images of the most important day in their lives.

Wedding-day challenges abound. “As wedding photographers in Japan, we are bound by culture, tradition, history, the strictest of timelines and language constraints,” says Taylor, adding “but we see things differently, possibly with more excitement than local photographers do. And that’s our difference.”

Japanese weddings are usually programmed down to the minute, with “military-style precision,” says Taylor, the largest hurdle of the day often being the strict wedding planner. Often, the couple requests formal portraits, but the photographers are given less than half an hour (or as little as five to ten minutes) to shoot—not just the bride and groom, but both families. Green, the “communicator” of the partnership, laughs that she spends those crazy moments running around, gesturing and yelling to evoke smiles from the clients.

In a few short years, Green and Taylor have learned—sometimes the hard way—that Japanese wedding culture presents obstacles to artistic freedoms Western photographers take for granted. For example, the aisle is referred to as the “Virgin Road,” and all in attendance—photographers included—are prohibited from setting foot upon it. Green laughs about the time that she was literally shut out of the ceremony because she waited until the last minute to follow the bride into the church. Luckily, Taylor realized that her partner was nowhere in sight and would not be getting the first shot of the bride in the ceremony as they had agreed upon, and quickly moved her position so that the important moment was not lost.

The language and “politeness” barrier can sometimes be a blessing, says the duo, explaining that the formality of language and class in Japan can add to the difficulty in getting the emotional response they want from the couple. With no kissing or hand-holding allowed on the day of the wedding, the couple won’t easily relax for the camera; however, one thing that Japanese couples often are  good at is imitating a pose. So, instead of explaining in mediocre, wrought-with-formality Japanese what they’d like from a couple, they carry a small sample of images that clients quickly copy, expressions and all.

Green explains that Japanese stoicism presents a huge challenge for them, but as storytellers, they keep their eyes open for the emotional responses, from the couple, the guests, and the family members. A Japanese mother, for example, may allow one teardrop to fall in the entire day, so it’s a tremendously powerful moment to capture.  

“It’s all on the inside, very Zen, very contained,” explains Taylor. “They want to show it, but culturally, they can’t. And then we come along. And engage and connect. And smile. We give our couples permission to feel and express themselves and the story tells itself.We strip back the language and say ‘happy’ A LOT. They laugh. We get emotion! And we try to remain true to our style of storytelling and imagery no matter the restrictions.”

Of course, 37 Frames doesn’t shoot Japanese weddings exclusively. The large number of expats living in Tokyo means there are many purely western weddings to shoot, too. They also do what they call “international weddings,” in which the bride or the groom is Japanese, and the significant other brings another culture (as well as family and guests) into the mix. Two categories of destination weddings enter their schedule from time to time, too: couples flying in from overseas to get married in Japan, and travelling overseas to cover weddings—they’ve been to Spain, Italy, the U.S., and, of course, Australia. What makes the expat and destination weddings different from Japanese and international weddings (including Japanese “western-style” weddings), is that Green and Taylor are more familiar with the feeling and emotions of the former, and therefore “we can focus more on the creative side without the strict timelines and down-to-the-second timing. And communicating our creative ideas is much easier and clearer,” explains Green.

Still Standing

In other words, they’ve found their calling: thinking fast, working under pressure and learning to expect the unexpected. They explain, “We totally had NO idea we were going to fall in love with it that much. So in 2010, we threw ourselves 100 percent into weddings and portraits. And all looked to be going along well that year until 2011, it was all taken away overnight.”

“Overnight” was March 11, 2011, the day of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. 37 Frames was just carving out their wedding niche in Tokyo when the worst natural disaster since 1923 struck Japan, killing 20,000 in its wake. Facing eight months of cancellations, the pair headed north from Tokyo into the earthquake zone to help out however they could. “It gave us a perspective on life we never thought we’d have,” says Green. The ensuing exhaustion left them feeling that rebuilding their business was nearly impossible, especially in a country mourning so many lives lost. “It seemed an impossible task to be selling ‘Life’s Most Beautiful Stories’ in post-disaster Japan.” But, as Taylor explains, “Dee didn’t want to give up without a fight.” Their passion for photography and the country they call home won out over the grief. As Green eloquently states, “out of desperation comes inspiration.” Her enthusiasm, belief and vision for their future as wedding photographers in Tokyo inspired Taylor’s creativity and marketing ideas, and together they rebuilt, putting them back on the road that has led them where they are today. “We realized again the power of photography and the importance it has and the gift it brings to so many. We fell in love with photography all over again.” And they really look forward to all the fabulous wedding stories yet to tell.   

Allison Valencia is a freelance writer and copy editor for Rangefinder magazine, and is based out of Minneapolis, MN.

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