Russell James might consider himself a lucky man. The Australian photographer has spent the past two decades shooting some of the world’s most iconic and desirable women—names like Gisele Bündchen, Miranda Kerr, and Alessandra Ambrosio. His distinct style of portraiture—streamlined, quietly seductive and uniquely sophisticated—has landed James’ work in coveted Victoria’s Secret campaigns and on the glossy covers of Vogue, Marie Claire, W, and Sports Illustrated.
Catering to James’ philanthropic ambitions is his social project, “Nomads Two Worlds,” a collaborative effort that aims to spark economic growth within globally marginalized communities through art, music and film. It’s a far cry from the untouchable world of high fashion, but one that James feels extremely passionate about after growing up around apartheid-like conditions in Western Australia.
In this fifth book of photography, Angels, James celebrates the female form with a collection of 170 nude portraits, many of which feature the Victoria’s Secret Angels he’s worked with so closely throughout this career. We had the chance to talk with James about the challenges of nude photography, his favorite models to shoot, and how he played a major role in the emergence of digital photography.
In your early career days, you were told to choose one category of photography to focus on—why did you reject this advice?
There came a point when I almost drank the Kool-Aid—I was suffering from so much rejection by 1996 that I risked going back to the metal factory and gun shop, per my parents’ suggestion. Despite getting constant feedback from agents saying I’d have to pick a lane—strictly fashion, strictly beauty, strictly something—I refused to follow their lead. I kept looking at people like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Bruce Weber, and was admiring the breadth of their photography. When I look at an Irving Penn book, a close-up of a cigarette butt seems just as compelling as a nude or fashion shot. I saw that some of my role models hadn’t stuck to one [genre], so I decided I’d keep going my own way, as well.
In what ways is nude photography challenging?
While shooting, I try to make all the fuss that’s taking place on-set disappear—I black it out with boards so my subject can’t see all the things going on around them. I want the experience to be personable—I never pull back the lens and say, “Make an incredible body shape and I’ll shoot you.” I usually start by taking a portrait, maybe a close-up of their eyes, and that gives them comfort that I’m looking at their overall beauty. The challenge is human connectivity—it has to be an honest connection or else I’ll see it in the photos.
What is it about nude photography that you’re so drawn to?
I love to capture my subjects at that very moment of their life in an honest and simple manner because it will never be that way again. For some strange reason, ever since people could scratch drawings on a rock, the human form has been the most compelling subject of all—It drives art and culture. For me, at the end of the day I love that nude photography is clean and without clothes. I’m not worried about fashion or selling a brand, I’m not worried about the timing of a sunset—I’m just worried about the subject’s beauty, the lighting and the form.
Are you ever concerned with a nude portrait coming across as too sexy?
I make sure I look at everything from the subject’s point-of-view. Sometimes if I put a lens on a person and this is their only moment in life to be overtly sexy in a safe way, the shoots can become really heated and strong. Other people in their everyday lives may already have a very heated presentation, so they’ll do a very demure, quiet shoot. The line for what is “too sexy” is really drawn by the person being photographed. I let the subject find the boundary of where they’re comfortable—I shoot for women and not as much for men.
Is there an on-set memory from photographing this book’s portraits that you’re especially fond of?
One of the defining moments for the book and its title was when I was shooting Lily Aldridge and Candace Swanepoel together. They’re such great friends, so the shoot was so fun and natural. I remember looking through my lens, thinking, “This is a ridiculous amount of beauty to have in one lens at any given time.” They are angels, absolute bloody angels.
Are there certain models you prefer to photograph?
Adriana Lima, Alessandra Ambrosio, Candace Swanepoel, Lily Aldridge, Miranda Kerr—I’ve been shooting them since very early in their careers, so we’ve naturally developed a real family vibe together. I’ve seen them all go through loss; sometimes they’ve gotten married; sometimes those marriages work and sometimes they don’t. I’ve experience their lives’ ups and downs and I certainly go through my own, which I share with them.
Do you approach your cultural photography with projects like Nomads Two Worlds in the same way you approach fashion photography?
When I’m on a fashion shoot, say Donna Karan or Victoria’s Secret, I have a lot of considerations beyond my own selfish desire to make a great photograph. I have to think beyond the aesthetic value of the photos and into how they help the brand at hand. My cultural photography, which is all done under the umbrella, “Nomads Two Worlds,” is really my passion. I was raised in a very troubled part of Western Australia when, back in the ’70s, was almost in an apartheid-like condition. When you grow up surrounded by that, everything seems normal, but then when you step away, you realize how crazy it was that the indigenous people were marginalized to this extent. My cultural photography is driven by this fascination with peoples that have been around for thousands of years.
How did you play a role in the early development of digital photography?
When digital photography was first presented to me, it was kept mostly under wraps. Kodak and Canon were in partnership to build what we now call the “digital camera,” which was going to retail at $35,000 for just the body. When I first shot a picture with the camera, it took about one second to process each image and I remember thinking, “This is the future,” but there were many people who vowed to never stop using film. Before digital photography, there were so many barriers to compete in the industry—I had to work several other jobs just to afford processing and printing film, but now a guy can get a great camera for a few hundred bucks and he’s immediately in the game. This has put a flame under the butts of photographers like me who realize that these kids could put us out of business if we don’t keep lifting our own game.