First, a little disclaimer: it’s not like I can just lay my eyes on some random couple who just started dating and then proceed to declare, “I see them having a future together! They are going to end up marrying each other!” or “That is not going to work! They’re not meant to be!” For the record, I am not that clairvoyant. Just had to take a moment to put that out there before we go any further, because I don’t want people calling me to ask about the fate of their relationships. But, just like everyone else, I guess, I do have those occasional moments of, um, insight wherein I can tell a jackpot when I see one. Like when my friend Winright Tan began dating April Cunanan—I knew from that very moment that hers was the finger he was going to put a ring on!
I mean, come on, it kind of wasn’t that hard to figure out. First, photos that he took of her were suddenly all over his Facebook timeline. I had been an avid follower of Winright’s work ever since the day he decided to explore photography as his third most favorite hobby—next to shooting hoops and collecting sneakers—and always I’d marveled at his exquisite photos of landscapes and seascapes (snow-capped Mount Hood in Oregon framed by imposing pines, the Monterey Bay harbor at dusk, etc.), of old structures and landmarks (the pier at Paradise Cove in Malibu, the capilla at Mission Santa Barbara, the Bixby Creek Bridge at Big Sur), and his macro pictures (usually of pistils of exotic flowers), processed in that style that they call HDR (that I am not and will never be good at, by the way). And then one day the landscapes and the landmarks and the macros just stopped coming, and suddenly he was all about portraits—and almost always they were of April! Winright had found his muse—and he couldn’t stop taking pictures of her! This hammered out the basis of my hunch that the two would end up tying the knot because, well, that was exactly how my parents ended up together—my mother skipping and jumping and dancing and laughing and beaming and singing and breathing, and my father, who was a photographer during his younger years, documenting her every move in film (I shared this story when I inaugurated this blog some three years ago). Second, they were starting to get matching shoes—sneakers, to be exact. Didn’t I mention earlier that collecting sneakers was Winright’s second absolute favorite pastime, next to basketball? I remember feeling warm and fuzzy inside when, as I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed to spot the warmest and fuzziest Valentine’s Day post of all, I stumbled on a photo that Winright took of his girl trying on a pair of reissued Air Jordan 4s (in its original circa 1989 color combo of white and cement gray). Yes, that was his Valentine’s present to her: a pair of Air Jordan 4s to match his own pair of Air Jordan 4s! It sure beat the crap out of the hackneyed bouquets and ridiculous-looking balloons that everyone else was posting. I don’t know about you, but, to me, his-and-hers anything equals the sound of wedding bells. Especially his-and-hers sneakers! It’s, like, if you guys can agree on matching footwear, how much easier would it be to agree on matching wedding bands? (Plus, can you imagine the resulting shoe closet when you guys finally move in together? More on Winrght and April’s shoe closet later.) What was even more fascinating about the whole sneakers thing was the fact that Winright didn’t have to force April to like them, because, as it turned out, she was about that flow, too. They were the kind of couple who would go watch NBA games together, and more often than not in matching LeBron James jerseys. Yes, they rooted for the same team—Miami Heat, even though both of them were Angelenos—and you could imagine them high-fiving each other every time LeBron made a basket, whether watching the action from the courtside seats at the Staples Center, or from their couch at home.
I think it was in the summer of 2011, some six months into their dating, that I told Winright to “pop the question already so I can take your engagement pictures!” (If that sounded like an order, it’s because I tend to be bossy like that. LOL.) I’m sure that at the time Winright just laughed this off, like it was the most incredulous thing he’d ever heard me or anyone say. (I think anyone would roll their eyes and think, We only started going out, and here’s someone asking us to get engaged already? It’s probably like when your parents meet your new girlfriend for the first time and already it’s grandchildren that’s on the agenda!) But I was serious. You cannot begin to understand how serious I was. I’d never even met April in person yet! But, no, that didn’t stop my imagination from running wild: already I was picturing myself photographing them being all lovey-dovey against some of the most romantic (to me, at least) spots around Southern California, like the pier at Paradise Cove in Malibu, or Joshua Tree National Park, or that one bench in downtown L.A. that was like the third character in the movie (500) Days of Summer! (I go hardcore when I’m imagining things like this. You know that stupid thing they say about not imagining something too much, lest it will never happen? I say it’s the opposite—picturing something in your mind’s eye, and being very creative and detailed about it, is actually like willing it to happen!)
