Trash the Dress, Live Your Life

February 1, 2009

By Laura Brauer

“I always had this desire to create and express myself,” says Julia Bailey. “It was actually painful to watch a play or see a performance as I always felt compelled to run up on stage and belt out a song, dance, act, anything!”

Although young Julia was always sure she wanted to do something creative, she was not certain of her place in the world, and with no encouragement or guidance she often felt lost. In her teen years, she rebelled, experimenting with drugs and shaving her head, punk-rock style. Life, as it often does in youth, seemed directionless. It was when Julia picked up her mother’s 35mm camera—during a boring family reunion in Texas—and started shooting away that she found some much needed inspiration. Julia’s mother had never before offered any words of encouragement, but even she could not contain her excitement when she picked up the prints and exclaimed, “My God, Julia, this is what you need to be! You need to be a photographer!” Julia says she always knew she had it—an appreciation for the beauty of the world around her—and that her soul yearned to express and share it with others.

At 20, Julia received her very own 35mm camera—a dream for many years—as a Christmas present. With this new camera her life suddenly had purpose. She immediately began experimenting with edgy portraits, using herself as a model for fine art, black-and-white nudes and crawling into abandoned warehouses to capture portraits near toilets and dirty concrete walls. Julia felt the passion of photography course through her veins and could hear her mother’s resounding declaration: “This is what you need to be!” While she did entertain thoughts of going to college, after finding that she would have to finish two years of academic classes before ever seeing a darkroom, Julia knew she didn’t have the patience. The time was now.

As a result, her boyfriend convinced her to move with him to a small Texas town and advised her to go to the local paper and ask if they needed a photographer. That is exactly what she did, and after the editor viewed Julia’s innovative work, she was hired on the spot. She jokes that she was not sure if she was hired for her looks or her talent, but either way, she was grateful for the job. Her first day at the newspaper she covered a pedestrian death on the highway. The tragedy hit her right in the gut, but she continued to stay on for the darkroom experience; and since she was the lone photographer, the job gave her the solitude that she craved. “I was only receiving $3.15 an hour, but I was learning more and more about photography and gaining work experience,” says Julia. “It was a real blessing!”

Julia worked at the local newspaper for a year, started dating a new guy and began enjoying the Texas nightlife. “In a small town,” Julia explains, “the news photographer is a bit of a celebrity, so there started to be a fair share of gossip about my ‘behavior’ and my boss gave me a warning.” The admonishment did not sit well with Julia. “I have always been a bit rebellious and never liked being told what to do, so I quit that job and moved to Houston with my new boyfriend,” says Julia. In Houston, she worked briefly as a secretary, thinking she could never be hired as a photographer in such a big city. At the same time Julia went through a miscarriage and, while devastating, the life-changing experience helped her to see that she hated her new job. She promptly quit, grabbed her portfolio and went to a small newspaper. Once again was hired on the spot. However, at the new job Julia had a personality conflict with one of the reporters which forced her to summon up the courage to apply to a larger newspaper. Sure enough, she was hired. At the larger publication, Julia’s work began to improve. People were writing the paper to praise the newspaper’s new photographer, and she soon won a coveted Associated Press (AP) award.

As her photographic career became more serious, Julia knew that she needed to upgrade her tools. While her first camera was a Minolta, she had always set her sights on owning a Nikon. The Nikon model she wanted had interchangeable viewfinders so the pentaprism could be removed, exposing the groundglass on which the image was focused. With the finder removed Julia could put the camera on the floor and still see the image. It just so happened that the newspaper’s photo editor was selling his 35mm Nikon and all his lenses. With no money, the only thing Julia had to offer was her car, a Ford Bronco. She asked the photo editor if he would trade, and he agreed to the deal. So there was Julia with no transportation, but with the camera she had always wanted; she was ecstatic.

Shortly after securing her dream Nikon equipment, Julia discovered she was pregnant again and learned that her boyfriend was being transferred to New Jersey. They decided to marry, and Julia quit her job to focus on being a mom. On the drive from Texas, the couple stopped in New Orleans, and Julia immediately knew it was “home.” “I can’t explain it,” she says. “It just felt like I belonged there.”

