Noe Valley Voice June 2008

Here Comes the Wedding Photographer

By Olivia Boler

Claire Lewis has a recurring nightmare. She shows up to a wedding naked and with no film for her camera. This is a pretty scary dream, since Claire Lewis is a wedding photographer. It can't be a coincidence then that her new memoir, published in late May by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, is titled Exposed: Confessions of a Wedding Photographer.

Showing up naked to a gig hasn't happened yet, but Lewis, 46, has experienced a true wedding-photographer fiasco.

"I shot two weddings in one weekend, something I rarely do," she explains. "I always have two cameras, but it turns out the shutter on one of them wasn't opening. Half the photos I took--there was nothing. The wedding party had family that had come from all over the world, and there were no pictures of them. One of the bride's mothers called me and cried and cried. It was really horrible. I've been at this a long time. I check and double-check equipment, but there are parts you can't control, and things go wrong. It doesn't help those nightmares."

Nightmares or not, Lewis has lots of stories to tell--many of weddings that went smoothly, but many others of photo shoots (and attempted unions) that jumped the rails right out of the station. In Exposed, she reveals the funniest, most disturbing, and most poignant experiences she's had during two decades of photographing "hundreds and hundreds" of marriage ceremonies. Her book is likely to strike a chord with many local newlyweds, and it has already won the attention of media from around the country, including National Public Radio, which invited Lewis to be a guest on Talk of the Nation on May 29. (For an online podcast of the show, go to

Although Lewis has encountered her share of demanding clients, the Liberty Street resident avoids using the term "bridezilla." "I hate that word," she says. "Of course, I've had to deal with some horrible people, but weddings are very stressful, and brides are under tremendous financial and social pressure. They're trying to do everything right, and they've read these wedding guides where everything is perfect. There are some absolutely nice people who go a little crazy, especially if they are already perfectionists or easily stressed. Weddings will bring out an exaggerated version of yourself."

She describes the time an officiant threw up all over a bride during the ceremony. "That's pretty tough to deal with," Lewis says. In most weddings, the brides try to micromanage their bridesmaids. Some couples like to get their pets involved, typically as ring-bearers. One dog headed down the aisle during an outdoor ceremony and decided to pee on a chair leg (the guest sitting there got out of the way fast). There was another bride who decided, right after the ceremony, to consummate her union with her new husband--and his best man. "Does that make her a bridezilla?" Lewis asks with a laugh. "Maybe she just did not exhibit the most marvelous taste."

Lewis does talk about some brushes with hair-pulling craziness: brides who drink too much before the ceremony, to calm their nerves. Brides who e-mail the participants 10-page schedules divided into 10-minute increments. "Nothing goes like that," Lewis says. "Zippers will break. Schedules start to fall apart and brides get anxious. There are those who can go with the flow, who have great, funny, messy weddings. But sometimes it's just madness, and I come home thinking, Never again. Because shooting a wedding is hard every time. Clients always tell me, the pictures are the most important thing and this is a once-in-a-lifetime event."

Of course, Lewis has also worked for many relaxed, agreeable couples. She especially likes photographing weddings for Persian families. "The couples usually say to me, 'Don't worry--everyone will be late, and this is going to be a big, crazy mess.' Photographing the lovely people is wonderful, but in a way, I prefer the more challenging ones. The weddings that go sideways--that's part of the fun."

What she also loves is good, old-fashioned film. "I am officially a dinosaur," she laughs. Lewis does not even own a digital camera, although her husband John, an English teacher at Redwood High School in Marin, bought a little point-and-shoot to record his fishing feats.

She prefers the challenges that film sets up. "I have nothing against digital--for one thing, it's cheaper. But I like film because I think having some obstacles to push up against, like only 36 exposures, encourages creativity. I have to make certain decisions. Should the moment be in black and white or in color? I like to frame through a viewfinder because it adds to the magic and the ritual of shooting. When I change a roll of film, I have to think of the story I'm telling. With digital, you just blast away."

Lewis also doesn't do any retouching of her photos, and she certainly doesn't Photoshop them. She has stopped giving her clients the negatives, though. "I've had couples in their twenties who look at the negatives, confused by what they are. It makes me feel old!" Instead, she scans the negatives onto a disk and gives that to the clients.

In addition to wedding photography, Lewis has shot commercial photography for publications like Lonely Planet travel guides, Publishers Weekly, People magazine, and Northwest Airlines' World Traveler Magazine. She also does portraiture and some documentary work. Since she had her daughter Tess 10 years ago, she travels less for work (she's been to Africa, Korea, Costa Rica, and Afghanistan, among other countries, and used to do non-profit work for organizations like Human Rights Watch).

Most of her wedding work takes place in San Francisco or in the wine country. While many of her clients are Noe Valley residents, she hasn't really shot a wedding in the neighborhood, except recently at Saint Philip's Church on Diamond Street. The reception was held elsewhere.

"This is a great neighborhood," Lewis says. "But the trouble with Noe Valley is that there aren't really any reception sites. And a lot of clients want to have a 'San Francisco' wedding for their out-of-town guests, so they go to places like the Flood Building or Bohemian Club or Greens Restaurant with its views."

Lewis grew up in England, Holland, and the United States, and speaks English (with a charming, hard-to-place accent), Polish, French, and Dutch. In her teens, she attended Juilliard to study acting for a grueling two years before being asked to leave. It was probably a godsend, since she got into writing and photography instead. She has called Noe Valley home for over eight years, having moved here from New York City by way of a forest yurt (tent) in Sebastopol.

"A yurt! We knew we wanted to move to San Francisco, but we didn't know where," Lewis says. "A couple we met in Healdsburg told us we had to live in Noe Valley--Tess was a baby at the time. And I really wanted to be able to walk out the door of my home and find a coffee shop or browse a bookstore or sit in a playground and have a discussion with people that went beyond what's better, disposable or cloth diapers."

She's found all of this and more, she says. Lewis will be reading and signing books at Cover to Cover Booksellers, 1307 Castro Street, on Sunday, June 8, at 4 p.m. To find out more about Exposed or Lewis' wedding or other photography, go to