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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Same Dress Spokane may share same dress, but photography ranges widely

Angela Schneider The Spokesman-Review

It is hard to keep a secret.

In these days of social media sharing, holding back from posting an epic shot on Instagram can be a real show of restraint for photographers.

“I’m pretty bad at keeping secrets,” says John Austin, one of the photographers who participates in Same Dress Spokane. “I’ll post one little sneak peek, but I have to crop it because I got too much of the dress into the picture.”

Same Dress Spokane, conceived by photographer Rachel Fellows in 2019, is a personal project designed to get photographers to break out of their comfort zones. Each winter, Fellows scours the thrift stores and secondhand shops in Spokane to find the Perfect Dress. She then assembles her group of photographers and each one gets the dress for one week.

They are to keep their image secret until reveal day, allowed only to post “sneak peeks” or “behind the scenes” shots to their social media accounts but never showing the dress in all its form.

Chris Wooley, of Heads and Tails Photography, has the secret-keeping part down pat. Every year, he enters his work into national and international competitions, especially Professional Photographers of Washington and the Professional Photographers of America.

“Those competitions can take months to complete the images I enter,” says Wooley, who has been Washington Portrait Photographer of the Year and has won multiple Fuji Masterpiece, American Society of Photographers, national and district awards. “So I’ve gotten used to creating art and then waiting until the results are published before being able to share. It’s exciting and frustrating at the same time. When I make art, I want to share it immediately, but it’s all part of the process.”

To get around the thirst to post, Austin, a hobby photographer who shoots out of the Vibe Community Space, takes a second dress to his location.

“I can post those and then people can wait for the real stuff,” he says.

On reveal day, Aug. 25 this year, each photographer finally posts their work to their Instagram or Facebook feeds with a call-to-action button encouraging followers to donate to the Spokane Humane Society.

Showcasing individual style

Even as organizer, Fellows chooses to not see everyone’s images until reveal day. She wants it all to be a surprise, and she takes great delight in seeing the different conceptions.

“Every year, I’m surprised by what everyone’s inspiration is and what the final result is,” she says.

A photographer’s style is unique and that is the exquisite beauty of the Same Dress Spokane project: No two photographers will conceive the same image.

This year, Fellows chose a vintage confection with a short, pillowy skirt and spaghetti straps. For her own image, she was inspired by the pinkish ecru color and tore pages out of vintage books to create a matching flower crown and butterflies she glued to her model’s face.

“I am a vintage nerd,” she says. “I love all things old and rusty. I like oddities.”

Austin says he knew the second he saw the dress that he wanted Cait Sheehan to wear the dress for him and put her in the natural beauty of the Slavin Conservation Area.

Wooley, on the other hand, took a departure from the portrait concept and created a piece of digital art.

“The image, ‘Dressscape,’ is a composite photo featuring different parts of the dress with adjustments done to color and contrast and with shading added,” he says.

My turn

It isn’t like “pretty” and “fashion” are at the top of my list when I’m preparing for a session with one of my dog photography clients.

Big White Dog Photography is about adventure, a lust for life, wild hair, dusty trails and dirty paws. It’s about women – the large proportion of my clients – finding their power through the eyes of their dogs and shouting to the world, “Yeah, I love my dog that much. What about it?”

When the opportunity arose in 2022 to join the Same Dress Spokane project, though, I jumped at the opportunity. I could showcase women who are dog lovers, adventurers and feminine. I get to channel my former fashionista, the one who owned 100 pairs of fashion heels before she traded them in for hiking boots and life on the trails with her dog.

When I saw the dress I knew exactly the shot I had in mind. My friend Jolene Schiller, who was my model last year, would look perfect with her Papillon, Jake. Jake’s white and brown coloring complemented the dress to a T and Schiller has invested her heart and soul into his care. Jake, who just turned 3, lives with hemophilia and uses a wheelchair, since his hind legs are lame due to a spinal injury as a puppy.

He brings Schiller a kind of joy she seldom experiences, and it was that joy I wanted to reflect in my images – the same kind of joy so many women feel when they realize their dog is their very best friend and adventure buddy.

Big plans ahead

The Same Dress Spokane project doubles as a fundraiser for the Spokane Humane Society. When each photographer reveals their image on their social media accounts, they add a donate call-to-action button to encourage their followers to help.

Each year’s donations have grown as the project gains interest, and last year’s totaled just shy of $5,000.

Fellows has set a goal for the project to raise $10,000 in one year and for it to become a recognized entity within the community.

It already has set a standard in the photography community as both photographers and models reach out each year to be involved. Fellows limits the group to 12, though, as each year’s dress can handle only so much wear and tear.

“I have overwhelming pride for what the project has accomplished,” she says, “but I want to see it grow and become even bigger. I really enjoy the diversity. Not all of our photographers are professionals and their only limit is their creativity.”

For that reason, Austin isn’t giving up his spot anytime soon.

“I’ll always make room for this because it is for such a good cause,” he says. “And I like to see how other photographers interpret it, where they shoot, how much Photoshop they use. Some people have been just absolutely nuts in Photoshop, elaborate backgrounds with jungle animals and astrological signs, and all that kind of stuff.”

Sheehan appreciates the opportunity to model the dress.

“I’m excited to work with creatives in this area and be a part of the community,” she says. “We have a small community in Spokane of models and photographers, so the more we work together to kind of build that, I think, the better.”

Angela Schneider is the eye behind Big White Dog Photography, professional pet portraiture which showcases dogs and their humans on adventure in the Pacific Northwest. She is also a part-time copy editor with The Spokesman-Review.