What's the point?

I ask myself this question often. Sometimes the question is big and all encompassing, sometimes it is small and rhetorical. I am bombarded with hundreds of images a day...the news, the ads, the fashion photos, the party photos....it never ends. I shoot thousands and thousands of images a year myself, and sometimes I have to ask WHY? What is the point of all this stuff? Who cares? Is anyone looking? Do we need it?

I had a bit of an “a-ha” moment while watching Alex’s performance at school yesterday. The school always videotapes these events, so you can buy the whole show to see 30 seconds of your child’s performance, from a distance, buried in an hour and a half, for $20. I loved the costumes and the whole show, so this time I will probably spend the twenty bucks, since I had no intention of holding my arms up with my six pound camera for the entire time. Still, I planned to get some additional close-ups.

I mainly filmed the known and recognizable friends of Alex, and the son of the woman standing next to me because her video camera chose to die yesterday morning. Why does that always happen? Lucky for her, I had staked out the best spot in the house, at the back of the auditorium with a 70-200mm lens (BIG lens) so that I could see the entire stage from a nice high vantage point, and zoom in on the kids as necessary.

The prospect of making a mom and a couple of grandparents really happy for a few minutes felt pretty good. Maybe 5 people will see this little film clip. Honestly, it is not a great piece of video or photography. This work feels so small, so insignificant as to be almost meaningless to me. But it is important to her. Instead of only her memory, she has just a tiny bit more to remind her of this fleeting moment in the life of her child, when he went on stage so young and nervous, a 40 second part in a 17 year school tradition, just hoping to say his lines without messing up because he had been working on this project since February. Maybe that is enough. Now she can share her memory with loved ones who couldn’t be there and maybe with her son and his children one day in the future.

I wish I had even one tiny video like this from my childhood. I barely have the memory of such events, except for one tiny teddy bear part in a 5th grade Christmas play. I don't think my parents were even there. When photography starts to feel meaningless to me, I try to remember how much it can touch other people.

Late last night, she sent me a grateful email on behalf of her family and her son’s two 80 year old grandparents. I hadn’t even sent the video yet, but I was reminded that the smallest moments like these are so often the most treasured.

From Wedding Photographer to Porn Star?

Tanya Lawson: not the porn star

I moved to Sag Harbor to start a new life. I had recently divorced, my career had floundered, and I had a dubious connection to a porn star past. I was the other Tanya Lawson: not the one selling sex videos on line. But in the virtual world of the internet, she was definitely on top...in the rankings, that is.

I knew I never should have changed my name in the first place. Like any good Wellesley educated armchair feminist, I had always had trouble with the idea that I would toss my family name of 20+ years when I married (think Rodham). My parents labored over that name: Tanya Arianne Malott, and though I didn’t love it in grade school, I was strangely attached to it by the time I was expected to trade it in for Tanya Lawson.

My mother had changed her name at least four times, in search of the right professional name after first becoming a divorcee, then a widow. She briefly attempted to do business with her first name only (like Madonna, only it was Connie) only to end up exactly where she started at birth. My father had turned three different women into “Mrs. Jim Malott”, but only one of them is still married to him and using the name.

With all of that baggage, I never thought I would be foolish enough to change my name until I rationalized the first of several name changes of my own. Since everyone mi-s-spelled my name anyway (first AND last), and my fiancé seemed to believe that true love meant I would take his name, wouldn’t we all be happier if I became Tanya Lawson? If we were on the same team, he argued, we needed the same name. My identity crisis had begun.

I worried that I needed to keep my maiden name “for professional reasons”, ever since my photos were published as large as postage stamps in New York Magazine with my tiny mis-spelled name in the gutter. Surely this was the beginning of my huge career as the next Annie Leibovitz (most people get that wrong too). Instead, I convinced myself I had a better shot as an artist with a name people could remember, pronounce, and spell.

Then I moved to Russia with a British husband whose name no one could say, much less spell in the Cyrillic alphabet. In deference to my husband’s position as president of a bank, everyone there called me Tatiana, the polite version of Tanya in Russia. Now I had the wrong first name AND wrong last name.

While living in Moscow and later Puerto Rico, I shot fashion, advertising, and weddings across Europe, the US, and the Caribbean where I saw my name misspelled in other languages. By the time Mr. Lawson and I divorced, my work had been published in nearly every wedding planner and periodical that existed at the time, so I resisted changing my name again (for professional reasons). I was starting to feel like I was in was in a self imposed witness protection program by moving countries twice and changing my name twice in less than six years.. I needed to remain “Tanya Lawson”. I would just give up the ‘r” in “Mrs.”

