Cliff Mautner: "The Client Handed Me This Moment"

Yesterday, I sat down with Wedding Photographer Cliff Mautner for a phone interview. I wanted to know more about the prestigious award he had just won from WPPI — it being the second time that he had been honored with the award, the WPPI Grand Award for Photojournalism, a very big deal.

It being a HUGE deal in the industry, I wanted to do more than shoot some quick questions to him by email. So I picked up the phone and got him on the line.

First of all, he’s a trip. “No, no, no,” I heard him say almost immediately. “Not right now. Down. Get down. DOWN.”

Ummm. “Is this a good time?” I asked. “Yes! It’s perfect. The thing is … we just got a new puppy …”

So, in between my questions, I could hear him shooing his little puppy away. It was adorable, really. As we spoke, and with laptop in front of me, I got stuck on this image that literally had me on the edge of tears. “Cliff,” I said. “I need you to tell me about this image … the one with the gravestone in the background. What? Who? I mean, WOW. What can you tell me about this shot?”

“I’m sure you hear this all the time, but the emotion in this image,” I continued. “Just … how did you capture THAT?”

He knew the one I was looking at immediately. Because it had actually won him his first WPPI Grand Award for Photojournalism back in 2009. It is this one. The one that stopped me in my tracks. The one that made my heart sting a little. The one that made my heart sing a little. The one that made me feel layers of emotion all at once — sadness, love, compassion, tragedy, triumph — all that we are and feel and experience as human beings, all in this one frame.

Cliff Mautner's image - WPPI Grand Award for Photojournalism, 2009

Cliff Mautner’s image – WPPI Grand Award for Photojournalism, 2009

Do you see it? Do you feel it? But I wanted to know: How did he see it? How did he feel it before the click? That’s what I wanted to know. “Cliff, how did you get the shot?” His answer delighted me. He actually didn’t get the shot, he explained. Instead: “The client handed me this moment,” he told me. “Yes, I put myself in the right technical spot, but this client handed me this moment.” *Silence* “Thank you, Cliff, thank you so much for sharing that moment with me.”

So, OK, the client handed you the shot, but was it planned? Like, really, how did you end up at the gravesite like this?

“Well it was the end of the ceremony and as they were recessing, I saw the bride and groom walk out the back,” he said. “I had no idea where they were going, but as I followed them across this driveway and into this cemetery, I saw them stop at this gravestone.”

Mhm. (Tell me more, Cliff!) 

“So we got to this spot and seconds later, the groom broke down and cried,” he explained. “These were the graves of his grandparents. This was, for him, one of the most important moments of his day — paying respect to them and this was the only photo he would have gotten that day of that moment.”

No, it was not planned. It was not one of the shots on the list of shots to get. Instead, he explained: “What really happened is that, after the ceremony, I followed them instead of chilling.”

The groom later told Cliff that if he had only gotten that one photo that day, it would have been worth the price of the entire shoot. Priceless. And for Cliff, too. “After I shot this, I was visibly shaken,” he said. “There are moments in your career where you have to fire the shutter in a judicious manner — are you exploiting or intruding?” And in this moment, he intrinsically knew that he was not intruding — instead, he was handing this couple a gift.

“What I saw was just unbelievable,” he added. “The raw power and emotion of the moment. I just felt so privileged to witness that.”

I wanted to know the story of EVERY shot as I scrolled through his portfolio, and as he tried to keep the new puppy out of his space — at least for seconds. (Space? What’s that? I am a puppy and I want to jump all over you all the time, especially during your interview!)

Well, we chatted for a few moments longer and I finally gave him back to his puppy. LOL. Scott Kelby wrote up a nice piece about Cliff’s most recent award and the picture that garnered his 2nd WPPI Grand Award for Photojournalism. There’s a back story there, too. But, we all might need tissues. So, until next time, I leave you with this picture: A daddy seeing his daughter in her wedding dress for the first time. (It’s on Scott’s blog right here)

Thank you, Cliff, for chatting with me. Your pictures are everything, but it’s the stories behind the pictures that made me need to share this post today.

PS — Feel free to leave comments because I do read them! –Ajna