A triumphant announcement of upcoming nuptials circulated on social media and validated by congratulations and “likes”; the contemporary engagement photo is a commissioned image of the expectant period between proposal and marriage. The image operates as an indicator of economic status, a propagator of social norms and a meeting place of high and low culture. The photographs are often overly romantic, repetitive and digitally circulated. A result of economic climates that can afford superfluous artistic services and an increased accessibility to technology, amateur engagement photography possesses idiosyncratic qualities which distinguish it from “professional” or “high” art while bending class divisions by borrowing from a history of classical painting and portraiture.
As a noun, amateur is defined as one who engages in a pursuit unpaid, distinguishing them from a professional. The adjective amateur refers to something “done in an inept or unskilful way”. Indicators of amateur or “unprofessional” engagement photography include cliche posing, awkward composition and batch editing techniques. Favour is given to warm lighting, (how many golden-hued early evenings?) loving poses and outdoor settings. Meaningful gazes are exchanged and embraces take place in fields, amongst trees or against the exteriors of buildings, suggesting a rustic return to nature, a championing of natural love and dreamy pre-nostalgia. Their absurdity is no secret: a blog entitled: “Bad Engagement Photos - The Silly, Hilarious and Contrived” posted an article about a couple subverting these cliches by reversing gender specific poses (woman with her leg up, showing off the ring) and exaggerating other popular concepts. Examining an August Sander photograph from 1914, English art critic and poet John Berger once discussed the way that suits worn by rural men in the image indicated their economic status by the fit of the fabric over their shoulders, shaped by years of physical labour. This visual clue allowed the viewer to make a series of assumptions of class and status without knowing concrete details of the men’s circumstance. In a similar way, the tropes repeated in amateur engagement photos identify the images as belonging to a particular class or caliber of tenderfoot artistic output. However cheesy the conventions may be, predictability works in the photographer’s favour: repetition suggests a predictable and consistent outcome for a patron who may not be interested in artistic exploration over expected results. This systematic approach means that maternity, engagement and wedding photography are often looked down as “a service industry” rather than legitimate art.
However cheesy the conventions may be, predictability works in the photographer’s favour: repetition suggests a predictable and consistent outcome for a patron who may not be interested in artistic exploration over expected results.
The popularity of personalized engagement photoshoots indicates a middle class economy with adequate capital to support the superfluous services of a freelance photographer, but not wealthy enough to employ “genuine” techniques of “high art.”. Freelance photography as a vocation may suggest a dual-income household able to support a hobbyist venture, which is often what the occupation grows out of - an interest in photography paired with access to adequate equipment. Positioning oneself in an entrepreneurial model is increasingly easy as DSLR cameras become increasingly affordable and outdoor photoshoots do not require studio space or expensive lighting. Much advertising can take place for free on social media, and websites are easy to build on one’s own.
In her 1977 collection of essays “On Photography,” American theorist Susan Sontag (1933 - 2004) explored the cultural consequences of the industrialization of photography and subsequent birth of the amateur photographer. At its conception, photography was limited exclusively to “experts,” as the necessary equipment was difficult to operate, costly and hard to come by. As technology improved, the accessibility of cameras allowed for a new class of amateurs. Capturing images became a democratic process as cameras became affordable and entered the home. Families were able to record holidays, vacations and events, creating new archives of domestic life. Sontag suggested that “for as much as a century, the wedding photograph has been as much a part of the ceremony as the prescribed verbal formulas.” Similarly, the engagement photo reproduces ideologies of marriage, monogamy and nuclear families. A potential “high art” counterpart is Jan Van Eyck’s famed 1434 Arnolfini Portrait. Traditionally, it is believed that “the scene is a private wedding ceremony, and the painting acts as a marriage certificate; but it has also been suggested that the painting celebrates the continuity of their married life, or the close relationship between the couple.” Amateur engagement photos borrow from the same history of portrait painting that acted as display of affluence and social standing. Historically, the wealthy able to afford such a service commissioned pictures of themselves or their family in domestic settings amongst possessions that indicated their status. By advocating for the institution of marriage and imitating a history of “vanity portraiture”, the contemporary engagement photo acts as the site of where high art has trickled down from the museums and into the suburbs. This reflects similar theories of merging classes that theorist Dick Hebdige describes in his book Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things. Hebdige outlines a popular mid-20th century philosophy that culture should not connote the heights of artistic excellence, but rather a plurality of social practices. While borrowing status-validation mechanisms from historical portraiture, amateur engagement photos have blended them with naive formal techniques to develop their own identifiable tropes. The result is that the images, at surface proud announcements of domestic events, have turned into absurd caricatures of themselves.