When Steve Gross enrolled in the photography program at Columbia College nearly 20 years ago, “Nobody would admit to photographing weddings,” he says. “Back then, I didn’t want to be associated with weddings either. It wasn’t artistic.”

Gross’s career began in the Air Force as the unofficial photographer for his base in Frankfurt, West Germany, in the 1970s. He learned to take shots on the run. Once he stumbled on the aftermath of a Baader-Meinhof bombing of an officer’s club. “I was leaving the office for lunch and I saw smoke, so I ran back for my cameras and ran over to where I saw the smoke,” he says. “I was running on top of the fire trucks, getting good vantage points. Right behind the firemen’s backs. It was a real adrenaline rush.”

He left the Air Force in 1978 and wandered Europe and India for a year with his camera before signing up at Columbia in 1980. “It was five years in the military that really taught me I needed to be self-employed,” he says. Hence the weddings. “It was a bastard genre. At first I shot the regular color dreck. Then I’d go to my friends’ weddings and I’d have fun. I’d get some really cool black-and-white photos. I started pulling the normal shit out of my book and putting in what I really like to do, and people started hiring me for it. So then I pulled out all the color crap and told people I just don’t do color. There went 95 percent of my business. But at the 5 percent of weddings I got, I had a great time.”

The only billowing smoke Gross captures today comes from Havana cigars puffed by best men in tuxedos. Gross markets himself to a highly selective crowd. “I cut brides’ heads off,” he says. “You’re not going to get a lot of calls from your classical brides when you cut their heads off.” Gross says he often focuses on “icons”–rings, gowns, veils, shoes, and champagne glasses, nuptial items he’s known to foreground with a surrealist flourish. Cigars loom as quasi-phallic fetishes; Chicago Cigar Smoker just called him about running a series of those shots.

A subscriber to the “in your face” school of shooting, Gross has converted his documentary urges into a career as a “stealth paparazzo,” as one customer admiringly dubbed him. “I am a guest at a party with a camera. I become one with the party. I let people have fun instead of telling them to stop what they’re doing. One of the most often asked questions by the people who attend these weddings is, ‘Are you a guest or are you the photographer?’ And I’m both. I sit with Aunt Betty or whoever, but it helps me shoot better when they treat me better. I eat, I drink, I have a good time, because if you’re not having a good time when you’re shooting, your photos are going to suck.

“A lot of weddings will look the same to someone who didn’t know the people and wasn’t there, but the people who hire me and see their friends the way I capture people–they see the emotion of that day,” says Gross. “When you look at a stranger’s wedding you’re not going to see that, but when you look at your own wedding and your own friends you’re going to feel every emotion that you felt that day. You can recognize the person from a fragment, while a stranger cannot.”

To pitch his work, though, Gross must show strangers his prints of other strangers. “I can see from their reaction whether they’re going to be appreciative,” he says. “Are they showing respect to the print or are they treating them like baseball cards? For the most part they’re in the arts. They’re in the graphic design or photography community. Art directors, collectors, painters. It’s rare, but I get a few lawyers. I get a lot of architects. I get a lot of people who wanted to be in the arts but who are in another career to make a living.” And it better be a good one: his fee starts at $5,600.

Twenty of Gross’s photos are currently hanging at Bic’s Hardware Cafe, 1733 S. Halsted, through the end of June. Call 312-850-2884. –Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Steve Gross photo by Bill Stamets; wedding photographs by Steve Gross.