Beautiful Me!

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Walk into the bedroom of almost any young, well-to-do couple in China and you will see, looming large on one wall, a giant life-size wedding portrait of the bride and groom; the bride resplendent in perfect dress and make-up, the groom suitably posed in adoration. The process of taking those photos most likely took an entire day of the couple standing smiling on a hillside or beachfront or indoor studio, with attendant hair and make-up artists hovering nearby. The whole production can cost from $450 to more than $15,000, a huge expense in a country where the average per capita income is roughly $3,000 (about $10,000 in Beijing). But it's increasingly seen as a must-have for China's image-conscious middle class, now some 430-million strong.


A generation ago, wedding photographs were rather spartan and stiff: black and white images of the couple standing side by side, staring forward, often unsmiling. But modern wedding photography is a business that has taken off over the last 20 years in China, taking inspiration from international fashions and glossy magazines. Over the course of the photo shoot, many brides will don multiple dresses, not all of them white. As one college student from Beijing put it, "The bride doesn't want to look like herself. She wants to look like a fashion magazine cover model."


In China, unlike in the West, wedding photographs are often as important as the ceremony itself. Yet the quintessential Chinese wedding photograph is not of the bride and groom taking their vows, which may take place in a simple restaurant or banquet hall, but of the couple posed in lavish dress and with luxurious backgrounds. Both bride and groom are caked with make-up; for any accidental blemishes, there's always Photoshop. The aspiration is not to document a real event, but to look perfect.


There is, too, an aspect of Chinese wedding photography that evokes old-fashioned fairy-tales -- of the European variety. Of course, American brides in the land of blue jeans also don Cinderella-like gowns for their nuptials, but in China the wedding photographs often feature not only brides in long-trained dresses and veils, but such props as violas, winding staircases, and baby grand pianos (sometimes hauled out to a beachfront, if that's the chosen location). Why the whiff of European aristocracy? There is an increasing tendency among China's middle class to equate America with dynamism, but Europe with sophistication -- as attested to by the fact that fancy new apartments complexes on the outskirts of Beijing are given names like "Rome" and "Modern Mansion" and Chinese sophisticates savor French wine. Some of the top wedding studios in China include "Gold Lady" (Jinfuren), "Venus," "Love Forever," and "Shanghai Paris."


While Western couples often take honeymoons to tropical locales, a long vacation may not be feasible or affordable for every newlywed Chinese couple. Yet when possible, Chinese wedding photos employ exotic locations, creating the illusion of blissful romantic solitude although the experience is hardly intimate. At popular wedding photo locations, such as this beach on Hainan Island, couples line up every several yards to pose for their romantic photographic keepsakes.


As couples and their families shell out an increasing amount of money for professional and studio photography in China, it's become a growth industry. New photography studios, often founded by 20- and 30-something entrepreneurs, gain visibility by setting up booths in shopping malls and public squares, passing out leaflets and asking young women, "Do you want to look like the cover of Vogue?"


One trick to lure customers is to promise a fairly modest price for a small set of photos, say 10 images. But each additional photo then carries a hefty price tag, perhaps a few hundred dollars. Many couples, once they've gone to the trouble to find the perfect location, attire, and hair and make-up artists, end up shelling out more than they expected. It is, after all, supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime ritual.


As in America, the beautiful bride is the focus of most photos -- and the one pushing to make them happen. Dutiful husbands are made to sit for long make-up sessions to make sure they look just right. After the fact, wedding photos are often blown up into posters, emblazoned on mugs and t-shirts, and made into screen-savers. For those who can afford them, these tokens are a constant reminder that they've made it in modern China, and an affirmation of who they aspire to be.

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