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Dress On the Edge: Extreme Portrait Adventures with a Parachute Dress

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My wife and I have always loved photographing large, dramatic gowns. Anything big and flowy has always been fun to photograph, especially outside. We’ve always loved the contrast of the beautiful gown against the natural backgrounds we have nearby.

Our clients didn’t always have gowns like this so we decided to add one to our wardrobe collection. I commissioned Alice Andrews Designs to make a parachute dress for us. It’s a halter top design and is very adjustable so it fits just about anyone.

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As anyone who has seen our work knows, we do a lot of on-location photography, often in pretty exciting places. We hoped to work with this new purple gown in such places. We planned a number of sessions with the dress on level ground to get used to working with it, always with an eye towards using it on steeper terrain. That opportunity soon came when we booked a session which was to be covered by the Univision Network’s show, Primer Impacto.

For this show we would be photographing Karen in our purple dress on the side of Cathedral Ledge in North Conway, NH. There ledge, not too far from the top of the ledge that I knew from my days as a professional climbing guide would, be perfect for the images we wanted. We have been using this ledge for such sessions since 2008.

We hired Marc Chauvin of Chauvin Guides International to do all the rope and safety work. We’ve been working with him for years. This is something you definitely don’t want to try at home! I’m a certified rock and alpine guide and Marc is a mountain guide trained to the highest international standards.

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For this session, as with most of our edge sessions, we started well before dawn in order to have Karen in place in time to catch sunrise and the beautiful light we get shortly before and after. We lowered Karen down to the ledge and anchored her in. Marc then went down with the huge dress and helped Karen to get into it. Marc ascended back to the top and pulled the ropes.

Karen had a small harness on under the dress from which we had an adjustable length of rope leading to an anchor Marc had built in the corner of the ledge. The process was reversed when we were done.

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Our clients for these sessions are on a small ledge about 400 feet from the valley floor and maybe 50 feet from the top of the cliff—so, we are all always either on belay, on a backed up rappel, or tied into an anchor. Marc and I are responsible for all the safety and rope work. Clients, in this case Karen, do not need any background in climbing as we (mostly Marc) are responsible for all of this.

We set the ropes, anchors, and harnesses up in such a way that they can not be seen. Everything is hidden by camera angle. There is no Photoshop done to hide things. One reason we got this dress was because of its open back and separate skirt (the huge part), it’s easy to anchor our subject and hide all the climbing gear several different ways.

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Our next goal with the dress was to photograph it on another part of the cliff that I had always wanted to get on because (1) I thought it wouldn’t be too difficult logistically, and (2) it would give us an awesome background view.

Some of the rappels and rope lowers required for us to reach the two ledges we wanted to shoot on were wild! Marc’s intimate knowledge of this part of the cliff was the only thing that made it possible. I couldn’t believe some of the things he was able to pull off.

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We had Sarah on board for this session and we had an exciting shoot that resulted in some amazing images:

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Our final goal for the dress on the edge was the free standing spire, The Eaglet, in Franconia Notch, NH. The was by far the most difficult and challenging session we had ever planned requiring three trips to the location.

The approach is a substantial, steep hike to the base of the spire which then had to be climbed. Unlike all our other sessions on the edge which we could approach form the top, this spot could only be reached through climbing. So we needed a model who had done some climbing and was up for an adventure. Kristina fit the bill perfectly.

For logistical and timing reasons this session would require an overnight with Marc and Kristina spending the night sleeping on the spire while I slept at its base. Five of us (we needed two extra people to help us lug all the camera gear, climbing gear, and overnight gear) set off in time for us all to get in place for a late afternoon session to test things out.

While Marc and Kristina climbed The Eaglet, I continued hiking to the top of a distant ridge which I thought would be the best vantage point. My goal was to have Kristina standing at the very top of the spire in the dress. I directed Kristina through the use of walkie talkies we had brought along.

In anticipation of this session I had just purchased a Nikon 200-500 zoom which worked magically for these shots. For many of the tight images I needed the whole 500mm to get in close enough.

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After a long night in a sleeping bag we all woke before dawn with enough time for Kristina to get in place and dressed, and for me to get back up to the ridge top. Again, communicating through our radios, we were able to get exactly the images we wanted, at least what we could considering the conditions.

Boy, was it windy and cold, which at first was a nightmare to deal with. But, once we figured out how to work with it and not fight it we were able to create some spectacular images. A few times it looked like Kristina would be blown right off the top but, of course, she was always anchored. I think it took me a couple days to recover from this session. What a workout!

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There are several common reactions to our work. The first is that many believe these images are too dangerous to justify.

The way we do it, especially by using an internationally certified mountain guide and his state of the art rope and safety techniques, the risks are well-managed. In fact, as I tell our clients, statistically they are more at risk driving to and from the session than they will be on the cliff. It’s a matter of perceived risk vs. actual risk.

The next two responses are related: people believe the images are fake (Photoshopped) or they can’t understand why we don’t just Photoshop them in the first place because it would be so much easier.

We don’t Photoshop or fake the images because where would the fun be in that!? But really, we feel that one of the best things we can do to keep our business going strong is to not only provide our clients with great images, but with an amazing and unique experience. None of our cliff side clients will ever forget the adventure of creating these images for as long as they live. Most of these people had never been near a cliff before, never mind getting lowered over the edge of one in the dark, and the seeing 400 feet of air appear beneath their feet as the approaching dawn slowly lights up the valley below.

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In our photography business we shoot what we love, and this kind of session with a dramatic gown on the edge is maybe our favorite thing to do—work or play.

Our purple dress concepts didn’t end on the summit of The Eaglet though, that really was a pinnacle for us in several ways. We’re constantly exploring new ideas and new venues, not just for the dress images but for many other concepts as well. This is the best part of photography, isn’t it? The constant pursuit of new and different ways to photograph things and the challenges we attempt to overcome on our photographic journey.


About the author: Jay and Vicki Philbrick are the team behind New Hampshire-based Philbrick Photography. Together, they create extreme and breathtaking portrait and wedding photography. You can find more of their work on the Philbrick Photography website, or by following them on Facebook.

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