2020 recap

2020 Recap: Life and Love and Dogs

Saturday, February 13th, 2021

When I do yearly recaps, they usually end up being stories of what I experienced that year. Also how I grew, what I wish was different or how I’m preparing for next year. They rarely actually involve images.

Rather than take that personal approach this year, I feel that 2020 needs a recap. A recap of some of life’s greatest and most tragic feelings found in sessions, weddings, and dogs.

2020 was hard for everybody. There’s a collective cry of wanting it to be over – but there was still incredible, real joy to be found around every corner.

This years recap is going to center around my favorite image from each session that I did. They’ll also include a backstory to the image or the event. There’s also an image of every dog I photographed, so get ready for some ridiculous cuteness.

2020 was impossible. But there is still love found everywhere.

Thank you to every incredible person I photographed this year, not only for your unwavering joy and dedication to real honest images, but for supporting me for yet another year.

And for letting me pet your dogs.




M

Anna + Chancellor

Chancellor and Anna were the first couple who’s engagement session was truly hands-off and non-directed for me, right at the start of January. The best thing about this transition was that it yielded the most incredible response from them – they played. They laughed together. They explored areas they loved and there is so much packed into these images that they’ll have stories to tell for years. In this specific frame, they had just embraced after a snowball fight – and in the most effortless, natural, way, Chance simply reached for Anna’s hand as they walked away from the scene of the crime. Their communication and unwavering dedication to the other person and their joy was an infectious way to start the year.

Megan + Lee

Megan and Lee were another incredible February couple of mine, and the images above and below are from their marriage. They also wanted very little posing at all – this day was so hands-off and focused on what they were experiencing at their nuptials after nearly a decade together. The above wiggly dog belongs to a guest, ad the below image is once all the ink was dried.

Sometimes it doesn’t hit you until that moment. Sometimes it feels like going through the motions. But this is the part where it’s really real.

Hailey + Tom

At the start of February, I had an incredible couple – Hailey and Tom – that wanted to focus on their people and their fun and do VERY little portraiture at all: what a dream event. We spent a total of 30 minutes doing any sort of formal portraiture, and then I hopped on their party bus, where they visited locations like Mexico Lindo and just played and had fun. This image, a favorite of theirs and mine, is the bridal party coming out of the liquor store with their treasures.

Lauren + Sam

One of the things I wanted to focus on in 2020 was adapting to the ambient light at weddings – that is, relying on intrusive things like flash less often. I assisted another photographer on this wedding at JX Event Venue and used the current lighting as opposed to flash – I’m thankful I did. Had I used flash, the disco pattern on the floor wouldn’t have shown up, and I would have missed this incredible capture of a small child discovering what disco lights were during the mother-son dance – with the videographer carefully shooting above the child’s short stature.

This image to me says a lot about the condition of the wedding industry, and how it often picks and chooses and encourages what matters at events, when really it’s the small and personal things that matter most. There’s a bigger picture at play, and remembering to cherish the whole thing is a practice in personal over perfection.

Kam + Luke

There’s a lot packed into this image, highlighted by when it took place – February 29th. Just two weeks later the country would begin a lockdown for the coronavirus and weddings would be different for months and years to come.

Kam and Luke hosted this COVID style event at Cornerstone Studios before it was required, with just 12 people present at the nuptials, and a casual brewery “reception” the next day. In this frame, you see Kam’s grandmother on the right, watching her talk to her husband (Kam’s grandfather) on the phone. He couldn’t make it due to health reasons, and this was sitting heavy on these ladies hearts – two ladies who share a similar laugh and a similar habit of crying at random times. There are many images of these two women sharing laughs and tears throughout this party, and this one belonged alongside those.

This was a practice in personal and moral obligation for me – I almost walked away from this scenario. I almost didn’t photograph it. But I had to remind myself: if you’re toting honesty in your images, why are you self-editing? I don’t get to pick and choose what honesty looks like. So I placed myself as a warm, caring individual in that moment, positioned the image, and then let the story unfold.

Megan + Ben

Megan and Ben – my first COVID wedding. These two were planning on a 200+ person church wedding and hotel reception, that was jarred by gathering restrictions in Milwaukee. Their plans turned into a 10 person soiree, with a surprise dinner and beautiful table reception at her parent’s home, along with cake and yard games. After two-and-a-half months of COVID, there still weren’t many answers.

This begins the process of so many couples finding what truly mattered this day – each other, and their marriage. Megan and Ben played in the forest a little bit and spent time together and ate food from Olive Garden, where they went on their first date. Though it wasn’t the plan they imagined (cue a corny COVID phrase, right?) it ultimately came down to this: they were married.

This frame of Ben helping Megan into the car is one of my favorites, not only because you can see both of them, along with her joy, but things like messy dresses and shoes being kicked off really describes the state of weddings – even if that wedding was smaller than originally planned.

Jasmine + Andrew

Jasmine and Andrew had one of the most fun little elopements I encountered this year – in their two hours of coverage, they packed in so many traditions you’d find at larger weddings. They had a ceremony, bouquet toss, speeches, food, dancing, and even time for portraits at a second location.

I think their elopement became a great example of how you can have a “full” wedding day, with all the traditions and interpersonal love, without needing to go large. This wedding birthed the concept of “grand gestures” and “intimate affairs” on my blog categorization, and it also gave me great hope that more and more people will enjoy a hybrid version of their marriage celebration – one that doesn’t involve stress, that doesn’t take their whole day, but fills their time with things they love. In this image, Jasmine is dancing with her mom – and the joy they share is palpable.

Oh, and I got lucky to snag a few frames of the shop dog at Bailey Builds, Oakley. Those big beautiful brown eyes and the cute little scraggly fur is sure to hold your heart.

Anna + Chancellor

Welcome back to Anna and Chance. They initially were planning for a 80 person wedding at Summit Chalet in Lutsen, but quickly realized that, though at the time it was allowed to move forward, they wouldn’t be able to have certain conditions and exciting traditions should they choose to do so. They both acknowledged that though their wedding would look different, general community safety was more important – so they postponed. I offered them the ability to elope on their initial date, but they politely declined, saying they would be okay with waiting.

Fast forward, and suddenly they couldn’t wait anymore.

The day after their original event, Chance, Anna, and two of their closest friends trekked up to the family cabin where they all got ready together and then said vows on the shore of Lake Superior. There were so many moments from this wedding that were infectious and real and I’m so thankful to have been there. This one stood out to me – these props are from inside the cabin, and one sign was made by a family member. Even though family couldn’t be there, Chance and Anna’s dedication and focus on their loved ones still resonated throughout the event. They asked me if they pose with the objects (and everything you could possibly ask me is hell yes) so together they played and laughed and just enjoyed this time together – with no direction from me, exactly the way it should be.

Maria and Jake

Outdoor wedding at a farmhouse. A thousand degrees. This little interior space became a place to chug a whole bottle of water and take a few breaths before heading back outside into the heat. In this moment, the two of them were sitting in the kitchen, talking with a few wedding party members. As those members departed, I was sneaking around the corner, and shooting from the other room – in which moment, Maria sat on Jake’s lap, and the two of them quietly talked and shared a few kisses.

This is at the core of documentary work: who are you when nobody is looking? It’s an ongoing challenge to be present for an image, but at the same time not to be noticed or acknowledged. It’s a dream and challenge I’m forever chasing, but in this moment, it felt more than possible to do.

Meredith + Alex

I used to work as an associate photographer for a few other photography businesses, and Meredith and Alex were a couple I photographed. Their wedding was late July 2019, and they were approaching their one year anniversary. Now no longer shooting for them, they came to me and asked if they could do a front-porch style session for just a few moments with their precious cat.

Front porch sessions gained a lot of heat at the start of the pandemic – whether they were safe, allowed, etc. But at this point during the year, it was a no brainer.

And I’m kind of obsessed.

The below image is one of my favorites without their dear pet. I also loved getting to hear the ways they drew good boundaries with each other, both working from home. It’s always incredible to hear how other couples are handling surprise adversity.

Kenzi + Kyle

A huge missing piece of wedding puzzles this year were dance floors. One of my few opportunities to be present at one, and there wasn’t a single person who wasn’t completed enthralled with the ability to drink, dance, and be with others.

