The Wedded Photographers
Dec 29, 2017 12:30PM
Michael and Alexandra Meseke remember when they first saw each other: it was early on the morning of September 21, 2006, underneath the Manhattan Bridge. Both would spend the day there, in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, on an HBO Boxing promotional photo shoot featuring heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko. While Michael weaved around monitors, cables, and generators as a lighting assistant, Alexandra worked as a digital technician, analyzing and editing images as they crossed a computer screen. Later that day, the two shared an hour-long train ride back to Manhattan. Their stories converged on the commute, the start of a partnership that brides would schedule weddings around.
Originally from Rochester, Alexandra arrived in New York City in 2005, just after graduating from Rochester Institute of Technology. She wanted to pursue food photography, and dreamed of taking pictures of cookies for the cover of Martha Stewart Living.
“I was terrified of working with people,” Alexandra, now thirty-four, remembers. “Photographing people well means establishing relationships in a very short period of time.” As an artist, she found pleasure in the color, order, and design of still life photos. As a recent technology school graduate, she found instant work for her editing skills in an industry transitioning away from lm to digital photography.
A decade earlier, Michael had driven away from his native northern California in a Volkswagen camper van. He ended up in Manhattan, where he waited tables and assisted photographers while studying acting. By the time he met Alexandra, Michael’s artistic attention centered on environmental portraiture, a craft he practiced by photographing his eccentric West Village neighbors. Alexandra felt drawn to his stories of “insane and amazing” encounters.
“I’m going to be friends with this guy for the rest of my life,” she thought. Michael had a slightly different idea. He found her phone number on the day’s call sheet—a list of contact information—and left a message that night. They met for a drink soon afterwards, and before long, the two lived in Michael’s rent-stabilized 350-square-foot studio. Together, they crafted Michael’s portraits, photographing friends and neighbors against a backdrop in the apartment. Both also continued as commercial photography assistants, favoring jobs like those for Target and J.Crew that let them shoot in natural (unstaged) light.
The couple’s skill sets and interests merged into a business idea after Michael began assisting a photographer whose pictures appeared in wedding magazines.
“I just loved seeing these women in these dresses!” Alexandra remembers. Teaming with Michael had made her more comfortable interacting with strangers, and her digital editing experience was honing her voice as a producer. Four years after meeting, Alexandra and Michael had their first wedding assignment—Michael’s cousin in San Francisco. But first, they were scheduled to marry themselves.
Alexandra Heliotis and Michael Meseke tied the proverbial knot on August 14, 2010, in the town of Victor, New York. They held the outdoor ceremony under large trees, where seventy-eight guests watched them exchange vows in front of a close friend. The party then headed to a nearby barn for barbecue and dancing. Alexandra and Michael chose not to hire a photographer because they had so many among their friends.
“One of our closest friends was an up-and-coming wedding photographer, so she took the lead,” says Alexandra. It was a decision the couple came to regret—not because of picture quality, but because they now see the value in “hiring a non-friend to capture every moment” shared by the entire wedding audience. Michael, now forty-five, says their wedding day was a formative professional experience. Clients benefit from the couple’s firsthand knowledge of “the gravity of that day” and their ability “to anticipate what is coming next and who is who.”
A month after marrying, the Mesekes flew to California for that first wedding job. The experience was something of a betrothal—Michael’s attention to detail and fondness for portraiture with Alexandra’s voice and production abilities. Back home, the couple began promoting themselves as wedding photographers. Jobs came quickly, including several requests for destination events in the Finger Lakes.
Alexandra knew the region well after growing up in Rochester, but not Michael.
“When I saw the Finger Lakes, the way they were formed, their tranquility,” he says, “I was surprised with their beautiful simplicity.” Michael found an instant aesthetic connection to the landscape, which reminded him of his native northern California. Upon the arrival of their son a few years later, the Mesekes decided to settle near their burgeoning Finger Lakes wedding business and closer to Alexandra’s family. They now live in East Rochester.
“We thought we’d be giving up great weddings if we left New York [City],” says Alexandra. “But that’s not been the case.” Alexandra Meseke Photography is now in its eighth year of business, handling between twenty-six and thirty weddings each year.
“We limit ourselves to never taking more than thirty,” Alexandra says, noting that they do have to turn down potential clients. “It’s hard to say no. It’s really hard to say no.” Now with two small children, the couple prioritizes a healthy balance between family life and work events—especially those that end at midnight when little voices awaken them at 6 a.m. Wedding night work sessions are often followed by breakfasts out where the family catches up over waffles and pancakes. In spite of late hours, early mornings, deadlines and partnering only with one another, Michael says they do a good job of keeping professional stressors from their personal relationship.
