ROCHESTER, Minn. — A wedding is a sacred day. If all goes well, it is cherished and celebrated.

But for one group of couples scattered across the Midwest, a source of emotional and financial strain has emerged from an unexpected quarter: Their wedding photographer.

Nine couples interviewed by Forum News Service described how they felt "ghosted" by wedding photographer Lexi Stangler, owner of Rochester-based Ember Lane Collective, after they'd signed a contract and paid her: How phone calls, Facebook messages and text messages sent by them were often met with silence by her.

The couples said Stangler would sometimes cancel or try to cancel an engagement shoot the day before or the day of a scheduled event. Brides said Stangler "double-books" weddings, meaning Stangler, the photographer they thought they were hiring, isn't at one of those events. Several newlyweds contracted for two photographers to be present for their wedding, but only one showed up on the wedding day.

Even after the wedding photos were taken, couples often didn't receive the finished product until well after the 90-day contractual period had elapsed, said Kelsea Testa, a Minneapolis bride who hired Stangler for her own wedding, and who has become a leader in a group effort to bring problems with the business to light.

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"Sometimes, they're still waiting for the services, and they have to use legal action or the threat of legal action to get her to cough up (what they paid for)," Testa said.

Testa is the administrator of "Ember Lane Support Group," a private Facebook page. There, members — mostly brides representing an estimated 50 couples — commiserate with each other and swap stories and concerns about their interactions with Ember Lane.

Having become aware that the Rochester Post Bulletin was working on a story about her business, Stangler left a voice message with the newspaper, saying that she had not given consent to a story about her. (There is no requirement of consent for media to do a story such as this one.) Stangler declined to be interviewed when contacted.

But on her business Facebook page Friday, March 26, Stangler "deeply apologized" for delays in delivery and communication.

"While many do not care, this year has sent me into a whirlwind," she said. "Many have asked why things went downhill, and this all started when I lost my business partner due to divorce. The workload that I had created was meant for 2 people to carry — not me alone. This is not an excuse, simply an honest explanation."

Yet, Stangler complained about being "slandered, threatened and extorted" into giving refunds to clients who have not yet had their wedding.

"There are always two sides to a story, and a lot of what is being posted is not true," Stangler said. "I will always take responsibility for my actions, but this has all gotten completely out of hand."

Stangler said she would not be taking any new clients "at this time" and would be working to complete the weddings currently on her books.

In a separate message to couples seeking refunds, Stangler said their retainers were nonrefundable. She also said they were banned from making comments on her business page and that she would "ban anyone that continues to comment on past client's photographs."

Allison Niese, 22, of Eau Claire, Wis., said she booked Stangler soon after her engagement in November 2019. Stangler had done work for other couples Niese knew, and she was impressed with Stangler's photography.

Niese scheduled her engagement pictures to be taken in October 2020.

Niese didn't hear from Stangler until seven months later, in August, when Stangler began "hounding" her for the full $2,800 fee. The inducement would be a 10 percent discount if Niese paid in full. Niese told Stangler she would have to wait until her next payday.

"But she kept asking me every one of those days. And then, I finally gave her the money – and nothing," Niese said.

The couple's engagement shoot was set for a Sunday, and the Monday prior to that Sunday, Niese began texting Stangler almost every single day asking "what I should wear, what time, if it's still on."

Niese says she didn't get a reply until Saturday night, the day before the shoot. Stangler told Niese she was getting tested for COVID-19 and was still waiting on the results.

Niese said she was upset with the sudden cancellation, but gave the photographer the benefit of the doubt.

"COVID stuff happened and changes things," she said. The shoot was rescheduled. A day or a few days before the shoot, Stanger canceled again. This time, she was in Texas, and her boyfriend was in the hospital with COVID-19.

"That's when the red flags started for me," Niese said.

Niese had wanted to use the engagement photos for her wedding invitations. With time running out and confidence in her wedding photographer ebbing, Niese told Stangler she was canceling the contract and got in contact with a lawyer, she said.

Her parents, who helped pay for the photos, have filed a credit card claim to try to get their money back.

Kim Weiss, 24, of Phillips, Wis., and her fiance were set to be married May 8, 2020. Then COVID-19 hit and the couple decided to hold a "small intimate ceremony" instead of a large wedding. The couple paid Stangler $4,000 for their package, which included a vow renewal ceremony a year later.

