Trash the dress

Marianna Vakopoulos in "trash-the-dress" photography by Ottawa photographer Valerie Keeler.

A growing trend that sees young women photographed while splashing in the water or getting dirty in their wedding gowns made international headlines when a Quebec bride drowned last week.

Maria Pantazopoulos was taking part in a “trash the dress” photo shoot on Friday and was wading into the Ouareau River near Rawdon, Que. when she fell and became weighed down by her sodden gown.

Her friend Leeza Pousoulidis told the Montreal Gazette that the 30-year-old real estate agent, who was married in June, just wanted to have fun: “I want to have great pictures and memories of me in my wedding dress,” Pantazopoulos told her friend.

News of Pantazopoulos’ death has ricocheted around the wedding photography community, with many saying this was a tragic, freak accident.

The “trash the dress” or “rock the frock” phenomenon is still relatively rare in Canada. It started about seven years ago at Caribbean destination weddings, with brides wanting photos of themselves walking into the water in their nuptial finery or getting sandy and disheveled walking on the beach or a pier.

The genre has evolved, becoming riskier and more fantastical seemingly with each wedding. Brides plunge into the surf wearing swaths of tulle and shantung silk worth thousands of dollars. They descend into bat caves, leap into Dumpsters and track around muddy fields in rubber boots. They are photographed underwater among the fish, kibitzing with cows in pastures and with street folk in gritty neighbourhoods. They want an image worthy of Vogue.

The genre has expanded so much that the Wedding Photojournalist Association gives out awards in four trash the dress categories: water (from oceans to puddles) urban (busy downtown streets, in front of graffiti-covered walls) rural (on a dirt road or with livestock) and details (sand on the skin, a muddy wedding dress).

Matt Adcock of del Sol Photography, who works in Mexico, has won multiple awards for his trash the dress photography. The agency charges between $2,750 to $4,000 for a photo shoot. Its popularity is propelled by social media such as Facebook and Pinterest.

And, yes, sometimes it’s dangerous, Adcock says.

Among his shoots: couples who want to be shot underwater, in the nude (underwater shots are practically old hat to him now) and one couple that was photographed soaking wet and windblown as Hurricane Rina swept in.

Some brides want to be photographed actually chucking the dress in a trash can at the end of the shoot.

Adcock says his clients “simply are compelled to do something different with their lives. They want to live free from rules. The old cliché ‘live a little’ is pretty close and dear to many of their hearts.”

Adcock, who is a trained firefighter, says precautions are taken. He always has a life vest and a few pairs of hands at a shoot.

For many clients, these photo shoots are a chance of a lifetime.

“North of the border can get way, way too stressful and many are coming to unwind. They are relaxing and getting away from things in life, they see this as a chance to live as a character in their life, they get this one moment with the lead role,” Adcock says. “They are acting, they are in love, they are playing with their life partner, they are experiencing true joy. There are no rules, just love.”

Sasha Taylor-Mouchet was photographed last summer on Bate Island on the Ottawa River near the Champlain Bridge, and again in an auto-body shop.

She paid $1,300 for her dress, a form-fitting gown with an open back, and was married in 2009 at Carnivale Lune Bleu, a 1920s-style theatrical carnival.

“When you get married, it’s all about the dress,” she says. “Then trying all through the day to be perfect. I found I didn’t have time to enjoy the dress.”

The shoot, by Ottawa photographer Valerie Keeler of Valberg Imaging, was more relaxed and a lot of fun, she says. And the dress wasn’t ruined.

“You feel so beautiful and sexy,” Taylor-Mouchet says. “I’m not the type to put it in a box and put it away. I let my daughter play dress up in it. I think times have changed.”

Keeler calls the genre “the bridal gown goes where it should not go,” but adds that brides who ask for these photos are rare in Ottawa.

Keeler asked Taylor-Mouchet to model in the shoot last year. There was no danger for Taylor-Mouchet, who didn’t get into water above her knees.

Ottawa photojournalist Blair Gable, whose bread and butter is news photography, also does “documentary style” wedding photography. He has done about six trash the dress shoots, including one held at a rifle range for a bride who is a major in the Canadian Forces.

Gable says the genre makes more sense at destination weddings, where temperatures are above 30 C, the ocean is a vibrant blue and the dress probably doesn’t weigh 20 pounds. He wouldn’t ask a bride to pose in the Ottawa River.

“It doesn’t appeal to me because the water is brown. You can’t see through it. Blue complements skin tones. Brown doesn’t.”

He is, however, proposing a photo shoot on paddle boards for a couple of avid paddlers who recently married — the groom in formal wear and the bride in a white cocktail dress cut above the knee.

Gable says he wants his photos to reflect the personalities of the clients and their relationship to each other, as well as juxtapose the formality of the clothing with the background.

“There is an opportunity to create amazing photos. But when you try to replicate something that’s done in the Caribbean, it just doesn’t work,” says Gable, who also declines to take photos of couples in front of graffiti-splashed walls, industrial sites or on train tracks.

Weddings are becoming less traditional and more intensely personal, he says. “The traditions of old are losing their power.”

At the same time, first-time brides and grooms are more likely to be around 30 years old with the money to do what they want. And young people are accustomed to being photographed in multiple personae.

Gable says wedding photographers can’t just be creative people. “You have to think about these critical details. There are incidents where people can get hurt.”

He has clients who are getting married this winter. He has proposed a trash-the-dress shoot that involves burning the dress, which will be on a dummy, with the bride beside it in a bikini or a sexy cocktail dress.

This, of course, will take some co-ordination, says Gable.

“I have been thinking about all the variables. How people can get hurt. We don’t want someone to call the fire department.”

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