Photos examine marriage through courthouse weddings

Weddings typically elicit photos of soft-focus bliss - tuxedos and gowns, bouquets and corsages, seriously careful hairdos and seriously picturesque backdrops.

An exhibit of photographs on display at Duke University goes another way entirely. The photos, by documentary artist Anne Weber, depict couples just before or after their civil ceremonies in government offices. Titled "The Geography of Marriage," the exhibit is an attempt to cast a different light on this pervasive cultural institution that so famously, and sometimes controversially, crosses the border between the personal and the legal.

"At a time when weddings range from covenant marriages to same-sex unions, this exhibit examines how we define this institution," Weber writes in the text accompanying the exhibit, on display through Dec. 30 at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy. "When divorce is common, when its legal definition varies so widely across state lines, what, exactly, does marriage look like now? How do we come to define this institution for ourselves?"

The photos, arranged down both sides of the first-floor passageway of Rubenstein Hall, are candid and oddly intimate. For the project, Weber set up her camera in two locations: the Wake County Courthouse in Raleigh and in Boston City Hall in Massachusetts. Each couple filled out a short questionnaire regarding their reasons for choosing a civil ceremony and their personal definitions of marriage.

Viewed together, the images and the handwritten notes are compelling and often quite touching. The written responses reveal how public policy, church guidelines and economic realities affect the act of getting hitched in very real and specific ways.

One photo shows a teenage couple from North Carolina, both in the Army. Their reason for getting a civil ceremony? "Upcoming deployment. It was easiest with our level of income and unstable lifestyle."

Another tells the story of a Catholic couple, previously married and divorced, who can't get officially remarried in the eyes of their church. Many couples cite atheism or the lack of a common faith.

The photos from Raleigh run down one side of the hall; the Boston pictures the other. Each series features 15 photos and reflects certain regional differences. The Raleigh photos, for instance, are preceded by images of a stack of bound volumes from the Wake County Register of Deeds, which was segregated by race until 1968, one year after laws forbidding interracial marriage were struck down.

The Boston series reflects more recent changes in public policy and depicts several gay couples. Massachusetts is one of only five states currently issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples.

An image from the Boston side of the hall shows a couple both same-sex and interracial. The questionnaire states their definition of marriage: "A public act expressing a commitment of sharing a life together through everything."

The stories roll on as you move down the hall. Several couples cite expense as the reason for a quick civil ceremony. One couple claims insurance reasons as the primary motivation for getting married. Another refers to a surrogate parenting situation and the need for an official marriage certificate.

Personal goes public

Speaking from Boston, Weber said the inspiration for the project came from attending her sister's civil ceremony in San Diego, Calif. "It was all about expense, in her case," Weber said. "They wanted to save money for a house, instead of spending it on a big wedding. But it got me thinking about all this.

"That's one of the really interesting aspects of it, where the personal and the public aspects overlap. There was something about watching these couples getting married, in this very public space, where that overlap became very clear. That's why it became an interesting place to investigate."

Weber began the project when living in Raleigh two years ago and taking classes at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, co-sponsor of the exhibit, along with Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy. She continued the project when she moved to Boston, and hopes to expand it further by taking pictures in California - currently the front line in the battle for same-sex marriage and, in many people's view, the bellwether for U.S. federal policy.

We can relate

"Anne's photographs put individual faces on topics we see in the media every day," said Karen Kemp, assistant dean at the Sanford School of Public Policy. "Marriages prompted by teen pregnancy, military deployments, health insurance and same-sex marriages, to name a few. The portraits give us an opportunity to think about these societal issues in a deeper, more personal way."

Liisa Ogburn, program director with Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, said that apart from the political aspects of the exhibit, Weber's work stands on its own as an inspired artistic vision - an example of how the documentary form can illuminate complex issues.

"The concept is so simple," she said. "Portraits against a plain institutional background paired with handwritten answers. We understand and relate to the subjects - and the big policy questions their answers raise - in an entirely different way than had Weber only captured their images.

"I expect great things from her in the years to come."