I met Steven Gross the way so many thousands of other people have met him: on the business end of his Leica in a barrage of flashing light. It was the wedding of two friends in 199?? in a grand old Chicago mansion, I was an usher, and everybody was having a smashing time. But nobody was having as much fun as Steven, holding the flash high overhead and the camera stiffarmed out to the side (he don't need no stinking viewfinder), whirling and ducking among the bobbing couples on the dance floor like a guerrilla mambo king with a Cheshire grin. He prowls, then he pounces, firing in staccato bursts, sometimes four, sometimes fourteen shots of a single moment, and he winds the film by hand. He thinks nothing of burning forty, fifty rolls in a night.
And I distinctly remember saying what everybody says when they watch Steven work: Who IS that guy?
Steven is like no photographer anyone has ever seen. For starters, he is a wedding photographer because he adores photographing weddings, not because he fell into the bastard genre by default. When he's shooting, his happiness is as evident as the bride's. (And when he's caught in public without a camera, he's kind of quiet.) Then there's the fact that he's a true documentarian, he's there from the earliest preparations, shooting the bridesmaids as they dress, documenting the inevitable satin catastrophes, the teary embraces, the pensive moments. He pursues the hams and the wallflowers and the catering staff, warming them up until they smile. He particularly loves shooting the woman in the backless dress, the flower girl trying on the veil, the cigar in daddy's hand. (Clearly, were he not a charmer, he would be decked on a regular basis.) For Steven, the coin of the realm is the subtle gesture that reveals the passions and ironies of the wedding ritual: a stolen kiss between bride and groom, a young boy ogling a bride, a little girl enveloped in the bride's veil.
And when he finds these moments, he makes them last forever. It's strictly black-and-white, gallery-quality, film-noir, photojournalistic candids, a lush accumulation of ephemera, a rich mosaic of a couple's special night.
Some months after the wedding where we met, Steven and I began working as a photographer/writer team, covering events once a month for Chicago magazine (and becoming fast friends). And it's in these eight-plus years of trying to keep up with him in a crowd that I've come to realize how he produces work that's so personal and unique (this sounds trite, but bear with me): It's the smile. He startles his subjects with the first burst from his flash he wants people to be real, so there's not a lot of posing-but then they see the grin, and then he feints, playing with them, and they laugh, and maybe they protest a little, and then, what happens is genuine magic: He has brought them to life. That is when they become ever more truly themselves. It's like Steven is tickling the guests until they lose their inhibitions and their happiness bubbles out-you can see it unfolding on the proof sheets, and it is extraordinary. (It also makes the wedding a lot more fun.) For the couples who discover Steven and who "get" his art, who understand his style, nobody else will do (which is why it's fortunate that he is a mensch, as well as an artist: one couple who couldn't quite swing his fee offered him a Honda Accord as partial payment; another, a dining-room table and a couple of air conditioners. Naturally, he accepted.)
Self-styled"artistic" wedding photographers were rare back in 199TK; today, they're a dime a dozen. But Steven's gift will always be a rarity: the ability to draw people outside of themselves and into the celebration so deftly, so delightfully, with such genuine joy. You'll see it in every picture.