On September 21, 1996, John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette quietly exchanged vows at dusk in an intimate ceremony on a secluded island off the coast of Georgia. The sun had already dipped below the Atlantic horizon, and the only source of light inside the tiny chapel on Cumberland Island (population < 35) radiated gently from candles scattered throughout the space.
On that evening, photographer Denis Reggie—who was presented with the great honor and evident challenge of documenting the intimate occasion—intuitively captured what would become two of the most iconic wedding photos of the century. His award-winning image of the bride and groom departing the church has been showcased at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. since 2016, and Reggie spoke with The Knot in an exclusive interview on what would have been the couple’s 20th wedding anniversary on September 21, 2016. Read the interview below for more details about JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette’s secret wedding.
“Notice that it has a slight angle to it,” Reggie says of his iconic shot. “I was walking backwards and I was watching them actually in silhouette, because this is a place where there were no streets, no street lights and no lighting. Basically, the sun had set and it was dark and there were candles in the little chapel—no electricity, just candles—and I was able to see them in silhouette as he reached for her hand, and that’s when I put the shutter on my big Hasselblad camera and then documented that lovely moment for them—and for the world.”
The image of the bride and groom leaving the chapel was later presented as Life’s Photo of the Year and was featured in publications like Time, Newsweek and People. It also inspired a movement within wedding photography in which candid, genuine moments were emphasized more than posed images of couples. “To see Carolyn’s expression, his bride… She is as caught off-guard as I was as their photographer when he reached for her hand and brought it to his lips, as they’re walking out of that simple but elegant, rustic setting, where love was really at the forefront. Not grandeur, not fanciness… This was just love, full on, and center. I think it exudes that from every aspect of the image.”
Reggie recalls how only 35 guests were invited to witness the nuptials, which remained a tight-lipped secret from the public. “There was one cousin from the Robert Kennedy’s, one from the Eunice Shriver’s, one from the Smith’s and so on. It ended up being mostly those cousins who were closest to his age and it was very intimate,” the photographer notes. “I thought that the simplicity of it would have made his mother, Mrs. [Jacqueline Kennedy] Onassis, very proud. I worked for her for a number of occasions over the years, and she was in many things, to the world and to me, a woman of incredible elegance, but understated elegance. I thought to myself, the choice of the setting, the simplicity of the flowers, even the dress and the design—all of it— lovely, but none of it overstated. Jackie Kennedy Onassis was the queen of that sort of simplicity. She had such a great ability in her entertaining, in her décor, in her attire, and so often when I would encounter her, her elegance outshone the statement of any of those accoutrements… a woman of great means who could have anything, yet I believe would have been so proud that her son had chosen, along with his fiancée, to have a wedding that was less about grandeur and more about the important love and commitment that they made. I think much of what I thought when I was working there those two or three days was how very proud she would have been. I think she had passed away just a couple of years before.”
The Atlanta-based professional muses about why his photo has solicited such an immense reaction from couples worldwide. For example, Reggie was recently on assignment in Rome, when by chance he came across his image on display at a bridal salon.
“[There was] 60 seconds of me sort of watching it and kind of scratching my head in terms of them needing to have that photo there,” he says. “[Followed by] two women walking by, stopping in their tracks with their shopping bags in hand, and the one woman—I can see, clearly, reaches her hand to her chest in a heartfelt expression. And you know, here it is 20 years later and to have an impact halfway around the world by someone who I would imagine didn’t actually know him or them. I get it. I get it.”
That very image moves Reggie too. “Sometimes, I’ll look at it and think, ‘What a guy,’” he says. “He raised the bar for all of us guys who have love in our hearts and want to express it. He set the bar for other men to be as demonstrative as he was about what’s in their hearts. I was honored to preserve it with my camera and lens, but I think the nod goes to him. And, of course, her expression—that beauty and excitement—it just makes it all the better and the more exciting.”
Reggie’s heart is devoted to capturing the essence of weddings, that pure celebration of love between a couple. “It’s a serious day where I think someone’s true feelings and love and commitment should be in the forefront,” he says. “This is why, at a wedding, I am virtually silent. I am silent because I think of myself as the quiet witness with a camera. I think of myself not as the director, not as a someone who prompts or stages the moment. I think of myself as a historian—someone who is there to witness a moment and to anticipate great moments, to notice nuance and minutia, to see the way someone squeezes the hand of another and to be able to react to it—without speaking a word—in the quest of preserving authenticity.”