Russell James


In an industry dominated by artifice and pomp, fashion photographer Russell James is a refreshingly unorthodox outlier, despite being at the center of it all. The preferred photographer for mega-brands including Victoria’s Secret, Russell’s modest Australian upbringing has kept him grounded while jet-setting the globe from exotic shoots on tropical private islands to exhibition openings in blue-chip galleries. His advocates include close friends Heidi Klum, Hugh Jackman and Donna Karan, but whether on the red carpet or behind the shutter, Russell’s easy confidence, sincere generosity and omnipresent gratitude (not to mention his ultra laid-back style: flip-flops or barefoot) have created a cult-following for the photographer, artist and philanthropist, who’s being touted as the next Helmut Newton—not bad for a high school drop-out.

“The most important thing I learned is to believe in yourself, take all criticism as potentially helpful comments, don’t be afraid to reflect and make changes
and, above all else, keep showing up.”

You’ve recently returned from a shoot in the Bahamas…what assignment were you on there?
I just wrapped a shoot in Exumas, Bahamas with the most gorgeous Irena Shayk. Now I’m heading to LA for the launch of a photo series I recently shot on Richard Branson’s Necker Island. Then to the redeye from LA to New York, where I start a week-long shoot for Victoria’s Secret with Candice Swanepoel, Lily Aldridge and a terrific cast. The Victoria’s Secret girls are all bubbling with the news yesterday that Victoria’s Secret will be filming their annual fashion show in London this year.

What’s the best part about working with Victoria’s Secret?
Shooting for Victoria’s Secret is really as much about ‘family’ as anything else. I don’t mean the photography is targeted PG, however. I mean the way the company approaches and embraces talent from models, hair, make-up, stylists and photographers. They foster us all as family at the same time as pushing us to do our best. They always present a project as a point of departure and ask you to take the creative further.

My most important connection to VS, when I realized they truly have family values, came when one of my kids became very ill and I had to take several months off. This is a profes- sion about ‘now’ and ‘next’ for most people. However VS has seen the value in strong partnership, loyalty and asking people to reinvent with them. Their reaction to my sick kid was ‘hold his projects and as soon as you feel ready tell us and we will shoot then.’ Many brands would have said ‘so sorry to hear it though realize we have to move on.’ Not VS though, and that buys a hell of a lot of loyalty and energy in return.



How did your relationship with Victoria’s Secret come about?
Back in 1997 I shot a cover of Tyra Banks for Sport Illustrated Swim Wear Edition. Shortly thereafter I shot a very provocative series on Stephanie Seymour for Elle magazine (on contract with Victoria’s Secret at that time). The president of Victoria’s Secret reached out to me and asked me to shoot an advertising campaign on Stephanie inspired by my own series.

That shot of Tyra Banks that appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition in 1997 was the first time an African- American woman landed the cover of that magazine’s illustrious issue. Prior to that, you were struggling in New York. What was going through your mind then regarding your future and the photography industry?
Before getting breakthrough moments like the Tyra Banks Sports Illustrated cover, there were years of near insolvency and revolving doors, all telling me I had no chance of working in New York. The most important thing I learned is to believe in yourself, take all criticism as potentially helpful comments, don’t be afraid to reflect and make changes and, above all else, keep showing up. It takes years, maybe decades, for your creativity to really develop. And it never stops unless you decide to stop it. I recommend waking up every day asking ‘how do I reinvent myself for tomorrow.’

With numerous monographs published of your work, a Hasselblad Masters award, and gallery representation in Europe and America, what else is left for you to achieve?
There are so many levels of photography I hope to achieve. I have a great passion for fine art and I also feel a heavy social responsibility to the world, which I express through an art project I created called Nomad Two Worlds.

Nomad Two Worlds has taken many forms. However, I am currently collaborating with Tony-winning director Diane Pau- lus, actor Hugh Jackman, and the finest indigenous artists and performers to create a ‘Nomad Two Worlds’ stage show. Hugh will be making the official announcement about the show in the next few weeks.

I also understand there is an exciting event on the horizon, slated to take place during New York City’s Fall Fashion Week 2014… an chance you could elaborate on the details?
I am currently working on a 2014 exhibition with 212 Gallery, in- spired by my many years of photography for Victoria’s Secret. It won’t be commercial images, rather personal, intimate portraits that I’ve done along the way: a photographic collection that has evolved out of trust.

In your autobiographical essay published in the book “Russell James” (publisher: teNeues) you write about your unorthodox path to success. Did you ever imagine your life as it now exists?
There is no way I could ever have projected going from working in a factory making trash cans at age 15 in Australia to becoming a successful photographer in New York shooting for brands all over the world. I am waiting for someone to figure out I am just a guy who makes trashcans. However four books, ten exhibitions and countless assignments later, I’m still here. Nobody pinch me, please.

Text by Emilie Trice
Photography by Russell James