Photo Finish

The hood of the bridal truck is piled with plastic flowers. The groom is a vision in a double-breasted gangster suit. The bride totters on white high heels, her sturdy body straining to hold up pearls, satin, lace and tulle. Her hair is sprayed stiff and jabbed with white roses; each of her fingernails is meticulously painted white. She's nervous, wondering what her intended is saying into that cell phone. She speaks no English at all. And here she is, two hours before the ceremony, waiting to have her picture taken at Romance Photo. Celeste is 20; Alonzo is 26.

"They come in yesterday, not sure if they want to do pictures," says photographer Vuong Vu. "Not sure they have money. But here they are, and first time I see them, I know exactly what I do with them. I know exactly what pose comes next. So now I try to save their time. They're in a big hurry. Most Mexican people want pictures done fast. So, okay."

A few minutes later, Vuong is posing Celeste in front of a plain white backdrop. (Later, he'll fill it in with a slide of fuzzy, pinkish flowers.) Her face is tight -- as disapproving as a woman three times her age saddled with three bad grandchildren.

"You look cool!" Vuong says, with Alonzo translating. Using only his fingertips and never once touching her, Vuong moves Celeste's heavy train into place.

"Put this foot out," he says. "Now, chin down. Yes, I like it, Celeste. Yes, it's beautiful." Frozen into position -- a kind of Gay Nineties pose that evokes the era of the bustle and the bosom -- Celeste surveys the room. Vuong's studio is full of props: papier mâché pillars, plastic flowers, faux stone archways, a white leather chaise longue. Vuong himself, with his long black hair and mutton chops, looks like a Vietnamese rock star. And the minutes are piling up, and the church is filling with people...

"Your first pose together," Vuong announces, leading Alonzo into the picture. "Here," he says to Celeste. "Stand on a phone book. Now you're tall! Beautiful! So romantic!" Is that the shadow of a smile? "Now you kiss, but you stop, just before the kiss, and one, two, three, yes, I like it -- so romantic. Very nice."

In breaking from the kiss position, Alonzo musses his boutonniere.

"Chihuahua!" his wife exclaims in Spanish. "What have you done now?"

"It's all right, sweetheart, it's all right."

"Was he talking nasty to you?" Vuong asks, and is granted another crack in the Celeste armor. "Now almost close eyes. Oh, yes. Right there, Alonzo. What a guy! You look like a movie star. You too, Celeste."

He arranges Celeste and Alonzo against the Mayan ruins, leaning them against each other until they form a sort of marital keystone -- one of them moves, and it's all over. With this realization, Celeste loses her composure and actually laughs, which causes Alonzo to kiss her -- for real this time. After that, Vuong adjusts her veil very slightly so that it floats on her hair, and she smiles and looks absolutely beautiful.

Very romantic -- and it's taken only twenty minutes.

If you live anywhere near the 100 block of Federal Boulevard, you know the purple-and-white facade of Romance Photo. Vuong's studio attracts not just bridal couples, but quinceañera girls, teenagers who want formal portraits with their boyfriends, Mexican nationals who need photos for their immigration paperwork, and the ever-diminishing stream of parents who still take their family photos to a store to be developed. You might see Vuong himself at any number of Vietnamese or Hispanic weddings in the area. In this neighborhood, he's a celebrity.

"I have to do something I love for a living," Vuong says. "And I live as I please."

This was not always the case. As a teen in rural Texas, he cut school so often that his parents shipped him to Denver to spend time with a disciplinarian sister. At Lincoln High, he entered a vocational program and graduated as an auto mechanic.

"I did that for two years, working for Vietnamese people I met at church," Vuong recalls. "But it was so dirty. I just thought, how can I do this? So I went to school for bartending. Mostly Vietnamese people in our community called me for parties. But I don't like it. They don't pay much, and it's not as much fun as I think."

He began fooling around with a camera, a 35-millimeter Canon that his parents had given him back in 1976, not long after they emigrated from South Vietnam. "I know nothing at the time," he says. "So I went back to school again." This time, while continuing to work on cars all day, he went to the Colorado Institute of Art.

"Did I like it? It was -- oh, boy. It just, it just popped! And this is what I like to do. Scenery, okay, but what I really like is people."

Vuong graduated with honors and hoped his alma mater would find him a job. When it didn't, he used credit cards to finance studio equipment and started photographing weddings for free -- no matter that an official photographer might already be hired. "I always make a nice book and give it to the couple," he remembers. "I do this every time someone in my community gets married. Whoever, whenever -- I just shoot. And then the people get to know me. They tell me they pay for film. Then they give me a couple hundred bucks. A year later, I'm in business, and that's what I been doing for thirteen, fourteen years. I'm still poor, but now I'm the guy everyone uses. They really seem to like me somehow."

A certain thread runs through Vuong's photos of brides. She often looks away from the camera, her face balancing on her hand -- not smiling, but thinking something dreamy. Sometimes she is chastely kissing her true love in a garden or keeping watch over a much smaller version of herself superimposed onto the same print. And except for the very few brides wearing the traditional Vietnamese ao dai, she always wears something white and frothy.

"Oh, what a beautiful dress," says Maria, who's waiting for Vuong at the counter. "In Mexico, you know, the mother-in-law gets to choose the bride's dress. When I got married, I was thin, and I still didn't get to wear anything so beautiful. She made me have long sleeves and a collar up to here! It was awful."

A moment later, she's posing for Vuong. It's part of the four-pose package ($25.95).

"Tilt face," Vuong orders. "Can I move a little bit? Yes? May I? Up? Turn? Okay, that's it! Yes! I like it!"

Next up: two Mexican driver's licenses, a teenage girl who comes here every three months so that Vuong can document her life, and a woman picking up 36 almost identical studies of a frozen waterfall. "No one ever takes a picture of me," the woman explains, "but I'm the photographer in the family, so who is there to push the shutter?"

Vuong might ask the same question. His business card features a self-portrait so high-contrast it looks like abstract art, and just one picture of his wife -- glamour-shot style -- hangs on the studio wall. When shooting for his own amusement, he's less likely to photograph his own kids (who got tired of all that years ago) than he is to create a poster for a Catholic-church fundraiser. But things seldom slow down that much, anyway.

"People used to hire me to meet them at a church," he says, "but now they want me at the house, getting ready, at the reception, at the party." Not only that, but today's Vietnamese weddings usually call for no fewer than three changes of outfit. "She starts out in a long white dress, then ao dai for the receiving line, then something else for the cake-cutting and the dancing. It's a lot of work for me," he adds, with evident satisfaction.

And then there are the Hispanic weddings -- "80 percent of the men in cowboy hats and boots" -- and the tiara'd quinceañera girls -- "always in a hurry, sometimes only five minutes to give me" -- and the beat-up photograph of someone's grandma that needs to be restored.

"To me, it doesn't matter, as long as it's people," Vuong says. "Really, I don't care who -- I love to shoot them all."

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff