When I pulled into the driveway of the location my gps had led me to for Kate and Owen’s engagement session, I was first greeted by a flock of chickens. They roamed near my car while I pulled the camera gear from my backseat; as I put the first lens on one of my camera bodies, a young blonde in a sundress came out the side door of the farm house on the property to greet me. She invited me inside the recently renovated home soon after, where I met her fiancé, Owen, for the first time as well. They immediately struck me as the quintessential small town, high-school-sweetheart couple – Kate’s smile radiates and the first thing you notice on Owen is his dimple, which would feel almost too perfectly saccharine if it weren’t for how genuinely sweet these two actually are.
One of my favorite aspects of getting to know my couples is when I get the chance to really see who they are beyond their social media profiles and dimples and perfect teeth – when Kate told me about how excited she was to be taking on her first year of teaching this fall, and how often they help out around the family farm, and that her family worked together to renovate the home the two of them now share, and when they exchanged laughs and giant grins as they reminisced about their early days of dating one another as teenagers. Their voices were drenched in adoration for not only each other as they shared these stories with me, but also for their family and friends and hometown and passions. I have a soft spot for good-hearted, small town people, because these are the same kind of humans and places I grew up loving, too. These two are getting married next June and having their reception on this same family farm, and I already can’t wait to be surrounded by the people and sounds and smells they both know and love so hard and well.

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Juliana and Will met while they were both nursing students at Methodist College in Peoria, which also happens to be one of the colleges wherein I used to teach English. Once we started chatting during their engagement session, we soon realized I had been roaming the (albeit limited) halls of MC during the same years as them. This is one of those things that makes you realize how small and funny our existence can be; these two were sharing desk space and notes and falling for each other, and a person who would someday photograph their love, a stranger to them at the time, was just a few classrooms away. Now here we all were, living in Chicago, meeting for the first time in a city of 2.7 million people instead.

We spent their session roaming the city together, as they shared with me bits of their Chicago life as based on the areas we passed – how Juliana’s favorite running route used to be along the museum campus, and that Will proposed to her on the night they went to see Hamilton. Their personalities differ in a way that perfectly compliments rather than contradicts, and it’s clear from the way they speak and joke that they’re not only a great couple, but also great friends. At one point while they stood before my camera and I peered through my viewfinder, they casually started to dance – Will took Juliana’s right hand in his left, and I observed as their bodies naturally found a shared cadence. One thing I rarely ask couples to do during a session is dance – because without music or a few drinks or some privacy, this could quickly lead to awkwardness quite easily for many of us. But Will and Juliana came into it on their own, unprompted, and I watched and smiled and felt like this is probably them in their most natural state – just a couple of friends in love, happily swaying together whether or not there is music playing.
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When I photographed my first wedding, I had only attended a few weddings in my entire life. And yet there I was, throwing myself head first into a world I knew very little about (so little, in fact, that I was changing lenses during the “first kiss” of that wedding because I knew next to nothing about the general order of events within a wedding ceremony – thank goodness for the understanding couple who was willing to do a reenactment shot, amirite?) I’ve learned a lot since then, and one of the biggest takeaways is a bit of a cliché, but hear me out – that ultimately, something will go wrong on your wedding day. Sometimes it’s big, sometimes it’s tiny, and sometimes you don’t find out about it until weeks later because everyone was trying to hide it from you on your big day. But it’ll happen.

On Jenna and Joe’s wedding day, it definitely happened. While the original plan was for Jenna’s mom to help her get into her wedding dress, life got in the way and she ended up not being able to be there in time to do so. While I see things “go wrong” all the time at weddings, this one broke my heart a little extra for them. I have yet to experience motherhood, but I imagine this as one of those moments a mother may envision sharing with her daughter: helping her tie the bow on the back of her dress, watching her put on her earrings and giggle nervously, giving her that big hug as you hold back tears. So when Gretchen wasn’t able to be there in that moment, and despite the sheer amount of weddings I’ve shot, my heart did a deep sinking on this one.

The day was filled with so many happy moments from there – Jenna and Joe’s first look on his family’s farm, and a greeting from Buford, the family dog, and a beautiful ceremony in a small town church, and drinks and dancing and cigars with friends and family embraces. The first moments for Jenna and her mother were emotional ones, where they shared what felt like a mixture of happy and sad tears. But as the afternoon turned into evening, I felt myself grin as their tears turned to laughs, and watched as they were in the midst of creating the memories that would top that initial one of “how they’ll remember their wedding day”. Jenna’s parents welcomed the wedding guests at the reception with a toast, wherein they spoke of how much they love Joe and his parents, and how much they admire the community they’ve all fostered with their neighbors, and family, and friends. And I thought about how fortunate a group of people can be when they’re surrounded by mutual admiration in the way that Joe and Jenna and their two sets of parents are with one another. There are so many other big, important memories that Joe and Jenna are going to create in the future beyond their wedding day, and I have no doubt that all of these people will be right beside them, hugging and crying happy tears and rooting for them every step of the way.

Church: Wiley Lutheran Church of Ellisville
Reception Venue: Jerry Lewis Barn in Good Hope, IL
Dress: Adore Bridal and Specialty
DJ: All Occasions DJ’s
Tuxedos: Ducky’s Formal Wear
Bridal Cake: Cake Creations by DeAnn Price
Catering: M & E Catering | Becky Ellison of Monmouth, IL
Invitations + Programs: Kellogg Printing of Monmouth, IL
Flowers: Cooks and Company | Galesburg, IL
Hair: Becca Price & Jacqueline Clark
Settee + Vintage Furniture: Vintage Finds by Jenna’s Mother
Catering Tent & Linens: Peoria Rental
Tables + Chairs: Sara Chance | Good Hope, IL
Videographer: Shoot Your Day Video | Eric Hanson

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I first officially met Brittnee and Skyler at their engagement session, and as cliché as I know it sounds, they immediately felt like old friends of mine. These two started dating in college when they were both at Western Illinois University, so their jokes and personalities seem to lean into one another in a way that can sometimes happen naturally as you spend your years of change and growth and maturation alongside someone you love. It was immediately apparent to me not only how much fun they had together, but how much fun people have when they’re in Brittnee and Skyler’s company – I can attest to this because I’ve now been lucky enough to be one of those people.

This wedding day fell on the same day as the wedding of a good friend of mine from high school, and unfortunately I was unable to be in two places at once. This happens often given the schedule and nature of my job, but that doesn’t mean it gets any less bittersweet for me in those moments. And this is precisely why I love Brittnee and Skyler that much more for choosing me to be a part of their day, and for being the welcoming people they are – because they have a way of taking you in and making you part of their group and their fun, and they mesh their family and friends and everyone they know and love all together, and they pass you a beer and then hug you and really mean it. That bittersweet feeling I felt initially quickly dissipated once I was hanging out with these two and their people, because without even knowing I needed it, they made me feel like one of the Bryner/Palen gang, too.

Their reception was a further indication of how these two are this energetic combination of fun and emphatic love and enthusiasm – there was a choreographed father/daughter dance, and there were happy tears, and matron-of-honor rapping, and kisses, and cheers, and so many gigantic laughs. I was laughing and crying and cheersing right along with them, camera in hand, and I couldn’t have imagined being anywhere else.

Reception Venue: iWireless Center
Videographer: Hoop House Creative
Bride’s Dress: A Storybook Ending | Dewitt, IA
Decor + Linens: I Do Events | Davenport, IA
Flowers + Centerpieces: Clazzy Designs
Cake: Sara Lynn’s Cakes | Bettendorf, IA [+ bride’s mother]
Catering: Levy Restaurants
DJ: Sas DJ’s

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There are certain phrases that people use both casually and often when talking about romantic love, one of those being that two people are “meant to be” together. I often wonder if people assume I subscribe to some of these classically held beliefs about love and relationships based solely on my profession – if because my specific work is in love and marriage, I naturally must believe in soul mates and “meant-to-be”ness. And while I don’t often speak it aloud, the truth is that I don’t believe everyone who claims they have “found their soul mate” has actually done so, and I don’t always believe that all couples who claim to be meant to be are actually so – I think sometimes love and relationships can have a lot more to do with timing, and mutual interests, and respect and admiration and learning and growing together, and a shared understanding of the way two people view the world and their place within it, and a lot less to do with finding the one and only mate for one’s soul. And I think that’s beautiful in it’s own right, too.

I say all of this because I want it to be clear that as much as I observe and encounter love, I don’t often see couples and internally classify them as “soul mates” – but when it comes to Lesley and Reece, I am pretty sure I do.

Lesley and Reece first met when they were in high school – Lesley’s family moved to Geneva during the time, so the two knew of each other but didn’t become close then. They both ended up going to college at Illinois State University, but their paths didn’t cross on campus until their junior year. After seeing each other for the first time in years, the two started to become friends. One night later that year, Lesley went to a local bar after a bad date, and Reece happened to be there that evening; and the rest, as they say, is history. Lesley and Reece’s wedding vows echoed one another as they each described how the choices they made throughout all those years prior had a way of leading them to one another; Reece described how he truly felt that all his life, he was being led to her – and after seeing the look in each of their eyes, and watching the way they come to life when in the presence of each other, and hearing how they make each other even better in the toasts by their friends – I completely believe him.

As the two of them entered their wedding reception and greeted their family and friends, Reece shared how reflecting on their lives leading up to this day caused him to think about how finite this whole life thing truly is. He spoke off the cuff as he described the fact that we tend to always look forward toward our future happiness, rather than appreciating where we are at in the moment:

“You know, we think, ‘I’ll be happy when I get a girlfriend, when I get that job, when I get married, when I have children..’ — instead of embracing our current happiness.”

He then referenced this incredible day they were in the midst of – this day when he married the woman his life had led him to, the fact that their loved ones came out to help celebrate it, and how fortunate they both felt for this very moment. There was an energy and sincerity in his voice that I can only describe as that of a person who means it, and I watched as he and Lesley exchanged looks, and as she nodded her head, and as she grinned at the man in front of her, it felt so clear that she meant it just as much.

“We will never again have all of these people we love most in the world all in one room. So tonight, we are celebrating that.”

Sometimes people ask me what some of the best things I’ve seen at weddings are. And I promise you, they’re typically not extravagant or thoroughly planned or things found on Pinterest – often it’s simply people who make each other better sharing knowing looks, being fully present for the incredible thing it is to love and be loved.

Ceremony: Baker Memorial United Methodist in St. Charles, IL
Reception: Royal Fox Country Club in St. Charles, IL

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