Flash forward to the spring of 2012, and Winright did propose, and I did make it to L.A. in time for it—except it wasn’t in L.A. that he popped the question, it was in Hawaii! Yes, in one very ironic twist of fate, the very day that my plane arrived in LAX was the same day he and April flew out of it to go to Maui! Winright disguised it as a spring getaway, of course, but the plan all along was to yank out the engagement ring towards the tail end of their trip, under the blue Hawaiian skies. To me it was one of those unfair situations—that now seem funny in retrospect, of course—because never in my life had I felt the pang of “right time, wrong place!” Had I known of his plans beforehand, I would’ve booked tickets with a quick stopover in Hawaii before proceeding to the mainland! (I couldn’t be mad at Winright, obviously, because, hey, if you’re planning to propose to your girl, letting someone else in on your plans is the last thing on your mind, right? I mean, sure, you’d probably want to tell your mother, or your best friend—but your random photographer friend wouldn’t even be on that list!) And to make matters worse, when it was finally time for them to fly back to L.A., April’s fingers a ring heavier, it was my turn to leave the West Coast to head on to New York! That dizzying and luckless game of cat and mouse was enough to make me sick to my stomach! It was as if the entire universe—the airlines companies, aiports, etc.—was conspiring for this engagement shoot to not happen!
What was more nauseating was that their wedding day came and went (they tied the knot six months into their engagement, in the fall of 2012), and I kept thinking that they had never gotten their engagement photos taken, by me or anyone else. OK, maybe nauseating is an overly dramatic way of putting it. The point is it made me sad—it always makes me sad when I am not able to fulfill a promise to a friend. To Winright (and perhaps April, too) it probably wasn’t that much of a big deal—we must not forget that not all couples are into the idea of engagement pictures—but still it made me really bad. I consoled myself with the thought that they did have some pretty decent pictures of the two of them—taken at the Scripps Pier in La Jolla, by Winright himself, believe it or not, with a tripod-mounted camera on a self-timer setting—that could pass for engagement photos. I kept thinking, See, they didn’t need a photographer! Trust Winright to make photos taken with a tripod on self-timer to look like they were taken by a professional photographer! (Reminded me of Redmond, WA-based Filipino photographer Francis Tan Seng and his better half Elda who DIY-ed their engagement shoot for the fun of it!)
My luck would change a bit when, a year later, I would find myself back in L.A., just in time for their first wedding anniversary. There was no way to turn back time to magically take us back to when they had been newly engaged—but who was to say we couldn’t celebrate their first year as a married couple by means of a love shoot, right? Fortunately, Winright was more than sold to this idea, and wasted no time in pitching it to his wife. I finally got to meet April, and she told me that, yes, she was more than willing to do it—apparently she had been following my work, too, and she’d always liked the shoots that I’d done for other California-based couples. It made me real happy when she said that she liked my photos because “they tell real stories—not just photos for photos’ sake.” Always nice when someone appreciates the heart of your work. I’d been really careful to make the shoots that I’d carried out in California stand out from those I’d done in Cebu—for example: whereas in Cebu I would always be quick to glamorize my shoots with top-to-bottom styling and impossible props/set decor, I’d made a conscious effort to have little of these elements for my gigs in California, relying mainly on what the surroundings already had to offer, just to free my work from slightest hint of wasteful frivolity—and finally all that was paying off. More and more people from around here, like April, were acknowledging the storytelling aspect now, not the embellishments. Immediately April, Winright and I got to work. Which brings us to the photos that you now see on here!