Stangler photographed the intimate ceremony and presented them with a sneak peek of select photos that same night.

The rest of the photos would be available to them within two weeks, she told them. Then they didn't hear from the photographer for the next five months despite reaching out to her multiple times, Weiss said.

Weiss said she and her husband felt of a sense of urgency in getting the wedding photos, because her husband's grandmother, who had been unable to attend the ceremony due to COVID-19 concerns, had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. She wasn't expected to live long, and the couple wanted to share the photos with her before she died.

The photos arrived in October, five months after the ceremony, Weiss said. Her husband's grandmother had died several days before their arrival.

"She didn't get to see those pictures, because Lexi decided that she was going to be selfish and not get back to anybody," Weiss said.

Savannah Dodson, 24, of Green Bay, Wis., said she reached out to L&H Photography in February 2019. At that point, Stangler's name was Lexi Heaviland, and she and her husband, Trent, were a wedding photography team. Dodson and her fiance, Andrew, paid $3,000 for engagement and wedding photos. They paid in installments because it was "easier for us."

The couple had their engagement pictures taken, and "they were beautiful and amazing," Dodson said.

In August 2020, Lexi and Trent divorced. Lexi changed her last name to Stangler and her wedding photography business became "Ember Lane Collective."

As Dodson's wedding day approached, she began to reach out to Stangler through text messages. Dodson was hoping to talk to Stangler about her plans for the wedding.

"(She) never responded, never responded. And finally, it's the week of the wedding, and I'm like, 'Hello, are you going to talk to me?'" Dodson said.

Finally, Stangler responded and set up a time to talk with Dodson. But that day came and went and there was still no phone call from Stangler. Dodson wrote again, and Stangler apologized, saying her photo shoot had run late. Dodson finally talked to Stangler the day before her wedding.

"She said everything was going to be great," Dodson recalled. "Nothing to worry about (in terms of) of how many photographers like I had in my contract."

Dodson said she paid and contracted for two wedding photographers. The $3,000 cost was the most expensive item in her wedding — more than the rental fee for the venue itself. She wanted the photos to be special, because she knew that after the wedding was over, it was all she would have to memorialize it.

On the day of her wedding, Dodson got a text message from Stangler: She was not coming to the wedding. She was sending another photographer in her stead.

Dodson still clung to hope that she would get two wedding photographers. As Dodson was getting ready for the wedding, the substitute photographer arrived. When Dodson asked about the second photographer, the photographer told her that there would be only one.

"I started bawling," Dodson said.

Dodson later found out that Stangler had double-booked the date and was working at another wedding.

"They're fine," Dodson said unenthusiastically when asked about her wedding photos. "They're fine. I cry about them."

Jessica Riester, 32, of Kellogg, hired Stangler for a boudoir shoot, and estimates paying $1,200 for two photo albums and an 8-by-10 print. The photo shoot was done in February 2020. Riester said Stangler sent her an online gallery "relatively quick."

Then Riester didn't hear anything for a while. She tried to be patient. The COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing, and Riester realized that delays in shipment were inevitable.

In June, Riester became more persistent. She didn't get a response. When Stangler did respond one time, she said the items would be arriving soon. In July, there was no response. In August, Stangler said the items should be arriving.

As the months rolled on, Riester tried contacting through her personal and business Facebook pages; she tried emailing her; then she tried calling her.

"That was when she actually answered my call," Riester said. "She said, 'Oh, yeah, I've been meaning to get in touch with you. Your product should be here, and I'm going to send it off before I go on vacation.'"

Riester said last week that she is still waiting for the products she bought more than a year ago.

"It's just disappointing," Riester said. "I don't like to confront people. Confronting her, especially over the phone — I don't like like having to do that. But it's like, 'OK, this is getting a bit ridiculous.'"

Marissa Wildner, 24, of Menominee, Wis., and her husband got engaged in November 2018. The couple booked Stangler in June of that year, and everything was "smooth from the start." It was when Stangler was part of L&H Photography. The couple paid $2,300 for engagement and wedding pictures, she said.