“We’ve always worked together,” he says. “[Our partnership] is what we are, always.”
A good amount of Alexandra’s time is spent maintaining an online portfolio and blog of selected events on Alexandra Meseke Photography’s Web site. “It’s hard to keep up with, but it is essential to our business,” says Alexandra. A combination of text and photography, each blog post builds the couple’s business presence online, making it instantly more “searchable.” Alexandra’s hope is that when a bride-to-be types a venue of interest into Google, she will see a link to one of the couple’s posts and pictures from that venue.
“It takes a lot of brain power and time to put together the best collection of images to catch a potential client’s eye, and then coming up with something interesting to say, in order to boost the SEO [Search Engine Optimization] is even harder, as we’re not writers!” she says. Victoria “Tori” Cosgrove is one bride who wouldn’t have found Alexandra and Michael without their blog. From the Rochester area, Tori, twenty-six, and her then fiancé Ian Cosgrove, twenty-eight, decided to marry in Buffalo, a destination more easily accessible to his Canadian family. Tori planned the event from Detroit, where the couple lives.
“It was super stressful trying to plan a wedding in a different state,” Tori says. “I was doing everything on my own. I had nightmares about this wedding day. I was scared out of my mind.” Tori works in a law library, and she knew she wanted to get married at Buffalo’s Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, a venue she describes as “very old school vintage” with dark corners and chandeliers. Finding a wedding photographer was a greater worry.
“Ian and I aren’t super comfortable in front of a camera,” Tori admits. Finding Alexandra’s blog, she surveyed the online portfolio, and recognized that the Mesekes were not “typical cookie cutter photographers” who staged wedding parties in only traditional shots. “I could get a real sense of who each couple was.” Tori and Alexandra corresponded via email. One of Tori’s concerns was that the venue might be too dark to produce great photos. Alexandra responded in detail, sharing illustrated ideas for Tori and Ian.
The couple married in Buffalo on May 20, 2016.
“When I look through the photos now, I can’t believe how beautifully they captured every moment.” Tori says. “The most special moments of our wedding we shared with her.”
Cliona Stack, thirty-two, agrees that the Mesekes create an intimacy with their clients. “You feel like they are old friends to help you through the day,” she says of the photographers, whom she hired and has stayed in touch with for years. In 2014, Cliona and her husband, Andrew Potter, married on Seneca Lake at Suzanne’s Fine Regional Cuisine, a venue they found after “stumbling” on the Meseke’s blog. Cliona calls one of her favorite wedding images a “fairy tree photo.” In it, she and Andrew are walking to the venue in a field of wild flowers. “Alexandra is a storyteller,” she says. And after being part of Cliona’s wedding story, her sister Emir hired the Mesekes for her own two years later.
Clients not referred by family or friends might hear about Alexandra and Michael from wedding planners. Kelli Berg, owner of Simply Beautiful Events, an event design company in Rochester, says her staff tries to match the personalities of clients with wedding vendors.
“They are precise in what they need, forward thinking, and they get the job done,” says Kelli. In her experience, clients “don’t want to think about what’s happening” on their big days. They want photographers to get shots that are candid, emotional, and “in areas they don’t even know or didn’t even realize” the photographer captured. What works for the Mesekes, says Kelli, is their “New York City style” and their personal interactions with couples.
“I wrangle personalities, and Michael focuses on the details,” says Alexandra. She describes herself as an extroverted introvert, an emotionally exhausting combination. “But when you’re a wedding photographer, you have to have a personality.” A personality and a plan. Before the big day, couples must respond to a detailed questionnaire asking them to consider what is most important for them to have documented. Their answers offer a blueprint to the photographers.
“We are really good at molding to each client individually,” Alexandra muses. “We have clients who say ‘shoot the wedding and all of the details,’ and others who say, ‘I don’t care about any of that—just capture the moments.’ We manage to do what they’ve asked us to do.”
On Kelli Berg’s recommendation, Hannah and Bobby Torney hired Alexandra and Michael for their June, 2017, wedding. She and Bobby live in Vermont, but Hannah wanted her wedding to be on Canandaigua Lake, where her family has a second home and she spent her summers growing up. She knew many of her guests “didn’t realize how much there is to do” in the Finger Lakes, listing the region’s lovely vineyards, clear lakes, hiking and biking trails, breweries, and charming towns.
There are a few other husband/wife photography teams in Mountain Home territory. Partners Virginia and Tim Carden operate Carden’s Photography (www.cardensphotography.com) out of Williamsport. Married since 2004, the duo has shot weddings and family portraits full-time since 2008 with a “modern, photojournalistic style.” In 2011, the couple—also parents and filmmakers—added videography to their list of services. According to their Web page, Carden’s Film is “a documentary style cinematography studio specializing in one of a kind wedding films.”
Josh Grimes, of Grimestone Photography (www.grimestonephotoblog.com) in Lock Haven, photographs weddings with his wife Sarah’s assistance. A father of three and also a minister, Grimes says on his photo blog that he started shooting weddings after taking a college photography class. Friends of his soon became engaged, and, unable to afford a wedding photographer, they asked him to step in. Josh Grimes happily did—equipped with a Canon camera purchased from a pawnshop. Word of mouth sent more clients his way, as did advertisements posted on Craig’s List. Now a professional—and with a digital camera— Grimes says, “I love people. I’ve tried to hone my skills as ‘a people photographer.’” In 2016, Josh and Sarah Grimes opened Odd Fellas Burger in Lock Haven as “a place for community to gather.”
AlekseyK Photography (www.alekseykphotography.com) is a husband and wife business based in Buffalo that serves the Finger Lakes and western New York with “modern, creative, and documentary-style photography.” The two met when Aleksey Khmyz came to America with the Ukrainian military for training classes at Fort Lee, Virginia. There, he met Leah, serving with the U.S. Army. To stay together, both resigned their posts, married, and settled in Buffalo, Leah’s hometown. The couple’s Web site says they bring a “Euro-American perspective to every event.”
Bogdan and Jenetta Boyko are a husband and wife photography team in Binghamton. On their Web site (www.boykofoto.com) they define photography as “capturing emotion, one click at a time.” In addition to weddings, the Boykos document “special life events.”
Hannah described her style to Alexandra and Michael as “natural, soft, playful, nothing staged or over the top.” Her wedding hosted 250 guests. Hannah and her bridal party had been in weddings before, and she and her friends were “very impressed with [Alexandra] and how laid-back and fun, rather than bossy and intimidating, she was.” Instead of being “almost too structured,” Alexandra and Michael emphasized relaxing and enjoying the moment. To get the poses they wanted, Alexandra was “direct and to the point” but also made them laugh with instructions like “now growl at her.”
The pictures surpassed her expectations. “I look like a model,” Hannah says, still with a trace of surprise in her voice.
The morning of a wedding, Alexandra goes to photograph the bride and her attendants as they prepare, and Michael heads to the groom and his friends. What they overhear varies greatly. The women, Alexandra says, compliment the bride and her choices, “ooooing and awwwwing as her look is coming together.” The men are often talking about things like the special bottle of Scotch they’re drinking, or how a run or round of golf went that morning.
Michael says his favorite thing to photograph is the moment “when [the groom] sees her coming down the aisle.” Alexandra favors documenting different reactions to the couple, from the best friends, the father and mother, getting “all of it in one picture, as they laugh and smile and cry.”
The Mesekes conclude their role in the day’s events by taking final shots of the reception room or its outside building. If nothing special is planned for the couple’s exit, “we will encourage the bride and groom to get on the dance floor and really embrace each other, sing in each other’s face, let loose, before it’s time to head out.”
Hannah Torney hasn’t ordered a wedding album yet because she finds it hard to choose what images will go inside of it. But in the age of digital image sharing, this twenty-seven-year-old wants the traditional wedding keepsake. So does Tori Cosgrove.
“There is no cutting corners,” says Tori passionately. “When the day is over and everything is said and done, all you will have are the photos.” This sentiment is perhaps why so many guests want to have their own pictures of the wedding, snapping shots in the presence of professionals who are hired to do the same.
“We have lost count of how many [photos] are ruined because of people getting in our shots with their iPhones,” says Alexandra. “Somehow guests think that if they stick their hands out just a little, they’re not blocking the bride coming down the aisle, but they always, always are.” Clients express sadness when they look over their pictures and see guests fumbling with phones in lieu of celebrating in real time. Still, the couple’s success comes from their ability to blend with both the bridal parties and the background noise. Their approach wins over even the more critical guests and difficult bridal party members.
Tori Cosgrove says her “very picky and outspoken” family praised the couple’s work, and even her tired, distracted flower girls did as Alexandra directed, giggling when she jumped up and down to get their attention. “Every single person [in the immediate family] later said to me, ‘Your photographers did such an amazing job.’”