This was a reminder that in the midst of disaster, it’s okay to find joy too – even if that means you need about five straws for your drink.

Rachel + Evan

Rachel + Evan were married the 8th of August, and this was a long road to get there. Their original photographer lives in Canada and because of border closures, wasn’t able to make it to their event. Cacie hired myself and Morgan Manney to photograph this wedding for her, so that Rachel and Evan would still have photographers who had the same values and shooting styles as she did.

At this point, the couple had just given a speech thanking guests for being present despite all the challenges of making it to this day. As Rachel begins to name off locations that guests traveled from, she finally releases so much of the tension she had from the whole day and took a few tears as the guests applauded the two of them.

It’s common for me to witness these moments: where all of the feelings and the stress and the weight of holding things in finally lets go. These are often the best moments of the day, because everything afterwards comes with such lightness and gratitude.

Sara + Nick

At their core, Sara + Nick reminded me of one thing – getting married is the most important thing.

They were faced with rain and weather adversity. They also didn’t care about flowers or grandeur. These two wanted nothing more and nothing less than to just be married to each other.

Working with them was a practice in remember what matters most, and reminding myself to uphold those values. Their goals can be summed up in this image: they were just married. And nothing else mattered.

Quentin + Tim

I photographed Quentin + Tim for another photographer, who became unavailable for their date.

These two hold such a huge passion for each other. Their path wasn’t linear and it wasn’t easy – but everything they did this day was in the interest of their relationship. They held a small gathering. They wrote extremely personal vows. Every step showed their passion for each other (even down to Quentin skipping down the aisle to meet Tim).

It’s in these moments that I have to remind myself: it’s okay to step in close. To get in the messy middle of what it’s like to live in their moment. Many photographers will photograph ceremonies with long lenses from far away, to give space and remain unnoticed. But the thing is? I’m unnoticed regardless. Couples are often so immersed in their ceremonies and what they’re experiencing, they’re not looking at or noticing me anyway.

I took this ceremony to be a reminder, to get close, to show what they’re really feeling. Without hesitation.

Ashley + Jonathan

Ashley + Jonathan were the most quiet couple I worked with this year. They were simply focused on being together.

But once they start talking and opening up to me, you find little pieces of them in everything they did. Custom suspenders that Jonathan wore, heirloom jewelry pieces adorned on Ashley. This little Madeline Island elopement became a practice in really listening to couples, to let pieces of their personality and what they find important show themselves to me in time. It was from this moment on that I vowed to remain as quiet as physically possible on a wedding day. All the details will show themselves in time.

Megan + Ben

Megan and Ben made it to their second wedding at the Ingleside Hotel, the only couple of mine this year that was able to host both of their plans. This event was the first time I was able to work a full-day wedding with an assistant that has the same mindset as myself about weddings. My assistant Caitlin was absolutely incredible, and I’m so thankful that she was there with me. Her presence reminded me that couples need and want photographers who won’t interfere, quiet souls that will simply photograph what happens. Everything that happens.

In the above image, Megan’s dad accidentally steps on her dress after walking her down the aisle for a second time. Framed by both the moms, there’s something about this image that just became electric for me. Probably because it’s rooted in the reality and honesty of clumsiness and real-life.

Emily + Robbie

Emily + Robbie had to alter their plans like most couples this year, but they chose a few unique routes. Immediately after their ceremony, the guests remained seated and the couple looped back around to sit in front of them. From there, family and friends were able to make speeches with the guests present, and they event had a first dance/parent dances/family dances. This was a unique was for the guests to see all of these traditions, while minding the rules.

It was a show of resilience. Emily + Robbie are rooted in family, and like most people, I’m sure moving forward with their event wasn’t an easy decision. But this display of love and ingenuity made it so they could still celebrate and love the people that matter to them.

Julia + Andy

A guest hands the mother-of-the-bride a tissue during the ceremony. A subtle reminder that stories at weddings are big and wide and deep and so much more complex than I’ll ever know.

Hannah + Brendan

If there was any couple that suddenly became champions of mine this year, it was Hannah + Brendan. They booked me for their September 2021 wedding, and after their engagement session, I feel like we talked every week.

