Before he became the pioneer of wedding photojournalism, Denis Reggie already knew that the most picture-worthy moments were based in authenticity and captured when subjects were unaware that the picture was being taken. He first came to this realization when he was 12 or 13 and looking at his parents’ wedding album. While nearly all of the album was filled with posed portraits, he admired the natural photographs taken when his parents were clearly unaware of the camera.
“Out of twenty shots or thirty shots, the two or three that really touched me were the ones that showed my parents’ actual personalities; they were caught off-guard, not pretending or posing for the camera, but just simply being themselves and reacting to what was happening,” he said. “Natural moments and expressions spoke to me far more than the posed photographs.”
While these photos made a vivid impact on him and his understanding of photography, it was during high school when he was working as a part-time photographer for the Crowley Post Herald in Louisiana that he developed a knack for finding authentic moments.
“My editor, Sam Sonnier, was always telling me to be a witness with a camera, to look, anticipate and document real moments. To clarify my mission, he reminded me that a reporter was there to report the news, not to make it,” he said. “I was sent out to various events — a politician giving a speech, a swearing in, maybe even a heartfelt memorial service. He taught me to look for emotion so the photograph would tell the deeper story. I often used a long lens to keep my distance, knowing that camera awareness is counter to capturing people truly being themselves.”
Because of his journalistic perspective as a photographer, he was a perfect fit for the Kennedy family. When he happened to meet Ethel Kennedy while she was campaigning back in 1980, he expressed to her and her newly engaged daughter who was traveling with her how much he loved the photographs of the Kennedys he had always seen in Life and Look magazines over the years because they seemed so natural and telling. The family was shown playing a game of football on the lawn or walking along the Hyannis Port beach with their dog seemingly unaware of any camera. Magazine imagery allowed the viewer to get an inside glimpse of reality in a way that posed portraits never did. This observation and conversation obviously sat well with her as he has been photographing Kennedy weddings ever since, over two dozen and counting.
“I think I have always been a good fit for the Kennedy family because I’m not a poser, I’m not that formal kind of portrait photographer. I’m a pretty easy-going guy who works fast and I’m also not a talker. I’m quiet and I hold my camera down as I move about the venue searching for interesting moments. Once I click the shutter, I move on quickly so my presence doesn’t change the mood or scene. I’m not there to make anything more than it really is,” he explained.
His eye for capturing authentic moments has served him well in his career as a wedding photojournalist. It was how he was able to get the famous photo of John Kennedy, Jr. kissing Carolyn Bessette’s hand as they exited their secret 1996 wedding ceremony and of Maria Shriver’s veil blowing over her bridesmaids during her and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1986 wedding.
In regards to his iconic photo of Shriver’s veil, he said, “I could have put my camera down as a Southern gentleman maybe should have done and go help them or I could have just kept snapping pictures with my big camera, which is what I did, and it ended up being the LIFE “Big Photograph” of the June 1986 issue. It was later named as one of LIFE’s Photos of the Year, Photographs of the ‘80s and Editors’ Favorites for the 20th Century. I was honored and thrilled that it became such a famous picture.”
As for his world-renowned photograph of JFK Jr. kissing Bessette’s hand, he realized when he was taking the picture that it was a magical moment even though he wasn’t able to see the image until the next day.
“When I took it, I could feel the emotion of that magical moment. Being in the time of film, not digital, I wasn’t able to see any of my images until the next day. As I anxiously reviewed the negatives coming from my lab’s darkroom on that Sunday, I knew immediately that it was going to be a very special photograph.’” he said. “We quickly made a color print which I released to the Associated Press and the world the next day as agreed with the couple before they left for their honeymoon. I am not sure if any of us ever realized how much of a splash the wedding and that photograph would make. It’s was used on covers of numerous newspapers and magazines around the world including Elle France and LIFE and it was named in listings of Photographs of the Year in publications including Time, Newsweek, and People and others. For me, the magic is in the bride’s expression and her clearly being caught off guard while her groom gallantly kisses her hand in a gesture fitting a true gentleman and even a prince.”
“Brides tell me that authenticity is what separates my work from other wedding photographers,” he said. “And I am so thankful to my small town newspaper editor for instilling that principle in me so many years ago.” He added, “at every wedding, there is magic to be found and documented. I see my mission being to witness and discover tender moments and to preserve them as history for the newlywed couple and future generations.”
Take a look at some of Reggie’s other work: