I have sat down to write this several times, and the only words that keep coming to mind are “Holy sh*t. I did this. I finally, finally DID THIS.”
WPPI GRAND MASTER.
To explain to the muggles out there (that’s non-photography folk), WPPI is “the largest show for professional, amateur and emerging wedding and portrait photographers and filmmakers, drawing attendees from all over the world for 4 days of conference, content and business-building interaction.”* It’s a convention that I’ve been attending for eighteen years. It’s a place where I’ve met friends, friends who became loves, loves who became family. It’s a hectic, batshit crazy adrenaline rush of a week with classes, parties, meet-ups, competitions, camaraderie, trade show wanderings, and so very much more.
In short, it’s one of the best weeks of the year.
I went to WPPI for the first time when I was a brand new photographer. I knew maybe two people attending, had no idea who any of the speakers were, didn’t even know what the classes were all about, but I hopped that plane to Vegas from Florida ready to learn it all. I went back the next year, when I was pregnant. I went back the next year, and the year after that, and the years after that. I learned. I made friends. I met contacts at the trade show that are dear collaborators and supporters of my business to this day. Every industry friend that I have can be traced somehow back to WPPI.
I began speaking and teaching there. First small classes, then to larger ballrooms. I stepped foot on a demo stage at the trade show for the first time at WPPI, graduating to bigger stages, culminating in being a speaker for Canon USA. I fumbled with my words, my keynotes, my ability to translate technical ability into tangible takeaways for class attendees.
I also started entering print competition.
What is that? Well, to also borrow words from WPPI’s website , “WPPI’s The Annual: 16×20 Print, Album and Filmmaking competition is the most prestigious wedding, portrait and print competition in the world, and the capstone event of the WPPI Conference + Show, with an awards ceremony honoring the most illustrious photographers of the year, many of whom spend their entire year preparing for this competition. The competition culminates with live judging at WPPI’s yearly conference and a gallery exhibition at the show taking place in Las Vegas. Prizes include the Grand Awards and crystal trophies.”
Every year I took the time to sort through my images from the year prior, culling and culling again to get that final dozen or so of the best of the best. The images that made my heart sing. The images that depicted the decisive moment. The best light, best pose, best examples of my technical and artistic ability. I had them printed, packed them with gentle hands into their shipping cases, sent them to Vegas, crossed my fingers, and lived and died over the two days of judging until I saw how I did.
Sometimes I did well. My scores were great, I won awards, I managed to get two coveted Grand Awards, I gave some speeches, my trophy case grew. Sometimes I did terribly, and I’d find myself hiding in a Vegas bathroom stall angrily wiping at my eyes with tissues until the hurt of a bad score stopped stinging. Sometimes the yearly glass of champagne post-awards ceremony that I shared with my friend Justine was a glass of celebration, sometimes a “we blew it this year” drink of misery.
But you know what? Every good score, every bad score, every lovingly assembled print case – it all made me better. A better photographer, year after year. A better teacher and educator, as I balanced between entrant and judge. A better human being. A more sympathetic creator of images. A more careful holder of the frantically beating hearts of every other entrant who put their feelings and their work on the line when they dared to share their work with a panel of judges.
There is an Honors of Excellence point system with the WPPI competition. Your top four scoring entries (no matter how many you enter) go towards your Honors of Excellence point total. I could tell you about how the point system works, or you could just read it here – their site describes it better than I ever could. Your points and “wins” help you rise up through the WPPI Titles and Designations, which are:
- 5 points = Associate of WPPI title.
- 15 additional points (for a total of 20+ points) = Master of WPPI title.
- 15 additional points (for a total of 35+ points) = Double Master of WPPI title.
- 15 additional points (for a total of 50+ points accumulated) = Triple Master of WPPI title.
- 15 additional points (for a total of 65+ points accumulated) = Grand Master of WPPI title. NOTE: In order to actually receive the Grand Master of WPPI, the member must have also received 5 gold awards or above and at least 1 Grand Award from The Annual: 16×20 Print, Album and Filmmaking Competition (past Premiere Grand Awards don’t count) at some point during their time in the program. The Grand Master of WPPI title holds a lot of prestige. It will be difficult to obtain because of the amount of skill and longevity that is needed to achieve it. But it is still attainable enough to encourage members to work towards that title. No one who earns this award will be unworthy of it—they will have earned it over a number of years and with consistently highest scoring prints.
I have been entering The Annual: 16×20 Print, Album and Filmmaking Competition since 2007. I have entered a total of 107 prints. I have lived, died, breathed, cried, rage-screamed, and cartwheeled over my cases of images every single year.
And this year, I became a Grand Master.
I am only the seventh person in WPPI history to do this. The second woman. And the first and only female wedding photographer.
To say I am overwhelmed is a vast understatement.
Here are some of the 107 images over the years that have helped me reach this point:
When the award was given to me at the Awards Ceremony on one of the final nights of the convention, I completely blacked out once I got up out of my chair to accept it. You see, my dear friend Melissa is the one who reads out the designations, and she’d crafted a speech that I had not been prepared to hear. It was eloquent and beautiful, spoke of me so kindly, and reduced me to a mess of tears.
