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Brides Gone Wild

Wall Street Journal

It's wedding season, and around the country couples are posing for photographs that will be gathered into albums and handed down through the generations. There's the groom, beaming in his tuxedo. The father, flush with pride.

And the bride, wearing little more than boy shorts and a bustier.

The multibillion-dollar wedding industry is offering a revealing new twist on the old bridal portrait. Catering to older and more independent brides -- and reflecting popular culture's turn toward the risqué and voyeuristic -- more photographers are setting up in dressing rooms to immortalize unguarded, preceremony moments. Wedding albums and public photographer Web sites alike are filling up with a different view of the bride -- daddy's little girl cavorting in lingerie, adjusting a bra or hiking her gown for a bathroom break.

Established wedding photographers say they're taking racy photos at events of all price levels. At a $250,000 affair at the Chicago Four Seasons, photographer Steven Gross -- he charges $10,000 and up a day -- took nearly 8,000 shots, but one that made it into the bride's wedding album was a close-up of her waist and prominent cleavage. Southern California photographer Brian Kramer's portfolio includes black-and-white photos of darling children, classic portraits -- plus an underwear-clad bride chatting on her cellphone in a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Chris and Mary Jo Prinos of Lancaster, Mass., whose packages start at $3,000, recently captured a bride discussing last-minute details with her officiant while wearing a camisole, sheer boy shorts and a garter belt. (It's not just women: Grooms, too, are caught brushing their teeth or having their necks shaved.)

Brides are revealing themselves at a time when popular culture has pushed the limits of privacy with boundary-blurring reality TV shows and dating sites that let users swap revealing photos. Some of the relaxed vibe had already seeped into wedding culture, of course, as brides started hitting Vegas on raucous bachelorette parties and, more recently, began choosing minimal-coverage gowns from designers like Vera Wang and Monique Lhuillier.

Now, taking cues from the blitz of paparazzi-style coverage of celebrity weddings, many couples are also seeking out so-called wedding photojournalists. Practitioners of the style, which emerged in the 1990s, are known for candid snaps of crying bridesmaids, yawning ringbearers and groomsmen dancing badly -- and, increasingly, preceremony skin. In the four years since it was founded, one organization for these professionals, the Wedding Photojournalists Association, has grown to 1,100 members.

The wedding industry continues to come up with extra touches, guest favors and reception options to keep couples spending. See some of the latest.Joelle Nieto, a 28-year-old from Miami, was looking for an "informal" photographer to document her Sunday-morning wedding last May. Stephan Maloman's site caught her eye, and she liked how the photographer had documented previous proceedings from beginning to end. Early on the day of her ceremony, Ms. Nieto was showing her mother a pair of underwear a friend had given her. Mr. Maloman seized the moment. The result: A photo of Ms. Nieto's unzipped trousers, belly-button ring and a pair of panties with the word "bride" written in sequins on the front. "I guess we're just more relaxed about certain things," says Ms. Nieto. "My husband loves that shot."

Brides and photographers point out that the pictures almost never depict full nudity, and say they're rarely any more salacious than those in a Victoria's Secret catalog. Still, they may be the wedding-day equivalent of a tattoo -- something that seemed like a good idea at the time but has the potential to haunt later. And in some families, the images can create awkward moments between generations.

Hours before her son's wedding in New York City two years ago, Lisa Brettschneider was a little taken aback by the scene in the suite of her daughter-in-law-to-be at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. A twentysomething male photographer was snapping photos of the bride, Alison, and her 12 bridesmaids in their underwear. At one point, the bride-to-be posed on the bed in a silky robe. "It was like a Playboy shoot," says Mrs. Brettschneider, who lives in Larchmont, N.Y.

When the family got the proofs, Mrs. Brettschneider deemed a few images inappropriate for public consumption, including one of Alison's favorite shots, which showed her G-string and back tattoo. "My in-laws weren't too happy about that," says the bride, now 29, who owns a women's clothing showroom in Manhattan. "But it was such a cool shot." Adds her mother-in-law: "I kept saying, 'You're going to have to show them to your kids one day. She didn't put any of those pictures in my album."

Other photos end up in broader circulation. Many photographers retain the rights to their negatives and can use the images as they wish. Shots can end up displayed on photographers' sites, accessible by friends and relatives, or in a public section where they're fair game for anyone with a keyboard and mouse.

