Wedding photographer Alison Conklin loves to photograph love. In addition to shooting weddings all over the world, Conklin has captured countless editorial images for fashion illustrator Dallas Shaw, and Anthropologie's wedding line BHLDN. She's also the photographer behind the mouthwatering Brown Betty Cookbook. But Alison’s path is not all kisses and cupcakes. She became consumed by photography at the age of fourteen after her mother suddenly passed away. Conklin discovered a box of old photographs of her mother and realized that she could preserve life’s moments by learning the art of photography.
Read more about Alison below…
How old were you when you first discovered your love of photography?
I’m an only child and my mom was always very sick growing up. She passed away when I was 14. She had breast cancer and she had heart disease. One day we were sitting in the kitchen and she was talking to me, and the next minute she passed out. I called my dad and 911.
My dad was suddenly stuck with this teenage girl, wondering what to do with her. My parents loved photography. They were hobbyists. One day I started going through all of their contact sheets, and I fell in love with these outtakes of my mom, with her head back, laughing. That told me about who she was.
It made me realize that in one minute you’re talking to someone and life is moving forward and then the next minute it’s just totally different and that all that I have left are these photos.
So I started to show an interest at that point. My dad built me a darkroom. At 14 or 15 I started shooting all the time. In high school I shot my friends senior photos. At 18 I was hired for my first wedding, and I had never even been to a wedding before! I was terrified.
A shot for bridal line BHLDN.
How did you learn how to shoot?
My dad taught me a little bit. I took a couple quick classes but it was really trial and error. I was that nerdy girl with a camera around her neck at all times, in the basement of my house, developing. That’s how I got through mourning.
What did you learn about your mother through the discovery of those old contact sheets?
When you’re 14, you’re in this weird transition, and you’re figuring out who you are. Going through that, I got to see all of these photos of my mom healthy. I got to see the connection of my parents before I was born and how they loved each other, and how artistic they were. What interested her in those cool, shadowy photos. Just the candidness of them.
With photography, you were able to capture the moments in someone's life.
In the course of two years I also lost all of my grandparents.
At an age when most 14 year olds aren’t thinking about mortality I was thinking about how life is fleeting and nothing is permanent.
When somebody’s gone, that’s it. That’s why I fell in love with candid images, or images that tell stories.
How did becoming a photographer change your perspective?
I was always a little shy, and having a camera allowed me to be a little more involved in a way. Even today I have to be super sociable for my job, but in real life I’m still a little guarded and a little bit shy.
Detail shot of Dallas Shaw's closet taken by Alison Conklin.
Did you go to college?
I didn’t. My dad is very smart. He has a doctorate degree. When someone is that smart, sometimes they're not that great socially. I did think about going to college, but I didn’t have anyone there pushing me. I definitely wish I had had that experience because it would have been fun.
I started dating someone really seriously when I was 20, had two children. We divorced while I was pregnant with my second child.
At that point I had worked at Rodale as a human resources assistant and I was suddenly in this whole new world. What do I do? I didn’t want to put my kids in day care. I thought, ‘I should try photography’. I was shooting people’s family photos, their weddings. It was sort of out of desperation because I didn’t want to put my kids in daycare and I knew I could work on the weekends. How am I going to support myself? I didn’t go to college. What am I going to do?
Marble cake Alison shot for the Brown Betty Cookbook.
What were some of your first gigs after you decided to stay home with your kids and pursue photography full time?
I took out and an ad and put cards in a local coffee shop. I asked people if I could hang my work or business card in a corner. I started getting booked for weddings and it just took off from there. I shot a lot of weddings, which was crazy because I was in the midst of a divorce.
What helped you get through that time?
Putting myself into work and having a purpose. Realizing that I could build something. I learned from that point that I had to be reliant on myself only. That sounds really jaded, and I don’t mean it in a bad way. I just mean that it really comes down to you and who you are. I poured myself into my building business and my children.
When you’re backed into a corner you can either lie down and die, or find a way out of it. That’s how I did it because there was no other way.
What are some of the challenges of being a wedding photographer?
When you’re a wedding photographer, you’re sudden dumped into situations where you don’t know anyone and you have to make them feel comfortable because getting in front of the camera is terrifying to most humans. So you have to be approachable and confident enough to grab the shots.
