Wedding Photographer Cliff Mautner Reflects on the Evolution of His Decades-Long Career

February 24, 2020

By Cliff Mautner

Image © Cliff Mautner

Sometime in the spring of 1982, I was a college student scraping by with no spending money in my pocket. I answered a want ad (in one of those old-fashioned classified sections of something called a newspaper) seeking a photographer for an “award-winning weekly newspaper.” After a two-minute interview, I had my first job as a professional photographer. I had zero experience, but they were truly desperate. Thirty-seven years later, I’m still at it. 

I’d imagine that most photographers remember their first assignment. In 1985, my editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Bryan Grigsby, decided he’d make my first one something to laugh about: He sent this raw, inexperienced, Jewish photojournalist to a meeting of the German American Police Association. Yes, there was a level of discomfort. My second assignment was equally uneasy: coverage of the local La Leche league meeting. It was a room full of nursing moms, and I was the only man there.

On Being a Destination Wedding Photographer and a Mother

I had the privilege of learning from some of the very best photojournalists in the world—Larry Price, Sarah Leen, John Paul Filo, April Saul, Tom Gralish and Ron Cortes were among those who earned the Pulitzer Prize. Heck, Larry earned two of them! Aside from those legends, I was able to watch, listen and learn from a staff of professionals that were incredibly gifted storytellers. While shooting 6,000 assignments with the Inquirer, I had many opportunities to see people, places and things that most people never had the privilege to see. Hospitals, corporations, universities, public relation firms, ad agencies and a plethora of other clients allowed my business to become incredibly diverse. I was truly making a decent living as a photographer, working my ass off shooting for an eclectic array of clients, and I still had my contract to shoot all week for the Inquirer. Until I didn’t. 

No article on longevity could be complete without talking about setbacks. In 1998, after about 15 years with the newspaper, I received a phone call from the director of photography, Clem Murray, explaining that I was one of several photographers that were being laid off due to blah blah blah. All I heard was that I was fired. I had infant twin daughters, so it was now time to sink or swim. I’d realized that I’d gotten a little too comfortable with the career I had. Freelance photography, without a truly steady client to rely upon, was a scary place to be. So, I entered the wonderful world of wedding photography. 

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I shot my first wedding as a second shooter for a Philadelphia studio. After my second wedding, I knew I could do this myself but I had no work to show. None. So, I showed my first clients some of the photojournalism work I was proud of: sports work, a magazine feature on a medical mission to Liberia, and a bunch of other mounted images I’d taken over the years. After complimenting me on that work, they asked to see wedding images. I’d asked for $1,000 to shoot their wedding. I settled for $650. 

That was the first of 1,200 or so weddings. I learned how to be a portraitist but also created dramatic texture, dimension and mood. Essentially, my style evolved over time, and I became known for the way I used light. 

Pushing Your Creative Photography With Series and Challenges

While I still shoot anywhere between 30 to 40 weddings a year, I’ve been teaching since 2005. I attended my first WPPI convention (where I later won a Lifetime Achievement award at age 50) in 2004. I owe my teaching career to Bill Hurter, the late, great editor of Rangefinder, and also a man who was open to new ideas. I proposed a seminar for the following year’s convention, and that began my teaching career. 

Next, I approached Nikon USA and the company gave me a shot at speaking at their trade show booth at WPPI. My relationship with Nikon may be my proudest achievement in my career, representing, as a Nikon Ambassador, a brand that’s been in my hands since 1978.

In 2007, I began teaching workshops out of my Haddonfield, New Jersey, studio to help provide skills to photographers in order for them to create a style of their own. Truth be told, the Lighting and Skillset Bootcamp was born thanks to a simple blog post by Susan Stripling, who was my girlfriend at the time. She gave up dinner at the Four Seasons in lieu of a pizza and the creation of that post, helping announce my first workshop. I’m still grateful she did. I had 13 people at the first bootcamp, and then sold out the 20 seats four or five times per year from 2008 to 2018. Since then, I’ve had over 1,000 students from 44 countries come to my studio to learn. 

Balancing Work and Play to Find Your Creative Style in Photography

Longevity is the byproduct of many, many different elements. Resilience is essential. Self-doubt, anxiety, stress and basic survival instincts are constant reminders of how unpredictable this career path is. Accept rejection or go insane. And then always bounce back.

Cliff Mautner’s WPPI Master Class on natural, flash and continuous light takes place at Mandalay Bay on Feb. 25 from 5:30-7:30 p.m.