In other places in this blog you’ve read about my absolute obsession with California love stories. Something about love stories that take place in California—Pretty Woman from 1990, Crazy/Beautiful from 2001, (500) Days of Summer from 2009, Valentine’s Day from 2010, and even the ridiculous love triangles in TV shows like The Hills, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County and Melrose Place—that make them tick. Didn’t take long for me to figure that something out—if these love stories came to life more than any other love story in the world, that was by virtue of a third character, and that was no other than California, serving as more than just a mere backdrop to these romances by playing a seemingly active role in building them. For the first-ever couples shoot that I’d done in L.A. in the summer of last year, this was kind of the formula that I’d stuck to: lovey-dovey couple plus L.A. points of interest (be they L.A. arcana or the usual suspects). So I decided I was going to treat Winright and April’s shoot no differently. We couldn’t do the shoot in any of the places that I’d originally dreamed of doing it in for various reasons—Winright liked the idea of shooting at the pier at Paradise Cove, but he knew it could get very crowded there (yes, even in the fall); April could taste the filmic quality of photos taken at Joshua Tree National Park, but theorized that driving 150 miles was a criminal waste of time (we only had one day); and that downtown L.A. park bench featured in (500) Days of Summer was no longer accessible (Angel’s Knoll, the sloped expanse where the bench is located, was closed last July 30 due to “state budget cutbacks”)—but that was alright because it only gave us the chance to explore other locations that were a lot more meaningful to them. They wanted an “edgy and urban” kind of vibe so we decided to do a lot of street scenes—we did the west end of Melrose and the middle section of La Brea where the offbeat (and colorful) storefronts of consignment and vintage shops sat side by side with murals du jour (by celebrated street artists like Kai Aspire, among others). We wanted a bit of old-time L.A., too, so we did a couple of shots down the Broadway Theater District in downtown L.A. (near the areas where the rainy gunfight sequences from the movie Inception were filmed—I know this because I was there when they closed the streets to film a couple of scenes in the summer of 2009), and over at the Union Station. We did some scenes at Pink’s Hot Dogs down La Brea, too (where we also had brunch). Finally, for the beach scenes (because what’s a California love shoot without a beach scene, right?), we drove to Manhattan Beach. Yes, we covered some pretty decent ground there!
Of all the locations that we covered, it was Pink’s that was most meaningful to them, because this was, according to Winright, “where we had our first date.” You gotta love a guy who brings you to a hot dog stand for your first date, right—but a girl who’s down for that kind of scene, you gotta love her more! (Pink’s has a special place in my heart, too, because this was where I had my first-ever L.A. meal when my brother-in-law dragged me here during my first visit to the City of Angels some six years ago). I’m tempted to classify it as L.A. arcana, but the truth is there is nothing obscure or out-of-the-way about Pink’s—if that Bank of America commercial that featured this 74-year-old place is any indication, it really is more like an institution now! And how lucky are Winright and April, right, for having a tiny portion of such a storied place in Californian culture indelibly etched in their own history? This little tidbit was what actually kept me going despite the setbacks that we had in our other locations—like how we were stopped by security officers as we were about to do some scenes down colorful Olvera Street Market (only four years ago people were allowed to take pictures around the place without prior permission!), and how it was already very dark when we got to the Manhattan Beach Pier at 4:30 (I hate it when it’s fall because the sun sets four hours early!). In my mind I was, like, Screw all the others! We got Pink’s in the picture! That should be enough “cool factor!” (And enough “nice factor,” too, I should add—thanks to the brunch hour staff at Pink’s for allowing us to take pictures, no questions asked!)
I know I mentioned I was gonna take it easy on the styling (like I said, I wanted their chemistry—with each other, with the place—and not the embellishments tell most of the story), but I did spare an hour of my time some two days before this shoot to visit Winright and April in their West Hollywood apartment, sift through their closets, and help them make compelling outfit decisions. Save for this one outfit that I threw together for April that was inspired by Bridget Fonda’s character Janet Livermore in Cameron Crowe’s Singles from 1992 (can you tell which one?), I think I did a pretty good job of rounding up garbs that were very them. I had to squeeze in the his-and-hers LeBron James jerseys, yes—because, really, what other items in their closet best represented their relationship? Other than their sneakers, of course. I had to pick my jaw up from the floor after they showed me their shoe collection. I’m an avid collector of sneakers myself, but not as hard core as these two, that’s for sure! It all began with Winright, and it all grew exponentially after they started going out (because now for every pair he gets, April has to have a matching one, too)—now they were running out of closet space, and some of their newer babies had to be cooped up in the kitchen! They even tried to rub their fanaticism off on me by dragging me to the La Brea Undefeated in between takes so they could get me a pair of Nike Air Max 90 Infrareds to match theirs!
Thank you, Winright and April, for sharing your world (your L.A.!) with me for one day. I learned so much that day about the city I love as I have about you—and along the way I might have learned a little something about myself, too! May you keep that California love burning and continue to inspire the California lovin’ people around you!
Winright Tan and April Cunanan | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon in Los Angeles, CA, on November 20, 2013 | Hair and makeup by Rod Uy