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First Comes Love, Then Comes...the Photo Shoot

First Comes Love, Then Comes...the Photo Shoot

  • Bathed in a photographer’s beauty dish lighting, Cai, thirty, embraces his wife-to-be, Tong, twenty-nine, in one of the many poses for their wedding pictures during a three-day studio session at Princess Studio, a wedding photo studio in Shanghai.
    Bathed in a photographer’s beauty dish lighting, Cai, thirty, embraces his wife-to-be, Tong, twenty-nine, in one of the many poses for their wedding pictures during a three-day studio session at Princess Studio, a wedding photo studio in Shanghai.
  • In a different outfit, Tong poses in a solo shot under dramatic lighting cast on her by human light stands at Princess Studio. The studio is not Shanghai’s largest, but it is known throughout the city for its creative lighting and the time it puts into making a perfect portrait with each couple.
    In a different outfit, Tong poses in a solo shot under dramatic lighting cast on her by human light stands at Princess Studio. The studio is not Shanghai’s largest, but it is known throughout the city for its creative lighting and the time it puts into making a perfect portrait with each couple.
  • Shi, a thirty-six-year-old artist, and her fiancé Tan, a thirty-eight-year-old who works in advertising, pose on a “Greek island” at The Only Photo Studio in Shanghai.
    Shi, a thirty-six-year-old artist, and her fiancé Tan, a thirty-eight-year-old who works in advertising, pose on a “Greek island” at The Only Photo Studio in Shanghai.
  • The Only Photo Studio is the biggest wedding photo studio in Shanghai. Here, eighty couples can be photographed each day in such settings as a winter garden, a castle, a fashion showroom, a church, and a mock Greek island. The Only Studio boasts three floors of sets and 300 employees—makeup artists, hair dressers, and costume designers, among other staff.
    The Only Photo Studio is the biggest wedding photo studio in Shanghai. Here, eighty couples can be photographed each day in such settings as a winter garden, a castle, a fashion showroom, a church, and a mock Greek island. The Only Studio boasts three floors of sets and 300 employees—makeup artists, hair dressers, and costume designers, among other staff.
  • Cheng, twenty-eight, and her fiance Zhang, thirty-three, prepare for a shoot on the Versailles set at The Only Photo Studio. The basic package, costing 3,000 RMB, comes with six outfit changes and six setting choices.
    Cheng, twenty-eight, and her fiance Zhang, thirty-three, prepare for a shoot on the Versailles set at The Only Photo Studio. The basic package, costing 3,000 RMB, comes with six outfit changes and six setting choices.
  • Cheng and Zhang chose to pose for one portrait in traditional Korean costume at The Only Photo Studio.
    Cheng and Zhang chose to pose for one portrait in traditional Korean costume at The Only Photo Studio.
  • A bride-to-be poses in the library of The Only Photo Studio. The studio employs sixty photographers.
    A bride-to-be poses in the library of The Only Photo Studio. The studio employs sixty photographers.
  • Gu, twenty-eight, and Xien, twenty-six, pose for their wedding photos at Dream Castle in central Shanghai. Each neighborhood of Shanghai has at least one wedding studio.
    Gu, twenty-eight, and Xien, twenty-six, pose for their wedding photos at Dream Castle in central Shanghai. Each neighborhood of Shanghai has at least one wedding studio.
  • An engaged couple sits on-set at the Dream Castle studio.
    An engaged couple sits on-set at the Dream Castle studio.
  • At Princess Studio, couples can spend between 3,000 RMB and 130,000 RMB (between U.S.$500 and $22,000) on a wedding album. The more expensive packages come with more costume changes, setting options, prints, and access to the VIP room.
    At Princess Studio, couples can spend between 3,000 RMB and 130,000 RMB (between U.S.$500 and $22,000) on a wedding album. The more expensive packages come with more costume changes, setting options, prints, and access to the VIP room.
  • A portrait studio customer waits in a wedding dress for her session to begin at the Dream Castle photo studio.
    A portrait studio customer waits in a wedding dress for her session to begin at the Dream Castle photo studio.
  • Competition is fierce between photo studios. Each tries to outdo the others with the best decor...
    Competition is fierce between photo studios. Each tries to outdo the others with the best decor...
  • ...all the while trying to keep their new creations a secret from the others.
    ...all the while trying to keep their new creations a secret from the others.
  • After their sessions, each couple receives an album and an official portrait of their choosing to be displayed during their actual wedding.
    After their sessions, each couple receives an album and an official portrait of their choosing to be displayed during their actual wedding.