I moved my personal life to the tiny Village of Sag Harbor and my professional presence to the world wide internet by building my first website and directing brides-to-be to view my work there. Then it happened. I learned of my alternate identity when a bride-to-be remarked “My fiancé can’t wait to meet you. Did you know there is a blonde porn star named Tanya Lawson? ”. Rather than enter the domain name: www.TanyaLawson.com, he had performed a search for “Tanya Lawson” and discovered several pages of links to the porn star by that name. I assured her I was a brunette. We laughed then and I laugh now, but how can a wedding photographer compete with that? Tanya Lawson probably wasn’t even this woman’s name and she seemed to have stopped working in the mid-80’s (got married, changed her name, had kids?) but I would never outrank her ghost on a search engine!

I had to do something about my name so I did what any practical woman would do and I consulted a numerologist. If I had to change my name AGAIN, I might as well get it right once and for all. I wasn’t about to tell any one WHY I did this, but after that consultation I made a brief attempt to become Arianne Malott. Apparently this was the strongest option of all the reasonable configurations of Tanya Arianne Malott Lawson. A few months later, I felt too strange asking my long time friends and clients to call me Arianne. I tried using it at a trade show where I signed up for all kinds of products and newsletters but when the phone began to ring with people asking for Arianne Malott, I always answered yes with hesitation. After printing new business cards and setting up an LLC with this new name that was definitely going to bring me success, I just gave up trying to re-invent myself. I asked my attorney to start the process of reclaiming my maiden name. To my surprise, it took several months and cost me hundreds of dollars to reclaim the name I was given for free at birth!

Shortly after I re-christened myself Tanya Malott, I was telling this tale to a woman I ran into at a Hamptons party. I had photographed her first wedding at least a decade earlier and only recently she had learned that she, too, had the same name as a porn star. In her case, her stepson mistakenly started a rumor at his Upper East Side prep school that his stepmom was a porn star. Eventually this woman and her new husband had to meet with the headmaster, photos in hand of the OTHER woman and ask him to stop the gossip. Note to all brides-to-be: before you order the stationery, do a search of your new name.

Anonymity is not really an option in the age of the internet. I could not have imagined that four short years later, I would be introduced, via email, to a man who, before our first phone conversation, wrote: ”Don’t Google me before we meet”. Can you believe I didn’t? I was naïve enough not to know that a quick search was standard operating procedure in the dating world. Of course, after he spilled the beans, I spent hours digging though his 50,000 entries on Google (complete with links to Sharon Stone and Mariane Pearl and 10,000 bloggers who like to blame him in particular for everything they hate about the media in general). Lucky for me, he was my last dating experience. Now we co-habitate. Malott, Lawson, and Jordan. Three last names, one address. Perfect harmony. He knows I love him even if I don’t want his last name.

Thanks to my computer savvy boyfriend, I have learned to manage my internet presence better. I have multiple domain names (and some for my son), networking pages on A Small World, Facebook, LinkedIn, and soon Spire.com (you haven’t heard of it yet but you will), and several personal and professional YouTube channels. I also registered a few mis-spellings of my name. Better to have all roads lead to me. I don’t want to get lost again now that my boyfriend and I are talking about a potential move to India.

At the moment, my son calls me mom, my boyfriend calls me baby, my friends call me T, my dad calls me pumpkin (still), my German friend spells my name “Tanja:”, and even my best friends still write “Tania” or “Mallot”. I’d gladly sell the domain “Tanya Lawson” to the porn star, but I don’t think she needs it. Apparently, neither do I.

A man called me recently from London. Seems his fiancée particularly liked some of my photos in the wedding planner: Vera Wang “On Weddings”. This particular book has the strangest index of photo credits ever. In the index, the designer arranged thumbnail (and I mean THUMBNAIL) sized photos of everything in the book IN RANDOM ORDER with the corresponding photographer names in one never ending block of microscopic type. Clearly this was a young couple with eyesight still intact. They found Tanya Lawson. The OTHER Tanya Lawson. They kept looking and digging deeper, intrigued by the mystery of it all. Eventually they found me on my (NY) cell phone in Georgia. We met in NY for a drink and a good laugh about their tenacity. I’ll be shooting their Greek wedding in London this fall. I can’t hide after all.

By Tanya Malott

A Picture Perfect Wedding

By Tanya Malott

As a wedding photographer preparing for the role of bride, you can bet my first priority wasn’t the music, though I’d have given anything for a budget that would have allowed the Gypsy Kings to play. Nine years ago, without the help of a cell phone or the Internet, I planned a wedding for 150 guests at a Medieval castle overlooking Florence, all by fax and phone. At that time, I lived in New York, and spoke little Italian but good Spanish. But I had photographed 40 weddings that year.

Italy made perfect sense. My then fiancé, who is British, lived and worked in Milan. His friends, who outnumbered mine, lived mainly in Europe.. My career as a traveling wedding photographer based in NY had grown almost exponentially from 1991 and planning a wedding in New York would have felt more like a job than a celebration. A wedding planned by my mother back home in San Francisco seemed absurd, since I now considered myself the expert. Because we are a family of travelers I knew I would have no problem getting everyone to Italy.

