John Dolan isn’t your typical wedding photographer. He kind of fell into it when he served as the best man at his brother’s wedding. “My other brother was the priest,” he says. “I had a Leica in my pocket and shot three rolls of film. This was in New Jersey, and they had a photographer who was trying to overly orchestrate things and super-cheesey.” That night, Dolan discovered what he loved to do, but also learned what not to do while on the job.
Fast forward a few years, and a 1995 issue of Martha Stewart Weddings catapulted his career. “That magazine really elevated the industry,” says Dolan. “I had about 20 images in the first issue issue. My name was in tiny type in the back, and after it was published, I got about 60 calls from all over, California and Austria. Brides came to my office with clippings—this was pre-Pinterest—it was amazing.”
A year later, he founded the “I’m Proud To Be A Wedding Photographer” club in 1996. Prior to this group’s arrival on the scene, wedding photographers were getting a really bad, not totally undeserved rap. They were known for taking images that felt expected (think: prom photo-like lineups of the wedding party and cheesy, awkward shots of the groom carrying the bride). “Show me a beautiful wedding photo from 1980?” Dolan jokes. “I haven’t seen one.” The first meeting took place at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park in New York City and included nine of his colleagues. These comrades in arms weren’t competitive with one another, often directing a bride to another photographer she might get along with better if the fit wasn’t right. Together, they set out to change the game, and they did. They approached their field like photojournalists or fine art wedding photographers and were always in search of what felt like authentic stolen moments.
When we meet at his home office on the Bowery to talk all things weddings, he has a calming presence, which makes him the kind of guy you want to have around on your big day. “A wedding is like New Year’s Eve,” he says. “There’s all of this pressure to have a good time, but there maybe someone who is a little blue.” Dolan’s goal is always to capture the highs and the lows of the day, or in his words, “the salt and the sweet.”
Throughout the course of his career, he’s photographed the weddings of Kate Bosworth, Will Smith, Ben Stiller, Matt Lauer, Jennifer Lopez (the first time around), former Martha Stewart Weddings Editor in Chief Darcy Miller, former Domino Editor in Chief Deborah Needleman, and more, just to name drop a few. “I find clients who are comfortable with showing everything that day, and then I think about it from a historical perspective,” Dolan says. He deadpans that the brides he works for are often English majors—they’re looking for the joy but are also okay with showing a little bit of the melancholy that sometimes accompanies such a momentous day. “It’s an interesting subject. Weddings are optimistic and hopeful, but underneath all of that, there’s a 50% chance of failure,” says Dolan. “I want to introduce multiple layers to the discussion—weddings are so much more complex than most pictures show.”
Check out a few of his favorite photos from over the years in the slideshow above.