Here is the aforementioned choke-crying that I was doing at this point – thank you to Gerardo Soto for capturing this so sweetly:
I am a very, very private person. My personal life is just that – personal, mine, quiet. I have tried for a long time to separate my personal life from my professional life, and I am aware that sometimes that can make me appear a little cold, a little apart, a little hard to get to know. I keep my children in a quiet place, because they’re mine-all-mine, and I don’t open up very often outside my social circle. I keep my heart to myself, it’s been kicked too many times in this difficult industry, so I hold it tight and share it infrequently. I value my reputation too much to let too much out, and as an unfortunate result, I also don’t let too much in.
It’s a long-standing joke at WPPI that I don’t go to parties – and if I do? I can usually be found in a corner trying to read a book, or as an example from this year, hiding literally on the floor behind a bar. As in, tucked under a friend’s arm on the floor just away. And when there were too many people, I bolted for the quiet of a nearly empty restaurant and the dear sweetness of conversation with close friends.
However? Even though I spend a lot of time running from large gatherings, the love that I have for this industry and the people in it is so huge that sometimes it cracks me open and pours out of my eyes.
And sometimes, not often but sometimes, I am at a loss for words. I didn’t prepare a speech on awards night when that huge crazy trophy was put into my hands, I stumbled through a huge knot in my throat and a burning desire to fall into the arms of those I love and cry it out. Therefore, I left out a lot of people who needed thanking, and I wanted to take some time to put it all into words so those words will live on a lot longer than a grainy iPhone video of me mumbling at a microphone ever could.
So here we go. From the beginning. With all the thanks this heart can humanly hold:
- My parents, Bill and Joyce. For sending me off to theatre school without once asking “How will you make money from this?” For saying “That sounds like a good idea” when I started a photography business. For being the actual best parents that anyone has ever had – go ahead and try to fight me on this, you’ll lose.
- Mitch Stripling, who made my first website and told me to go. To do it already. Who held up our family when I didn’t have a real job. Who let me turn our garage into a studio. For this and a thousand other reasons, always.
- My daughters, Emma and Olivia. Who are everything. EVERYTHING.
- Bill Hurter, Arlene Evans, and George Varanakis. Who gave me a stage, put me in my place when I needed it, held me when I cried in the hallway over one particular print that scored badly, gave me opportunities, took a chance on me, and gave me more than you could ever, ever imagine. Bill, you are so missed. Arlene and George, you are my family forever.
- Tony Hewitt, who taught me to judge. Not just with my brain and my heart, but with the kindness and love in my words and my manner. Pete Wright, who guided our panel so beautifully this year. The kind hearts that I have judged with over the years – the love and care that you so passionately feel for every single image is palpable, and it’s been an honor to work by your side for the good of the prints and the love we all have for our industry.
- Dan Neri and the team at Canon USA, who have given me the most inexplicably enormous honor of my career. Being an Explorer of Light is a literal dream come true, and I cannot thank you for how you’ve quite literally changed my life. I hope I do you proud.
- My fellow Explorers of Light. You awe me on the daily.
- Aaron, George, and Craig who helped The Wedding School become what it is today. Thank you, thank you.
- The photographers I have taken workshops from, admired from afar, learned from online, and respected for years. From my very first time in the studio of Dina Ivory in Tallahassee to reveling in the mastery of the likes of Lindsay Adler and Zach Arias, you have all raised me up. I hope that I have been able to do a fraction of that for other photographers. You all mean so much.
- Rocco Ancora, the glorious joy of a human who has printed my images for the past many, many competitions. Not only does he inspire me to be a better photographer, he continually reminds me what it is to be a gracious, good-hearted human. And by extension, the exquisite Tanya. Who is, quite literally, a ray of sunshine.
- Sandra Krauss, the loveliest friend and studio manager in the world. She holds Susan Stripling Photography together and has quite literally held me together for over a decade.
- The vendors that have transcended vendor-ship to become friends. You’ve trusted me with your business and I’ve trusted you with mine, and we’ve become family along the way.
- The Grand Masters who have come before me, and taught me so many, many ridiculously incredible things. Being on a list with you – Jennifer, Jerry, Rocco, everyone – it’s hilarious that anyone would rank my name next to yours.
- My friends. The people who have come and gone. The people who have been there from the beginning. The table of lunatics who exploded in screams and cried and forgot to take video on awards night, the ones who screamed and danced from afar, you know who you are. I’ve eaten mochi with you, cried in your arms, shopped with you, hidden from parties with you, danced in weird bars with you at 2 am and then fled when we recognized people, eaten pizza in our pajamas while wearing a Hogwarts robe, laughed hysterically in hallways, stayed in your homes, had you stay in mine, argued with you, collaborated with you, and texted with you late into the night. You know how dearly I love you, trust you with my heart, and love you for all the amazingness you put into the world, all you do to raise up women, to do the work, to be pioneers for change, to be trustworthy beautiful people. I love you, I love you.
Thank you all for reading this far, I know it’s a lot. But receiving this Grand Master distinction is about more than just entering print competition and racking up scores. It’s about the family that has surrounded me for years, that family that WPPI has brought me, the loves and heart-explosions and surprises along the way. It’s about over a decade of my career spent chasing a goal that has bettered me in thousands of ways.
I’ve been told that I’m an inspiration to female photographers, to photographers in general, to business owners, to people trying to navigate this difficult industry. If I am, it’s only because of everyone mentioned above, this blindingly beautiful community, this gorgeous world.
Thank you. Thank you.