I have seen more weddings in a dozen years than most people will see in a lifetime. What makes my perspective special is that I see the story from the point of view of the bride and the guests.

Pictures tell stories and inspire memories. The truth is, some wedding stories are easier to tell than others. As a bride and a photographer, I naturally began with the end in mind. I spend my life creating the images that people hope to cherish for a lifetime-and for a couple of generations to come. My own wedding would be no exception, even if I could not be the photographer this time.


The keys to a photogenic wedding in any place, at any budget, are these: location and light. I began my planning process with the end result - great photographs – in mind. While there are many things to consider while planning a wedding – location, time of year, formality, size, budget, potential hurt feelings, school schedules and a dozen other things both personal and universal – in the end the only tangible things the bridal couple have left are the photographs.

Of course, I wanted the best photographs ever, but I didn’t want to leave decisions up to someone whose work I didn’t know. So I hired my assistants. But the greatest photographer in the world still needs more than just a camera and film to make memorable images. As the bride, I considered it my job to create the most optimum shooting conditions possible.


Choosing the right setting is key to the look of the photographs. After we see the subject of a photo, we see the background, which can make of break the photos. No one plans a wedding at the dump, after all. I chose Italy. The Hamptons make an equally beautiful backdrop. A medieval castle high above Florence put me way over the top in terms of great settings, but I still could have blown it.

More than any other factor, great light makes great photographs. Photography literally means to write with light. With no light, we have no photos. Natural sunlight is always best. You will see more background information and depth in the photos. Manmade light is second best but often more predictable. I have photographed incredible weddings around the globe, and I am still surprised the way some brides plan (or don’t plan) them. It just doesn’t make sense to me to go all the way to Italy for a wedding and not be able to “see Italy” in the photographs.


Americans, more than Europeans, plan formal weddings in the evening and often by the time the bride walks down the aisle the sun is already setting. She may have planned cocktails at sunset, but few brides are on time. Factoring in an extra half hour for a late bride or hair disaster makes sense.

For the most beautiful photographs of an outdoor or partially outdoor celebration, cocktails should wind down as the sun disappears. Sunset means different things in different parts of the world. Sunset in the Caribbean and Florida happens around 6pm all year long, and it happens fast. Once it is gone, everything is black. A late bride can ruin her own group photos.

A June sunset on the East End of Long Island can happen after 9pm, and the light just lingers low for hours, allowing endless possibilities for romantic photographs. Know when the sun will set on the day of your wedding, and, if possible, ask the photographer to use as much natural light as possible. Those guests who bring their own cameras will also get better photographs, thereby reducing the number of lost shots for you due to flash malfunction or other technical errors.

We chose a September wedding for many reasons, mainly because of Stuart’s upcoming job transfer to Moscow, but September is one of the most popular wedding months for good reason: It has great light and great temperatures in most parts of the world. The late (8pm) September sunset in Florence would work perfectly for my photograph-obsessed mind.


Group photos, depending on the size, need pretty decent light, not the fading afterglow of sunset (which is great for shots of the bride and groom alone), and not the harsh and squint-inducing light of midday either. As a photographer, I often find the best time to take group photos is just as the guests head to dinner. The wedding party knows where they will sit, and the guests will spend 15-20 minutes figuring that out.

Imagine my disappointment when I awoke that Saturday to a very cloudy sky. We had a 5pm ceremony in an open courtyard under a gray sky, which was all right since the photos for this part of the celebration were to be primarily black and white. We all get our gifts on our wedding day. My most appreciated gift was the most beautiful Tuscan sunlight you can imagine breaking through the cloud cover as the sun set that evening. I had timed things well, and the sun came through after all.

For the posed photos, I knew we had only a few minutes of incredible light so we worked quickly. I set up the photos using chairs and props to get people’s heads and bodies at different heights and avoid a stiff looking lineup. When the key players stay close, group portraits can end in a few short minutes. One missing person can make the day interminable, though.

By the time cocktail hour ends, over half of the great wedding photos are usually finished. We ate by candlelight and danced under the open sky and colored spotlights on the lower courtyard patio. Low light and bright spotlights are difficult lighting conditions. Make sure you hire a photographer who can show you examples of work in lighting conditions similar to what you expect.

The more light you can create, whether using Chinese paper lanterns, tiny white tree lights, endless votives, or spotlights, the better images your photographer can make. Be sure to ask your caterer to have everything lit early enough for your photographer to cover the room before guests arrive. Think of lighting a wedding the way a decorator lights a room. Instead of using one big overhead light, think about ways to create special areas of light and spotlight important things like the tables, trees or potted plants, the cake, parts of the tent, and the dance floor. There are so many ways to add light while keeping the feeling romantic.

Above all, wedding photographs should be among the priorities in planning a wedding. I like to think I have helped more than one bride end up with the photographs they wanted because they considered them carefully rather than as an afterthought.