Visitors to the home page of Los Angeles's Yitzhak Dalal -- he shot the nuptials of singer Toni Braxton and TV "Bachelorette" Trista Rehn -- can scroll to see pictures of a bride in lingerie. The Web site of Portland, Ore., photographer Teness Herman, whose wedding services start at $4,000, includes an "anticipation" section with pictures including one woman, viewed from the back, who stands in panties and thigh-high hose while someone cuts a piece of string from her bustier.

Caileen Uznis, the bride whose thread-cutting moment appeared on Ms. Herman's site, made her photo available for newspaper publication. Still, the 29-year-old says she'd be bashful about certain people seeing it -- and says the photo probably won't make it into the album she's preparing. "Those aren't the type of pictures that I would put on my coffee table," says Ms. Uznis, who works in interior design in Los Angeles. The bride's father says he has also done some culling: "The book I sent to my mother didn't include those," says Richard McIlvery, the chairman of a university music department in Los Angeles.

The wedding industry has become a juggernaut in the past half decade by pushing "destination" ceremonies, bigger parties and expensive details like in-room beauty preparations for the bride, bridesmaids and, sometimes, the groom. According to the Association of Bridal Consultants, based in New Milford, Conn., weddings in the U.S. account for as much as $125 billion in annual spending, up about 25% from 2001.

But at the same time, many independent-minded brides are poking fun at so many white bouquets and demure poses. "Being like a virgin is very different than being a virgin," says Julie Albright, a marriage therapist and sociology professor at the University of Southern California. For the many brides who have been living with their fiancés for years before taking the leap, mugging for risqué shots can be a way of playing up the irony of donning a traditional dress. "The white gown and veil is a kind of performance or drag -- like Madonna in her video for 'Like a Virgin.'"

It all makes posed bride-and-groom portraits seem like a sepia-toned memory. In the early days of cameras, fin-de-siècle couples would pose stiffly in studios. The post-World War II wedding boom created a cottage industry for bridal photographers, and the prevailing style -- staged eye-gazing, the cake-cutting shot -- remained the standard for decades. While Hollywood and royal weddings provided tabloid material, candid shots didn't start taking off until the late 1990s. Many credit Atlanta photographer Denis Reggie with coining the term wedding photojournalism, and his black-and-white images of the 1996 John F. Kennedy Jr.-Carolyn Bessette wedding are often cited as the style's signature shots.

The verité-bride look has been getting a further boost in the mainstream media. There are now 111 wedding magazines published in the U.S. and Canada, nearly triple the number from 2000, according to Oxbridge Communications, which compiles an annual magazine directory. Many, such as InStyle and Modern Bride, have promoted the style by showcasing all-access wedding pictures of the likes of Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Garner and even Court TV broadcaster Ashleigh Banfield.

For older women, boudoir shots may also represent something of a declaration of independence. Through the early 1970s, the average age for a college-educated woman's first marriage was about 22. Now it's a shade over 26, according to Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard who has studied social indicators related to marriage. As a result, she says, today's brides -- and their fiancés -- have usually lived away from the parents for some time, they're making many of the decisions about the ceremony and, often, they're footing the bill.

They're also interested in showing off the results of their extensive pre-wedding gym routines. "When they're taking pictures, every bride wants to hear how good they look," says Frank Nunez, the co-owner of Unicus, an Illinois company that offers "Wedding Boot Camp" workouts around Chicago. (Its pitch: "Working hard to give you the body you want on your wedding day.")

Jessica Fu came up with a way to head off any potential embarrassment. For her 2003 ceremony, the Minneapolis elementary-school teacher says her parents wanted to see traditional posed shots. She and her husband, however, wanted casual images, so beforehand they gave marching orders to photographer Kristine Heykants: "We made sure that she knew that we wanted her in the dressing room," says Ms. Fu.

When the couple got the proofs after the wedding, Ms. Fu says she separated out the shots she didn't want her Dad to see, including a photo of the bridesmaids lifting her skirt to adjust her garter. Ms. Heykants made up a book of tamer shots for the parents -- and made a separate, racier album with the preparation pictures. "It really conveys the energy of the day," says Ms. Fu. "It turned out really cute."