Bill McCullough, a self-taught photographer, started shooting pictures as a teenager, spending countless hours in a makeshift darkroom above his parents’ garage. Then an obsession with music took over, and it wasn’t until his thirties that the two passions converged, when he’d spend weeks on tour with his band (McCullough plays pedal steel), taking pictures between soundcheck and the night’s gig.
In 2001, two friends insisted he shoot their wedding. “I said no,” McCullough remembers. “It seemed like I would be boxed in too much.” But after coming around to the idea, he packed up his 35mm Fujicas, some Kodachrome film, and a borrowed flash and dove in. “I just photographed it like I shot photographs on tour—basically like a street photographer, except he’s invited to a wedding. And I realized I was finding that mystery and ambiguity I was looking for.” Before long, he started shooting weddings on a regular basis—to pay the bills, really—and has since developed an unmistakably singular style within an otherwise tepid genre.
The wedding photographer suffers a peculiar prejudice, especially in the company of fine-art and photojournalist peers. “I’ve been at parties with other photographers,” he says, “and when I tell them I mostly shoot weddings, they just look at me, and then the topic changes.” It’s an unfair prejudice, since shooting weddings requires remarkable technical skill. But it’s the emotionalism of most wedding photography—its misty, artificial tones (what most clients want, admittedly)—that makes the photographic cognoscente dismiss the genre.
“The photographer is dealing with a live situation where a lot of people want to look like they’re in a magazine,” McCullough says. “So the trick is to high-key out the faces with a lot of softness, so that the imperfections go away.”
McCullough’s wedding pictures preserve the big day with a different wattage, driven by his instincts as a street photographer. Sentimentalism gets boxed out by a more down-to-earth energy. Instead of poreless skin, here is sweat; instead of wry smiles from the bridesmaids, here is joyous guffawing; instead of primness, here we eat, and eat, and eat—and drink. Weddings are, after all, anxious, sweaty affairs, full of giddiness and tension and appetite.
“Weddings have a tendency to compress things,” he says. “People are dressed up, there’s a bit of theater at times. Some people want to be there, some people don’t. Some of these older guys start to fall asleep. In a way, weddings are a framework for the human condition. There are lots of hidden stories in any given evening.”
A decade after his days with the band, McCullough’s passion for music hasn’t waned. He still plays on a regular basis—and music helps inform his approach to photography.
“In recording, you have all of these different tracks—the bass line, the drums, and so on,” he explains, “and you fill a space in terms of time. The tracks overlap and fit together like puzzle pieces, and you end up listening to the mix. I try to do that visually. I try to create some depth in the way things are lit, so there are multiple planes and pieces that end up fitting together. Lighting helps with that, and so I use it to help create an ambiguity to the imagery. And where there’s ambiguity, the viewer starts to make up his or her own story.”
His favorite techniques include seeking out what he calls a “horizontal stack” (people or objects lining up along the horizon at different distances) to create a classical arrangement of bodies; or capturing a “match” (wherein two seemingly unrelated objects become related); and, counterintuitively, employing “shadow-frames” (illuminating a subject so that its shadow is a compositional element, not a blemish).
These techniques, McCullough says, are a way for him to steer through the madness of the reception—“a way to calm myself with some structure, because the event itself is so overwhelming,” he says. “And I practice finding these patterns in the streets. I practice them like scales, so that there’s a muscle memory that kicks in. It’s like improvising in music: You have certain things you’ve practiced that, when the time comes, you’re ready to use.”