Brittany and Michael's wedding was a triumph of love. I don't know how else to put it without underplaying how miraculous their union, on July 14, 2017, was. It was in the midst of the raging fires all over Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Their wedding ceremony site had burned. Their reception location (Brittany's family home) was in the mandatory evacuation zone, just miles away from the Tubbs fire's origins. In the midst of the chaos of first losing their venue at Hans Fahden (owned by Michael's family), then themselves having to leave because of mandatory evacuation from Calistoga, Brittany and Mike managed to make the decisions, and get the help they needed to make their day happen. All of this was due, in no small part, to their friends (Hannan and Joe Kim) who were giving them a place to stay and who's idea it was to put out an SOS call on social media (#burninlove), along with a few perfect strangers who answered the call,(stylists Lauren Vigil, Sarah Bernate and Brianna Malvino, all the way from San Francisco with amazing decore ) who somehow managed to salvage their wedding.
On my part, after the initial shock of having a natural disaster at my doorstep and dealing with my own family's evacuation from our home in Santa Rosa, my thoughts kept going to Britt and Mike. I wanted to be there, if, by some miracle, they still wanted to proceed. I had gotten a text from Britt's friend, Bryanna, that there was a possibility of a small ceremony still going ahead, was I still available? and Britt would understand if I needed to be with family.
I discussed it with my husband. We felt in no threat after the initial few days of drama. I was available. I called my second shooter, Melanie, and she was still in too.
And then I waited. I knew, on their end, there must be some frantic taking stock and decision making.
Not until the day before was it confirmed: It was a go; it would happen in Napa at the residence where they were evacuated to.
My play book was scrapped. All the careful planning of where and when to be, who and how to shoot was out the window. The bride didn't even know if the groomsmen were going to show, certainly not all of them. Half the guests would not make it, in fact, there would not be room if they did. Funny enough, this relaxed me, this was going to be photo journalistic style shooting all the way and I felt comfortable with that. I would be flying by the seat of my pants, with Melanie there as my second lens to try to catch all that we could.
We would meet at the salon where the ladies were getting hair and make-up done at 11 am.
The drive there was a bit surreal. Smoke was in the air. As we approached Napa from the south, we could see charred hillsides, see smoke laying heavy over patches of the sky. The fires were still burning in the hills, the entire city of Napa was on alert. Ash was falling and there was no avoiding the smell of campfire.
My first impression, as I walked into that salon, was of calm acceptance. Brittany's mom, as always, greeted us warmly, and offered us champaign. Wasn't life crazy? And yet here we all were, to celebrate.
Needless to say, there were emotions; but everyone held it together well. Brittany was the picture of poise and calm, not sure whether it had yet to hit or if she was just rolling with the punches. Regardless, that girl had her priorities and head on straight!
When Brittany's hair stylist Alexis, heard that she had no shoes for the wedding (many detail items had been left behind during the evacuation- luckily she had the dress and rings!), she immediately called a friend who arrived with a selection of beautiful, gently used shoes in Brittany's size. It truly felt like everyone was there to hold Brittany up and make her day happen. Both Alexis and Crystal (the make-up artist )were amazing women, ready to be there, in the midst of crisis.
In a lull at the salon, as we sat chatting, the impact of all that Brittany and Mike had been dealing with hit. She was emotional because Michael's parents could not be in attendance as they were still up at their property, Hans Fahden vineyards, defending their home from the ravages of the fire. The thought of it and how Michael must be feeling caused her to tear up and I think we all got a little damp eyed at that point.
It was a cathartic moment, and everyone managed to shake it off and moved on, to focus on the celebration of life despite the disappointment of all the failed plans, the losses and the absences.
After the relative leisure of shooting at the salon, it was down to serious work of capturing all the moments as they came flying at us. We went ahead to the house where guests were already gathering.
The bride and bridesmaids arrived, some dressed elsewhere, some on location as space was limited and everyone was scrambling to find the finishing touches to outfits they didn't know they would be wearing on this day.
There were the shots of the dress to take, the final moments of the bride getting dressed and composed for the moment everyone had worked so hard to get to.
And there was the moment when we learned that Michael's mom was going to make it. Somehow she had managed to convince the authorities to let her out of the evacuation zone temporarily. She said that when she began to cry, telling the fireman that her son was getting married, he took pity and gave her a special pass that would allow her back in after the wedding. Amazing. Even the first responders were instrumental in allowing all the important pieces of this day to fall into place!
Then I was told we were going to do a reveal shot. It had not been in the original plans, but I was game! The plan for the day, in lieu of any solid outline, was to roll with whatever came up. The only space available for the shots was the small front yard. The sun was pouring into my eyes just over the top of the fence which was not ideal; it was a challenging time of day in a challenging location, but I managed to make it work. Britt and Mike were just so honest and fun, that it made this set of images fun to capture.
Then it was time for the ceremony. It was not the location I'd envisioned when I planned my shots months ahead. Rather than a sweeping view over a valley with ample room to maneuver, we were in a small backyard with very limited wiggle room. But it was perfect, perfectly decorated as if this were the original venue and not the emergency fill-in, perfectly full to the brim with family and friends. Everyone gathered, standing in a community circle and I plunked myself right in the middle. My ninja side-kick, Melanie, squeezed in the back to get out of my shots and capture some images from behind.
My favorite part of the ceremony was when the rings were passed from hand to hand around the circle to be blessed by everyone in attendance. At the end we were told that we had all touched a piece of Gary, Brittany's father who passed away several years ago, and there was not a dry eye in that backyard.
Then, voila, the short, meaningful and beautiful ceremony was over and the celebration began. Brittany and Michael were visibly relieved. They had done it! Against all odds, they had done it. And had it not been for a community of loving family, friends and perfect compassionate strangers, the day could not have happened. It was a confluence of effort, love, compassion and joy.
I am proud and grateful to have been a part of this incredible wedding and I wish Brittany and Michael all the best for their marriage, which is clearly founded solidly in love.