Their session was incredible for a simple reason: everything just unfolded, and was as it was. There was no forcing, no posing, just loving on Sunny and walking around the park and enjoying each other in this space.

I love getting to see more and more couples who don’t have to force it, to pose, to run around with a ton of energy to get photos they love of each other. You just have to be. And this session was an incredible reminder of the power in just being seen.

Kelly + Aaron

Kelly + Aaron’s Golden Valley Country Club wedding was a pivotal turning point in the year for me – while this image seems that it may be of the bride and groom, this is actually the parents of the bride. Shortly after entering their marriage party, newlywed Kelly passed her veil off to her mom – who then donned the tulle masterpiece and went and kissed her husband.

This image became a sort of definition of what I mean when I say empathetic photojournalism – it’s this idea that every that happens, includes its own emotional depth and long-standing story. It’s looking at the big picture. It’s remembering that every person in front of me has a story more complex and detailed than I could ever imagine or fit into a single image. This was also the first wedding that I shot after switching camera systems to Fuji from Canon. The changes in my work and approach to weddings very clearly shifted in a direction I was always hoping for.

Pei Yu + Ryan

These two got ready in a cute little AirBnB in Saint Paul, had a tiny ceremony at Irving Park just down the street, and yet everything felt complete. There were first looks and vows and family photos and almost everything you would see at a normal wedding – but bite sized. Their entire day with built around simplicity and ease. This was a big reminder that small weddings aren’t “less” than big weddings – they’re still just as meaningful, and so real.

Above, Ryan gets ready with his dad, and shows him how to run gel through his hair.

Below, Ryan shows off his fist-bumping skills with his favorite little dog.

Love and family and traditions are complex. But small gatherings are just as intricate as larger ones.

Julia + Dusty

Documentary wedding work is a test of true patience, of strongly resisting the urge to make something more beautiful, more grand, MORE than what it is.

At Julia and Dusty’s wedding, this image perfectly sums up what I love about documentary work. I love messy tables and guests reading books and the reality of a pandemic and masks. I love seeing real elements of real events all wrapped up into these images that tell greater stories.

It’s true, that I could find an image that has less “clutter”, that has better light, that is just overall “better” from this event. But this image speaks to me on a soulful level about my values, and how they translate into photographing events.

Abby + Kolt

Meet Moose – the loyal protector and supporter of his two humans Abby + Kolt. Moose stayed close by to make sure their ceremony went off without a hitch.

And I’d say it worked.

This below image of Abby and Kolt stood out to me the minute I got home to review them. There’s often this disconnect for people who just discovered documentary wedding work – how do you get portraits of people without posing them? How do you direct them? How is it not awkward? It’s simple – you just let people be. This notion of always having to do something, have to come up with creative poses, or to look perfect is completely fabricated by the wedding industry. It wasn’t always this way, and doesn’t always have to be this way.

Abby and Kolt? I told them to go hang out. Just soak it all in. Just celebrate with each other and forget about me and all of the things around you and just let yourselves be. The images that followed this one too are all celebrations and cigars and walking down by the water and just enjoying the fact that they, standing there, were married. That’s all that needed to be, and it upholds every belief that I have about weddings – that you don’t me for anything other than clicking buttons.

Debbie + Shane

Choosing favorite images really is not an easy task. Weddings can have incredible meaning and depth, if you design them with your values in mind.

Debbie + Shane’s wedding was particularly emotional. Years prior, her mother was diagnosed with an illness, and wasn’t expected to live to see her daughter get married.

But she made it. And even though that’s a beyond joyous thing, that feeling is still there. Problems and experiences and life doesn’t stop because there’s a wedding. In this image, Debbie’s mom just stepped away from the spotlight, where she and Debbie’s father had just given a tough, emotional speech. Mom was immediately greeted and hugged by these two women, who clearly feel deeply with her and help her carry that emotional weight.

There are stories all over the room. And every single one matters.

The below image is also from Debbie and Shane’s event, their pup being fed Cheez-It’s prior to the ceremony. Gotta keep that energy up after all.