It’s also getting people to let go of all of the crazy posing guides they’ve read on pinterest and just be themselves. It’s tearing away layers. With wedding photos, people are working off the emotion of getting married, and that breaks them down pretty quickly. And then there’s the long hours and not having weekends.
What do you love about your job?
I love people’s stories. I had a wedding in Maine where she was supposed to get married in 2012 but was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was in her late 20s. Her mom had also died of cancer. They pushed everything back for two years and every single person showed up to this wedding. Usually destination weddings lose more than 20% of the guest list. Those real emotions, being able to capture that so that they can show their kids, and their kids can show their kids...that’s what drives me. It’s because I’ve felt so much in my own life that I want to give people back that gift.
Alison captures a bride falling into her husband in the middle of a cobblestone street in NYC.
Your photos are very cinematic. How did you develop your aesthetic?
Definitely time, because I've had such a long career. I remember the moment I saw Linda McCartney’s show at a museum. It was one of those moments where I walked in and there were people everywhere, couples, and strollers, and I zoned out...walking through. I loved her work because it was candid, and most of her photos were taken when people didn’t realize they were being shot. I really loved her work. Then there is Wes Anderson. The symmetry. So good.
There’s the artistic side of what you do, then there is the business part. What are some of the challenges you dealt with while developing your own brand and business?
I think of myself as more of an artistic person by nature. I found a great design house that helped me to build my brand, but my husband, Geoff— I got remarried— helps me with all of the email and correspondence, which releases me to shoot and do what I really love. Teamwork. He shoots as well. He used to shoot for a newspaper, and he’s been great.
When did you and your husband decide to start working together?
Maybe a year or so into the marriage. It just seemed like I was needing help, and I wasn’t sure where to go. He came with me to shoot a wedding because I was under the weather that day, and it just worked out.
Are there disadvantages to working together?
Absolutely, because you never have a break from one another [laughs], because we live together, work together, raise children together. But I trust him, and he is amazing. He listens to me and my sometimes-crazy ideas.
How do you balance, work, family, and your own private relationship?
It’s definitely tricky. The work- life balance is so hard. We only have the kids during the week, while my ex-husband has them on the weekends. So usually all day is kid time. Geoff will answer emails, but I’m a night owl so I usually work at night. Whenever we have a wedding abroad- we just shot a wedding in Italy- we try to bring the kids along and teach them that life is a lot bigger than Emmaus. But it’s tricky. I’m not going to say I have it all figured out, but I try.
Alison with her sons Moses and Jonas.
What is the craziest destination wedding you’ve ever shot?
What’s really great is seeing all of the customs that come along [with destination weddings]. We did a wedding in Ireland where they ate dinner and did toasts. The toasts lasted for 5 hours and they paid a DJ to be there. The DJ didn’t play one song, and by the time the toasts were over, it was time for the DJ to go. That would never fly here, you know what I mean?
If you would have told me when I was a single mom with a newborn 13 months apart, living in a tiny apartment that I’d be traveling the world to shoot weddings, I would have never believed it.
I heard that you had a terrifying health challenge a couple of years ago. What happened?
I wasn’t feeling well for about a year, and I had no idea why. Everybody was saying it was the weight I was gaining; no doctor would listen to me. I woke up the morning after the launch for the Brown Betty cookbook and I couldn’t see. I went to the emergency room and they told me I had a 3 centimeter long brain tumor sitting on my optic nerve and it was sitting on my pituitary gland which had shut down my pituitary, thyroid which explained all of my other symptoms. They said I had to have surgery now, and there was no guarantee that I would get my sight back.
Even though I knew that life was so fragile, I still had a sense of security or invincibility. I said,
‘What do you mean I might not get my sight back?’ I remember losing it.
They wheeled me into surgery running. After I got out, my husband asked ‘Can you see anything?’ There was a clock on the wall, and I could read it. You take things for granted; you take your five senses for granted. It made me stop and think. I’m so grateful for what I have.
What advice would you give to an aspiring photographer?
Keep on shooting. Create your own style. Stay honest to what you love. If you love love, photograph love.
A photo of fashion illustrator Dallas Shaw taken by Alison Conklin for Rue Magazine.