On the day of their engagement shoot in September 2019, Stangler text-messaged Wildner, saying she was feeling under the weather and wouldn't be able to come. Wildner found the last-minute cancellation frustrating because the shoot was supposed to take place at the couple's home. The lawn was mowed, and Wildner was getting her hair done.

"I'm a business owner, and I was kind of p----- off," Wildner said. "So I called her and I said, 'I don't think this is how you should be addressing this and I'm really disappointed."

The tongue-lashing worked. Stangler and her then-husband, Trent, did show up. Wildner said that Stangler didn't look sick at all.

"It was a good experience," Wildner said about the photo shoot. "She wasn't crabby even though I had chewed her out."

Wildner's wedding day was set for August 2020. Between the engagement shoot and the wedding, Stangler got divorced and changed her name. As with the other brides, Wildner struggled to get a hold of Stangler. But finally, she contacted her through a new Facebook page Stangler had set up after her divorce. Stangler messaged back that "we were still on for the wedding day."

Stangler shot the wedding, but there was no second photographer as Stangler had promised and was stipulated in the contract, Wilder said. There was a second person with her, but she held the camera bag and did not take any photos, Wildner said.

After the wedding, communication from Stangler "really went down." It took about six months, well past the 90-day period called for under the contract, for the couple to receive all of their wedding photos, and Wildner had to threaten legal action to get her to send a final group of photos.

Wilder still hasn't received a USB drive or heirloom box that Stangler promised as a "special gift."

Many of the couples who engaged Stangler had never hired a wedding photographer. Several said they didn't know what to expect. So, they were reluctant to criticize Stangler at first because they didn't have any standard against which to judge her behavior.

Ryan Zeller, 28, and Hannah Malone, 22 of Lima, Ohio, got in engaged in May 2020 and booked Ember Lane Collective in June. Like many couples, they liked her photography. They booked her as soon as possible because Stangler said she "booked up really quick."

"She always talks about customer service was a big thing," Zeller said. "Whenever she talked on the phone, it reassured us. And then, she goes a long, long time without talking with us."

The couple signed up for the $4,000 package, but received discounts for working in the medical field and paying the full amount up front. It came to $3,600.

"After we did pay, contact with her kind of slowed down," Zeller said.

They had scheduled the engagement photos to be taken in Rochester in September. But as they set off for Minnesota, they were still unsure what the plan was.

"We were just totally making a gamble that she would be there," Malone said.

The engagement shoot had been set months before for Sunday at around 5:30 p.m., which Stangler described as the "The Golden Hour." Zeller sent one message on Friday and four more on Saturday. Stangler then texted back at 8:39 a.m., saying she was excited about the shoot and had been texting with Malone. Zeller said that wasn't true because Malone hadn't received any messages.

"I don't know why she thought I wasn't going to talk to my fiance about any of this," Zeller said.

Around midnight the morning of the shoot, Stangler contacted Zeller. She apologized, saying she had been at a wedding all day and would be driving back from Milwaukee. Zeller photographed the outfits they planned to wear in the engagement shoot and sent the pictures to Stangler.

Stangler changed the time of the shoot from the Golden Hour to 2 p.m. They didn't get the address of where the shoot would take place, Oxbow Park, until noon of the day of the shoot.

The shoot went well, but it went "really fast," Malone said. Malone said that Stangler had indicated that it would last an hour or two, but it took 30 to 45 minutes.

"She said it was just because we were such good people. We were good at it," Malone said. "But it wasn't like we knew what we were doing. We're doing what she told us to do."

Part of the challenge in communicating with Stangler, Malone said, stemmed from Stangler's frequent switching of phone numbers. Malone counts at least four different number changes by Stangler. When the third number proved unresponsive, Stangler said, "You know what, I'm going to give you my personal phone number," Malone said.

These regular episodes of noncommunication from Stangler made the couple increasingly uneasy. When Malone saw other clients complain on Facebook of being "ghosted" by Stangler, the couple became "really worried" with their July 10 wedding approaching.

They have since decided to cancel their contract with Ember Lane. They have sent messages of their decision to Stangler on Facebook, Instagram, all four phone numbers and other platforms. The couple want $2,000 of the $3,600 they paid to be returned to them. Malone said $1,600 is more than adequate compensation for the 40-minute engagement shoot that Stangler did. Zeller has also sent a certified letter canceling their contract through UPS.

Stangler has not returned their messages.