This story starts with a ring under the Christmas tree in station square on New Years Eve 2015. Megan had been working as a wedding coordinator for Lingrow Farm, that’s how she and I met, but she met Johnny in Station Square years before that. They were both attending St. Vincent University and working for the Event and Conference Services Department. If I remember the story right, Megan was driving the shuttle and saw Johnny waiting to be picked up on the curb. It wasn’t long before they were back at Station Square on their first date, and three years later I got an email from Johnny that he had a plan. These two St. Vincent alumni were getting married, Megan just didn’t know it yet. Johnny explained that he would be home from DC for New Years and was going to take Megan out to dinner in Station Square and pop the question under the big Christmas tree outside the Hard Rock Cafe. When he asked if I was up for secretly photographing the surprise proposal ninja-style and keeping it a total secret for over a year, I said ABSOLUTELY!
His plan was to surprise Megan on the morning of their wedding with a framed photo from their secretly photographed surprise proposal!
So I had to invent a secret email account so that I could communicate with Johnny in the days leading up to New Years. Pittsburgh weather was abnormal as usual. The temperature was about 20 degrees with a windchill near zero and there was no snow on the ground. In keeping with wedding off season tradition, I had come down with pneumonia a few days prior and felt like I was slowly dying of the plague. Like all fabulous productions though, the show must go on. My normal plan of attack when it comes to a surprise proposal is to blend into the crowd of strangers until just the right moment then jump out and start shooting. It worked great for Chad & Leslie’s proposal at the fountain at the point! Of course Leslie had never met me before and had no idea what I looked like anyways. Then there was the time I shot Brad & Kylie’s proposal after dark at the Christmas tree in Saxonburg, but again – Kylie had never met me , it was dark, and the town Christmas parade was going on so I had some cover. This time would be different because Megan knew my face and there would be no jumping out and yelling surprise – we would have to stay out of sight the whole time and be completely under the radar for a whole year. We were going to need disguises.
Remember that scene from Jim Carrey’s Fun with Dick and Jane when he goes out to rob the convenience store? That’s the look I was going for. I got pretty close, right?
So the day arrives and it was colder than frigid. Sean offered to drive me to Pittsburgh and sit with me on the stake out since I was so sick. We parked in the garage, snuck around the side of the building 45 minutes early hoping to scope out the perfect spot to blend into the crowd of holiday shoppers and party-goers. We rounded the corner and this is what we saw: AB-SO-LUTELY nothing. The crowd of people I was supposed to hide in obviously hadn’t gotten the memo or all had better things to do on a -3 degree windchill afternoon than stand in the wind by a freezing river.
Our disguises were good, but they weren’t THAT good. It was going to be hard not to be recognized when we were the only other human beings in the entire plaza when Megan and johnny showed up. We needed to take cover. Luckily, irony provided us with the perfect location – the abandoned photo booth outside of Bar Louie. It was the only thing to hide behind other than a trash can so that had to be it. So there we were, squatting inside a run down photo booth in the cold like a homeless James Bond waiting for our targets to show up.
Meanwhile, Johnny had received my text that we were on location ready to go and was trying to nonchalantly convince Megan to go stand around in the cold by the Christmas tree without giving away the fact that he was about to ask her something VERY important. We saw them enter the plaza from our hiding place. I was so afraid Megan would spot us and ruin the surprise. They stood there and talked a minute, took a few selfies, then Johnny took Megan’s hands and I knew he was going for it. In this moment he was totally running on faith that we were in the right spot and ready and were going to get all of this since he hadn’t seen us and had no idea where we were. Megan’s eyes widened a little even before he reached into his pocket. When he dropped down to one knee, her hands covered her face in disbelief.
At this point, I wish we had the go pro with us because there was only enough room for me to poke one eye and my camera lens through the opening to shoot, so Sean couldn’t see a thing and didn’t get to watch any of it unfold. Luckily, I can read lips and was narrating for him under my breath. “Ok he’s going for it, he’s on the knee, she’s covering face, *lip reading* “Is this for real? o my god, o my god, is this really happening?” Ok the ring is on her hand, he’s up, they’re hugging, there’s a lot of crying.” You have to keep it together when you’re shooting a surprise proposal even though you feel like every hair on your head is standing on end willing you to get the shot. Did I mention it was -3 degrees out?
Once he had asked and she had enthusiastically said yes, they hung around for quite a while enjoying the moment. Johnny’s sister, Kathleen, had been standing by to capture the proposal by phone for instant photos and was hiding out inside the hard rock. She stepped out got some photos of them together and they talked for a while. By this point I think I had lost feeling in both of my hands and was just gripping my camera with a frozen claw.
We knew they were headed to dinner afterwards nearby and was afraid of running in to them on the way to the car so we skittered into Bar Louie to warm up a minute. When we had thawed out, we left and Sean drove me directly to Med Express for antibiotics. Later that night, Megan called to tell me Johnny had proposed and I had to pretend I had no idea and asked a ton of questions about how it happened. Megan had no idea we had been there the whole time.
Fast forward now through a whole year – we celebrated their engagement with photos in all four seasons. We traveled to Washington D.C. where Johnny works and would turn out to be their future home for a sunrise engagement session at the cherry blossom festival. In summer, we honored Pittsburgh tradition with a night time photos under the lights at Kennywood (they actually got featured around valentine’s day this year for Kennywood love stories!). When the leaves changed, Johnny was home for the weekend and we all got up early the morning after a wedding double header and hiked a mile into the woods for photos inside a waterfall along the Allegheny river. The winter photo session was the hardest. Megan’s plan was to go back to station square in the snow under the Christmas tree, but Mother Nature was uncooperative. Wedding planning was kicking up a notch, work was busy for Johnny, and it just wouldn’t snow. Then we postponed because the high temperature for the day was zero degrees. Then postponed again, no snow. By the time we shot their winter Pittsburgh engagement session at Station Square, the Christmas tree where they had gotten engaged had been taken down for the year. I knew Megan was a little disappointed, but I also knew she was just a few months away from a great surprise!
So what happened when the surprise was finally revealed?
Megan’s reaction when the surprise proposal photos were finally revealed, “are you SERIOUS?” followed by joy, followed by happy tears. It was fantastically rewarding to see a year worth of planning and secret keeping come to fruition.
If you or someone you know is planning a surprise proposal, you don’t have to trust your memories to a dark blurry cell phone photo that can never be blown up. I’ll hide out in the bushes and capture it all in crystal clear detail so that you can frame it and always look at it and remember 🙂