Thinking Outside The Box: Michael Busse’s Approach to a Creative Couple’s "Anti-Engagement" Shoot

February 23, 2017

By Michael Busse

Chellise Michael Photography

All photos © Chellise Michael Photography

As wedding photographers, we’re always collaborating with our clients. They have their own views, style, level of comfort (or discomfort) with having a camera on them and artistic background (or lack thereof), but it’s up to us as photographers to grab the bull by the horns when a client’s vision for their shoot expands past normal garden varietals. Yes, it can be scary to step outside of our normal ways of shooting, but it can also be quite rewarding.

But there’s no use jumping at an idea simply because it’s different—there’s got to be a resonance, a curiosity for interests that you share with your clients. Having taken a non-traditional approach with our photography, we’ve attracted clients like Mar and Doug to the Chellise Michael Photography (CMP) studio before. These two found themselves in search of something more than simple coverage—they sculpted a loose vision of what they were looking for but didn’t quite know how to attain it.

It all started with a simple inquiry. We always ask potential clients to tell us a little something about themselves and describe what their wedding may be like. Mar’s initial submission went like this:

I was really drawn to your studio because of the aesthetic and especially because the website mentions inclinations toward 35mm and Polaroids—I enjoy both. I particularly like the fact that your photographers don’t have people jump in the air! We both tend to like the 1960s cinematic look, like Dario Argento’s Italian Giallo films. 

Mar and Doug had a vision beyond their 30-person wedding in the backyard of a Brooklyn restaurant. They shyly mentioned they had a Pinterest board, something I usually stay a million miles away from, but something struck me about these two, and I asked to see it.

I was immediately swept away by movie posters for Dario Argento’s Suspiria (a 1977 Italian horror film) and stills from Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (a French crime flick from 1965). Some images I knew; most, I didn’t. The most impressive part of this wedding’s inspiration board—a kaleidoscope of their love of sexual tension and vintage intimacy—was that I didn’t see a single bridal image. This was my kind of couple.

Over the next few nights, I dipped into some of the films, looking at the way the characters dressed, how they interacted, the camera angles, the lighting, the film quality, their body language, the plots, the love and subtle intensities. I built mental bridges connecting these movies and Mar and Doug’s personal love story. For their shoot, they would need to become characters in their own play. I wanted to approach this as if I was a photographer hired to create a twisted movie poster about their love.

We would need throwback hair and makeup, a vintage wardrobe (Mar emailed pictures of her extensive vintage wardrobe and possibilities for Doug’s outfit as well), colored lighting, digital and film shots, and two to three spaces to play in. And we would definitely need a separate day of shooting before their actual wedding day. The idea of pulling this all together proved to be incredibly overwhelming, but I realized I had a lot of resources I’d be able to turn to where I needed help.

Our studio’s photo editor, Kelli McGuire, took charge of the Dario Argento-esque lighting. She chose the gels we used and positioned the lights for each setup. She also shot 35mm and 120mm while I used my Canon 5D Mark III. Since the couple was drawn to us because of our use of film, I wanted to make sure that film was used every step of the way, and while I love shooting film, I prefer to focus on one instrument at a time. Having the luxury of only shooting digital kept me relaxed and more involved with Mar and Doug. My wife, Chellise Michael, offered to shoot 35mm for the second half of the portrait session; we also wanted a way to preserve the CMP studio style within some of the analog photos we’d be giving the clients, so having Chellise there on the second half anchored our brand and helped balance this non-traditional approach we were taking.

Next came nailing down the hair and makeup. We had worked with Eve Whittington before on a styled shoot, and her ability to create throwback hairstyles in a matter of minutes was unparalleled. She was able to recommend a makeup artist for the shoot, Rachel Whitehurst. With all the gears grinding and the pistons pumping, we had Mar and Doug more excited for this portrait session than they were for their actual wedding.

We envisioned two indoor locations: one for psychedelic multi-colored, off-camera lighting, and one to serve as a nod to Mar and Doug’s long-distance relationship between Boston and New York—they both spent a lot of time on trains, and the station platforms became a symbol of connection for the two of them. For part one, the couple called their friend in Ditmas Park who had a house we could use; for part two, Chellise suggested using Downtown Brooklyn’s Transit Museum. Genius.

Having never been to the Ditmas Park house, I didn’t quite know how the light would be, and in our case, less natural light was better since we were going to be working with colored gels on Dynalites. The preference was actually to work with colored lighting at night, but our schedules didn’t allow for this, so we decided to bring some fabrics with us to help cover any windows that would interrupt the darkness we were shooting for.

I wanted a loose set of directions for Mar and Doug to weave in and out of as we were shooting. The idea was to start off expressing distance, longing and need. Eventually I wanted them to come together, without quite trusting the fact that they were in each other’s arms, both walking the line of a ghost of the past and physical beings in a mess of love. They got so into character that we completely blurred the lines of what an engagement or couple’s portrait session is expected to be. It was actually hard to recognize it as such, which was exactly what we were going for.

Having a solid foundation with all the pieces in place beforehand allowed all of us to just show up the day of the shoot and do what we do best. Each of us played a role; all we had to do was absorb the subtle cues the spaces gave us, allowing one another and the elements around us to direct and finesse our actions. It became a true celebration of our similarities and differences that bore a shade more intriguing than any one of us could have imagined on our own.

Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EOS 620, Nikon FM2 35mm, Mamiya 645 120mm?
Lenses: Canon 28mm f/1.8, Canon 50mm f/1.4, 35mm Sigma?
Lighting: Assortment of Dynalites
Film: Portra 400 (120mm and 35mm), Portra 800

Michael Busse is a photographer/musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He and his wife, Chellise Michael, run the Chellise Michael Photography studio, named one of Rangefinder’s 30 Rising Stars of 2015. They also host an annual photo retreat, Camp Go Away, a space for photographers and videographers to focus on personal work.

Related: Making a Typical Wedding Photo Shoot Atypical