Anne Weber: The Geography of Marriage, 2009-2010
Introduction by Anne Weber
"In the United States every State and every Territory enacts its own peculiar code of laws on the subject of marriage and divorce. . . . Since every state, territory and country has legislated independently on these important subjects, the rules with regard to marital rights and obligations are as diverse and varied as the geography of the world."
—William Lamartine Snyder, The Geography of Marriage or Legal Perplexities of Wedlock in the United States, 1889
"No navigator has yet traced lines of latitude and longitude on the conjugal sea."
—Honoré de Balzac
In this country, marriage is a civic institution, though one not fixed in form. Who can and cannot marry, what responsibilities and benefits it creates, how it begins and how it ends, are all determined by laws which have been redefined from decade to decade, and from state to state. The struggle for definition continues to this day, most visibly in the current debate over same-sex marriage. The paradox of marriage is that it is also a personal institution. Long after the license has been signed, it is a living commitment of support and fidelity, creating the narrative arc upon which many build a life and family together. After my sister wed in a civil ceremony in San Diego, I began questioning how we navigate between public and private definitions of marriage. At a time when divorce is common, when its legal definition varies so widely across state lines, what, exactly, does marriage look like? As a photographer, I was interested in how to document a pivotal moment in life that is usually rendered in visual cliches. While many wedding photographers utilize soft-focus and flattering lighting to idealize each couple, I wanted to make pictures that showed the institution as it is, without the sentiments or stylization that typically obscure it. Stripped of the pomp and circumstance of traditional weddings is the civil ceremony, and it is here that I decided to fix my lens. On Friday afternoons in 2008 and 2009, with the approval of a city magistrate, I brought my large-format camera to the Wake County Courthouse in Raleigh, North Carolina, and offered free wedding portraits to couples getting married during open ceremony hours. In 2010, I continued making photographs at Boston City Hall. Every photograph is, in the most basic sense, a wedding portrait. In return for their participation, each couple received a free 8 1/2 x 11 copy of their picture; for each image on the wall, a copy may be sitting on a bookshelf or coffee table as a private memento. As a counterpoint to the portraits, I asked each couple to fill out a short questionnaire about who they were, how they met, and how they define marriage for themselves.
The portraits of couples in Boston and Raleigh act as a sort of contemporary archive of marriage, reflecting our hopes and expectations of what it means to unite for richer or for poorer. Serving as both private mementos and public documentary, the photographs not only survey what marriage looks like today across state lines, but also begin to demarcate our private views on one of our most public institutions.