The wedding banquet comes later. For many Chinese couples, married life really begins in the photo studio where, basted in glitter and hair gel, the brides dressed for a debut at La Scala or night out with Fabio, they gaze upon sets so tufted and inlaid and gold-foiled that comparisons to the real places that seem to have served as models—Versailles, the homes of Donald Trump—don’t quite suffice. This isn’t just a ritual for the rich and corrupt. Flinty investigative reporters, law professors at the country’s best universities, bank tellers, even men and women who ordinarily dress and live in a manner that suggests only the most passing of concern with appearances, still greet visitors to their modest homes with towering portraits of themselves surrounded by velvet and marble.

Photographer Guillaume Herbaut sees pathos and humor in these pictures. His wide-angle shots of soon-to-be newlyweds posing (or taking a break from posing) for their portraits turn the conventions of the genre upside down—sometimes not all that kindly. Instead of wedded bliss, his pictures project alienation, sexual menace, and often a profound sense of loneliness. Sociologist Leta Hong Fincher, an expert on contemporary Chinese marriage, sees in them reflections of marriage practices that sanctify wealth and debase women.

These darker themes temper the element of the photographs that is just poking fun at an easy target. China’s nouveau riche and their flight from their Communist past are constant tropes in popular foreign reporting about China. They are absurd, repellent, maybe even slightly scary. And they are endlessly useful as a shorthand for the big themes of rapid change the country has been through. Think how many U.S. magazines have dressed Mao in Louis Vuitton, or some version of the same, on their covers. In many ways, the Chinese wedding pictures are no different from any wedding photographs, never mind weddings themselves, which across cultures and epochs have always shared a fondness for artifice and displays of status. This is true as much for the brides in Brooklyn posing against exposed-brick factory walls, their bouquets of wild flowers bound in hempen twine, as it is for Chinese brides playing Marie Antoinette for a day.

Viewpoint

02.04.14

In Slickness and in Wealth

LETA HONG FINCHER

Under the harsh glare of a studio spotlight, bride-to-be Tong turns her face until it is almost completely in shadow. Tong is posing for a three-day session of wedding photographs at Shanghai’s premier Princess Studio, where couples spend between 3,000 RMB (U.S.$500) and 130,…

Weddings always traffic in aspiration and status symbols. But perhaps for a country emerging from decades of Communist-imposed austerity and cultural isolation—which had crushed its homegrown displays of marital excess—Western luxury at its most overripe provided the ideal material for fantasy. Wedding studios first came to the mainland from Taiwan in the ’90s at the very beginning of China’s rocket-like economic ascent. And they have multiplied and evolved as new groups have amassed the funds necessary to support 3,000 to 130,000 RMB shoots.

Over the last few months, Chinese leaders have cracked down on lavish displays of wealth among officials—five-star hotels, high-priced watches, and fancy liquor have all taken a hit. So far, wedding studios haven’t become targets. Someday in the not too distant future, Herbaut’s photos may look dated, but they will endure as a testament to the fierce, exuberant, and ravenous ambition of an age when the only answer to the question, “Do you want more?” was “I do.” Susan Jakes

Guillaume Herbaut has dedicated himself to photographing historical places filled with symbols and memory. He is a founding member of L’Oeil Public. His work Tchernobylsty won the Kodak Critics Prize...

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IAN TEH

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The Rat Tribe

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The evening sun sits low in the smoggy Beijing sky. Beneath a staid, maroon apartment block, Jiang Ying, 24, is stirring from her bed after having slept through the day. Day is night and night is day anyway in the window-less world she inhabits three floors below ground.Pint-...