Ali + James

Ali + James’ Gooseberry Falls elopement wasn’t just beautiful: it was real. They had the reality of family and friends and kids throwing fits. There were slightly slippery rocks and leaves and moments of joy and moments of release.

Their elopement was my biggest reminder this year in my goal of surrounding all of these people with love. There’s no rules here. There’s no judgments here. There is nothing but absolute admiration and adoration for how you plan your events and who you choose to have with you.

Steph + Brynn

Steph and Brynn were the essence of pure fun. They wanted to spend most of their day with their people, with their party. We spent only a few minutes doing portraits before heading back to the party.

But those images, while gorgeous, are never the ones most talked about. The image that stood out to be most from their event is this one, of Steph being walked down the aisle.

Her and her mother have the same smile.

It’s moments like these that share the clear reminder: hands-off, candid, documentary images will matter most every time. Images that tell a story, that aren’t contrived or composed, always hit deeper. Last longer. Matter more.

I’m so thankful for getting to capture little things about the people I photograph, like matching smiles.

Hannah + Ryan

Despite having to change plans (like everybody this year) Hannah + Ryan’s backyard Minneapolis wedding was filled to the brim with only the things they loved. It was clear that the path to get here wasn’t easy, and by the time they arrived they had nothing but joy for it. October was a little cold. It was a little windy. There were little moments of imperfection (like the guests continuing to stand during the ceremony, or the music getting knocked out during the father-daughter dance). But the best part is, all of those things were replaced by something greater. Hannah + Ryan got to laugh and tell the guests to sit. When the music went out, their guests continued on singing the song for Hannah and her father. And the cold? Well, that was replaced with a kick-ass dance floor and fires and more coziness than you could imagine.

If anything, it became clear: sometimes things go wrong so other things can go right.

In the frame above, Hannah enters the house just after their ceremony. She stands on the stairs, waiting for Ryan, to slip away for a moment alone. She later expresses that she started to cry, uncontrollably, for no reason (something often told).

Lindsey + Jesse

Lindsey and Jesse planned a small elopement at Houghton Falls. Not only were they blessed with incredible fall colors, but as time progressed they were blessed with a gorgeous, romantic snowfall.

But it wasn’t necessarily my mindset that helped me to create images of the two of them. I attribute the success of their images solely on them. The two of them, after words of encouragement to simply explore, let themselves do just that. They went through Echo Dells. And explored little waterfalls. And played. They simply did all the things they may have done if it wasn’t their wedding day. They were a true testament to the fact that there is no right and wrong when it comes to what you plan at your wedding or elopement.

The image above resulted after a brisk walk over to a crosswalk, where Lindsey requested they replicate the iconic Abbey Road image. And they did. And this walk back, covered in fluffy snow and smiles, is a true testament that spending your time doing what you love most results in the best experience you could possibly have.

Trisha + Frank

Trisha + Frank were my last couple of the year, even though they weren’t supposed to be.

The joyous thing about this day (besides the everlasting autumn on Madeline Island) is that they loved the simplicity. Frank just wanted to explore the water and the rocks. They had ideas about where to dance into the woods. They wanted to just bask in the sun. The simplicity above all else is what created images that felt like them.

This above image is while waiting in the parking lot, after exploring the woods but before heading to the beach. These in-betweens are often forgotten, but this one made for the most incredible story. Planner Emily of Lace and Brass Events was helping to remove leaves from Trisha’s dress, as Frank held the gorgeous colorful bouquet. This are the things that ground you in your images. These are the things that tell the whole story.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember exactly where you’ve been until you look back on it. These stories are meaningful, and deep, and lasting. Getting to share about couples and events like this is an honor. Getting to tell these stories through an unbiased view, through a third party witness, is incredible. I’m so thankful for these couples, for the photographers I assisted, for the vendors I worked with.

And I can’t wait to do it again. And again.

M

Hey! I'm Makayla, a wedding photojournalist based in Duluth, MN and Saint Paul, MN. 

I believe that stories are best told untouched, undirected, and with intentionality and meaning.

This blog is a space to share advice for couples about weddings, advice for photographers about witnessing events with intention, and steps to create decisions based on your values and what matters most to you.

Grab your favorite beverage, pull up a chair, and let's get to know each other.

M

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