Later, the couple moved to St. Louis, where Julia had a darkroom in the basement. Julia now had two children and focused on raising them. During the five years in St. Louis, Julia tried to convince her husband to move the family to New Orleans. In a serendipitous turn of events, her husband was offered a job there, and the family was soon on their way to Louisiana. For Julia, arriving in New Orleans was, for her wanderlust soul, like finally coming home. “I still can’t figure it out,” she says, “but this is the only place I have ever felt was right for me. It is truly my soul’s hometown.”

Although she finally felt at home in her dream city, Julia began to have panic attacks, as her creative needs were going unmet. Her husband traveled a lot, and she could not relate to the high society women in her town. “I have never been a surface dweller,” Julia explains. “I was starving for some depth and creativity in my life and this meant that I had to face that my marriage was not working.” With no job, no work history for eight years and only $2000 in savings, Julia left to start life on her own for the first time. It was scary, courageous and exactly what she needed.

After moving to a one-bedroom apartment and working at an orthodontist’s office for more than two years, Julia purchased her first home and her first digital camera. Now that the computer was her darkroom and the Internet was her network, it opened a whole new world of opportunities. She began to meet other photographers who encouraged her to market her work and to start shooting weddings for free or at low cost just to get the needed experience and exposure. Julia followed this advice and suddenly, “It all started to get exciting!” she exclaims. “Finally I was doing something that people really loved and appreciated and I wasn’t just a weirdo anymore!” Julia saw an ad in a magazine for the new Nikon D100 and with nothing but sheer faith and talent, put the whole expense on her credit card. “When I bought the D100, I really had no confidence or certainty in where my photography was going,” notes Julia. “I was really taking a huge chance, but was prepared to live on ramen noodles if I had to.”

Within two more years she quit her job at the orthodontist and her photography business exploded. In her first year, she shot 70–80 weddings—so many that Julia had to raise her prices higher and higher to cut down on the workload. She was surprised to find that even with the higher rates her work was in demand, which was proof that she was doing something right.
What is striking about Julia’s work is the haunting yet beautiful quality of her wedding and bridal portraits. You can tell that she throws caution to the wind and does whatever comes to mind. As long as the bride is game, she says, “There are no limits!”

Of particular note are Julia’s Trash the Dress images, which you can find on her site: They, in essence, seem to best represent her as an artist. “My portraits are a chance to be creative and express my own sense of beauty, a beauty that I hold in my psyche,” says Julia. “This is what I love: to create an image based upon the intangible rather than reality or a social standard.

“As for the idea of Trash the Dress, which is now a popular trend, I suppose I have been doing this all along, whenever the situation was available,” says Julia. “The idea of doing a portrait session after the wedding where the bride can finally be free from the fear of getting her dress dirty is so cathartic. I have shot brides frolicking in the ocean long before it became a trend. The first person that alerted me to the Trash the Dress website was actually one of my brides who loved the concept.”

You can find that site at https://trashthe Julia recently did a Trash the Dress session with a local videographer, and in the middle of the shoot he turned to her and asked, “Would you rather be doing this or weddings?” The answer was an easy one. “I would rather be doing these totally creative sessions, which are a lot less stress and much more freedom.” But Julia is quick to add that she is grateful for the wedding business, as she has already booked 29 weddings for 2009.

Julia still lives in her own little house with every wall painted a different color. Her humble environment symbolizes a life based on passion and art, rather than money. She says she answers the door in her bare feet and doesn’t play into the game of acting uppity just because her income has improved. Julia stays true to herself and has undying love for her children and her art, which really comes through in her images. It seems as though the rebellious teenager, the dissatisfied housewife and the passionate artist of her past have all come out to play in her gutsy digital creations.

Susi Lawson has worked as a traditional portrait artist most of her life. She currently uses Adobe Photoshop, Corel Painter IX and a Wacom tablet for her creations. Susi’s DVD, Portrait Magic, includes 15 videos explaining her techniques. It is available on her website: