Russell James on His New Book ‘Angels’ & Shooting Naked Portraits (Exclusive)

Joanna Elizabeth


Published September 12, 2014


Updated March 29, 2017

Alessandra Ambrosio for "Angels" by Russell James
Alessandra Ambrosio for “Angels” by Russell James

Australian-born fashion photographer Russell James’ images have helped shaped what is seen as sexy with his work for Victoria’s Secret. For his fifth internationally published book called “Angels”, he tapped some of the lingerie label’s top models including Adriana Lima, Alessandra Ambrosio and Lily Aldridge for a 304-page tribute to the female form. Shot in black and white, the results are stunning to say the least. In an exclusive interview with FGR, the photographer talks about shooting nude portraits, how the craft has changed, the proudest moment of his career and more.

I hope people see images that are sensual, provocative, empowering to women and that show my love for light, shape and form.

This is your fifth internationally published book. Is it any different this time around?
This 5th book is really extraordinary for me as I was entirely unsure if it could ever exist until I made many personal requests to my subjects. I have always had a great passion for photography across many genres: landscapes, fashion, indigenous culture, celebrity and of course ’the nude’. My previous 4 books have been subject focused and this book is entirely focused on ’the nude’. I was incredibly humbled and excited when the people I asked agreed, as it indicated a level of trust that I greatly value. I took it to mean that the woman in the book felt the shots were something that other woman might admire, and that is my goal always.

I have always been curious to know, how do you decide which photos to put in the book? It must be hard to narrow down your own work. Do you have an editor to help?
Editing is perhaps 50% or more of any photographic career. It is one issue to capture a great frame, and it is quite another to pick the ‘right’ frame. Ali Franco has been my creative director for more than 15 years. She is the only person who I allow to ‘challenge’ my edits and she is the only person I trust to review film as if she was me. We work closely together and she has helped me arrive at the right images many times. Creative partnership is an essential part of success.

From the beginning of the shoot to the end of the shoot, what is your goal on set?
On a nude shoot my first goal is to do as much as possible make my subject feel comfortable and not vulnerable. My overall goal is to create an image that the subject herself will love and not feel vulgarized or exploited–I want the woman in the image to be proud of the image and to pull it out ten years from now and say ‘I am so glad I have this image’.

Adriana Lima for "Angels" by Russell James
Adriana Lima for “Angels” by Russell James

Working with Victoria’s Secret, you probably have one of the most enviable jobs in the world for most guys. How did you get started shooting for VS?
There is not a day that goes by that I don’t appreciate my great fortune to work so closely with one of the world’s most prominent brands for women. I was noticed by the President, Ed Razek, after he saw a series of pictures I had taken of Stephanie Seymour in a major magazine, and also a cover I had done that same month for Sports Illustrated of Tyra Banks. I didn’t start shooting for them that frequently right away, but we started a relationship and after many years of growing with the brand, the trust grew as well. I never take it for granted and I tell myself every shoot that I am only as good as my last shoot, so it’s about a mutual commitment. Oh and yes, I was very lucky to be noticed!

When you are not working, what are some of your hobbies?
I guess my photography is not my job but more of an addiction. When I not photographing for a brand, a celebrity or a charity I am usually found in places like remote Native American communities, Outback Australia, Indonesia or Haiti walking on my ’Nomad Two Worlds’ collaborative art and business.

If you were not a photographer, what other career could you imagine yourself having?
A pilot. I haven’t gotten further than hang gliding however I intend to – it is on my bucket list! I have a great friend who is a pilot for his own charter company (Zen Air) and we have shaken hands to do a job swap for a couple of years-oddly he seems to want my job as much as I would like his! I think flying speaks to my ’nomad’ instincts to stay in perpetual motion.

Lily Aldridge for "Angels" by Russell James
Lily Aldridge for “Angels” by Russell James

What do you hope people take away from your book?
I hope people see images that are sensual, provocative, empowering to women and that show my love for light, shape and form. That is s short sentence and I’ll never achieve it with everybody, however that is the high bar I’d love to hit!

Is there any fashion figure or celebrity that you haven’t gotten to shoot yet and wish you could?
Oh my, so many. I am intrigued by so many people. Sometimes because of their great beauty, their achievement, their culture. It would be a very long list. On the celebrity front right now Jennifer Lawrence, Beyonce, Lupita Nyong’o are some who I find stunning.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
The proudest moment of my career was being able to tell my parents, back in 1996, that I had actually been paid to take a photograph, as opposed to covering all my costs. W Magazine broke my 7 year drought and paid me the huge amount of $150 for a shoot. I was on the verge of returning to metal work and having photography as my secret mistress who never worked out to be my wife.

You have been shooting for twenty years, and must see how photography has changed. What’s the biggest difference between now and when you started?
I have seen amazing changes in technology and what it allows. I think the great thing about technology is it creates an equal playing field. When I started I had to work so many other jobs just to pay for film and processing, and then all those vile chemicals went down the drain and I hoped they were as ’non toxic’ as we were told. Now a photographer can start at a very reasonable price and give guys like me and others a challenge from day 1. That is healthy for everyone as it makes us all push to be better.

What hasn’t changed is what people like Irving Penn and Richard Avedon taught me: lighting, deliberate framing and having the confidence to follow your creative instinct – that is a formula that cannot will always lead to better frames.

As a PS I wake up every day thinking, ’My photographs suck! I will never work again!’. I leap out of bed with that as my driving force. I am not sure if that is healthy but it really gets the job done.

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2 thoughts on “Russell James on His New Book ‘Angels’ & Shooting Naked Portraits (Exclusive)”

  1. Wonderful interview. Russell James is amazing. I am one of those who envy you with your job. I’m still raising money ‘coz of the cost of the book plus shipping fees but I will definitely grab a copy of your Angels book. It serves as one of my greatest inspiration to improve my skills in photography. Thanks.

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