Photographer Russell James Defines Beauty As Diversity

Photographed by Danielle Kosann

It’s always a good idea to start the week out with a creative who truly inspires. Photographer Russell James just might be the perfect interview to kick off your Monday with. His work is arguably some of our favorite when it comes to timeless, lasting images that tell a story. Chronicling the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show each year, James’ is no doubt on the pulse of culture as we know it, and had much to say about the show, the #MeToo movement, his new book Backstage Secrets, inspirations and why beauty is diversity…

From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day?

I actually manage to live my ‘ideal food day’ on most days. It’s rather boring. In the morning, I drink four glasses of water when I wake up. Then I have a green juice at about 10am and that gets me to lunch. I do add in my vice of a green tea latte or decaf mocha somewhere in the mix. Lunch is usually chicken or fish with veggies or a pasta. And for dinner, if I had to choose one food for the rest of my life, it would be Japanese with a strong preference for sashimi.

Where do you always draw inspiration from? How do you get new ideas for your photography?

Ideas are literally everywhere. Nature is one of my big sources of inspiration – I look to textures and close up elements from leaves, sand and sounds like the wind…all pretty corny and predictable I guess, but mother nature has it all figured out.  A lot of ideas that I shoot come from emotional notions. For example, if I’m asked to do an art hair project and the only direction is the four seasons, I may go literal and use set dressing of ice, leaves, colored flowers and water and add emotional tools like wind and falling rain and pretty soon a concept evolves.

A more practical way of finding inspiration for me though is to go back to the books of old masters like Irving Penn. I never intend to emulate a previous concept, but I like to be reminded of the importance of the ultimate emotional visual tools like eye contact, balance of image and simplicity. A person truly ‘looking’ at the camera is looking at the audience and that requires connection with the person. There is a world of difference between capturing someone who is truly looking at the lens instead of just posing for an image.

What’s been your most memorable moment on a Victoria’s Secret fashion show set ever?

I have so many memorable moments and that is exactly what is spectacular about the show. In the last decade and a half I have seen just about everything! Astonishing musical performances, models who have had their dreams made and so much more.

Probably the thing that sticks with me most is seeing the worlds of fashion and music come together in a way I have never witnessed anywhere else in my industry. Two years ago in Paris, Lady Gaga met the girls backstage, off camera, and gave each of them her favorite cookie treats. She said she just wanted to give her appreciation to each of the girls because she, of all people, appreciates how hard every one of those girls works, just as an athlete at the top of their game would, to be in that show. They were very touched – that was a special moment.

Watching Ming Xi fall in her home city this year in Shanghai – in front of an audience of thousands – was tough. However, it turned into a beautiful moment as Gisele Olivera and Karlie Kloss stopped walking, helped her up and cheered her on. That was cool and – call me a softy – but I shed a little tear backstage as Ming walked off and let out all her emotions. I told her that what had happened, believe it or not, was beautiful to watch.

How did you go about picking what photos would go in your new book Backstage Secrets? What catches you most when you’re shooting backstage? What are you drawn to?

In editing for Backstage Secrets I went with my gut feeling. I am constantly asked what it is like to actually be there and I always had trouble describing it. It dawned on me: ‘Why dont I just show them!’  I have always found it to be true that “pictures speak a thousand words”. I chose moments that are a candid glimpse into the people and unexpected activities. The fun, the chaos and the incredible assembly of talent who are literally just hanging out in corridors are all in the book. The excitement was just words until I started to lay it all out and saw the collage of color and design that had been envisioned over the years. An hour before the show it is electric and when the show starts, it’s over in a blink of an eye. I have tried to capture that candid feeling, not just of being backstage but being up close and inside. Many of these people are my friends and others I feel some form of mentorship towards when they come into this special family. It’s all about those friendships and moments.

Has the #MeToo movement sparked any memories about things you’ve seen or heard backstage that weren’t appropriate?

To specifically answer your question, one of the places where I have seen the utmost respect and protection towards woman has been backstage at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. It is amazing and wonderful. The nurturing, empowerment and protection of these young women is a part of the culture. The shows is theirs.

When asked what I do for a living, I say I shoot ‘women for women’. When asked the most important critic of my work I say it’s the subject – whether a model, head of state or worker in a field…I want my subject to love the image and if they don’t love it then I don’t want to see it published.

On the bigger issue of #MeToo, you can’t bring everything that is happening socially down to one hashtag. What is happening is momentous, important and necessary. I feel it is a social evolution across a broader spectrum – sexism, racism and many ‘isms’ that we have a long way to go on and that we will now make progress toward. There are uncomfortable things that need to be brought into the light. Everyone in this society including me, my family, instuitions, politicians, all industries need to take a look and say ‘what can I do better’. Some ‘isms’ are deeply ingrained in us from generations of passthroughs that we may not even be aware of. So this isn’t about ’them or they’. It’s about ‘us’ all taking a hard look and doing what is often the hardest thing for so many – to shut up and listen.

Do you find the models like being photographed when they’re off guard? Do people like the element of surprise? Why or why not?

There is a fine line between ’off guard’ and ‘candid’.  It is now instinctive to me to know when a moment is candid and when my taking a photograph would just be rude and intrusive. I am not there to be a paparazzi. My goal is to be almost invisible, a part of the landscape. And again it comes back to trust. I have taken many years (and I’m sure made many mistakes) in learning this fine balancing act. It comes down to the individual person, the situation and the action of the moment. I have noted that I tend to get pulled in where others may get thrown out – like when the models are taking refuge from the press siege inside some secret corridor and I hear, “Get Russell in here!” and there I find myself in a true candid moment. Those moments are usually where my best shots originate.

Who would you like to photograph, that you haven’t gotten to yet?

I have an intense curiosity about people. Everyone I photograph I learn something about. So there are about 6.9999 billion people still left on my wish list. I am drawn to people who have made, or who I think will make, a powerful impact on the world. I think such a person is Kirsten Gillibrand, not for any political reason, but because I think she will play a significant role in modern day history. And I hope it’s a good one!

What are your favorite classic films?

Casablanca, All the President’s MenThe Big Blue

-What are your favorite restaurants in Paris, New York and Los Angeles?

Paris – George V; New York – ABC Kitchen; Los Angeles – Matsuhisa

Do you have a memory of a dinner where you looked around the table and couldn’t believe who you were sitting next to? Who was there? What did you eat?

I think that describes my life. I am a trash can maker and school drop-out from Perth Australia, after all. I have found myself at a small dinner with Bill and Hillary Clinton while she was Secretary of State and remember thinking that I wanted to call my father as I was being pressed on questions about the Australian Health Care system I couldn’t answer other than saying, ‘We just sort of go to the hospital and I’m not sure who pays.’ I enjoy rare opportunities to take a meal with people like Jim Brolin and Barbra Streisand. Probably my favorite and most intimidating dinner of all though was with the chief and spiritual leader of a particular native american tribe I have collaborated with over the years. In those dinners you aren’t getting current politics but the benefit of thousands of years of life experience mixed with an amazing sense of humor about the world.

What’s your response when people say “Print magazines are dying”?

I say they are not. Paper distributed editions are becoming obsolete, no doubt about it,  however the concept of a ‘magazine’ as a journal on a subject has never been  stronger and it is empowered by digital. The way we consume media may not be sitting with a paper magazine. However, I sit on my phone and read magazine apps far more often than I ever picked up a hard copy magazine when they were in their prime.

Do you have one definition of beauty? Or many?

Diversity has been tokenistic and now, finally, we are moving into meaningful definition of beauty. Beauty is not about being the most beautiful; it is about ‘being your best self’ inside and out. I have long believed that. The most beautiful people I have photographed have usually been elders from indigenous tribes, where the story of the world is engraved on their face.

What’s the issue you feel most passionately about right now and why?

Truth and dropping the facade of ‘perfection’.  It is all related to self-acceptance, fairness and empathy. My kids are subject to a world that can sometimes create a false sense of perfection. I want them and all kids to know that what is truly perfect is trying to live well, to screwing up but getting back up and doing it over, better. Winning isn’t about being ’the best’.  It’s about the way you live while you are doing it.

If you could host a dinner party with any five people living or dead, who would be there? What would you cook or order in?

David Bowie, Malala Yousafzai, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, and my mum. I would want my mum’s pot roast, but she wouldn’t be able to cook it because I’d want her at the table.

6 thoughts on “Photographer Russell James Defines Beauty As Diversity

  1. This guy was probably not the best person to address the #MeToo movement. His response to the movement was offensive and did not address the issue at all. It was a real downer to see that this was the interview you chose the morning after such an empowering evening at the Golden Globes for women. My New Year’s resolution is to “unsubscribe” from all these emails I get which arrive from people that are not mindful of the message they are sending. By The New Potato

  2. very inspiring read. I appreciate his candid thoughts as a conveyor of beauty in a world where it’s often interpreted so superficially and or one dimensional.

  3. I just adore hearing the insights of other creatives. As a former photojournalist, I too love photographing people and finding out the stories behind those eyes. Great piece. I’ll be sharing this far and wide. ~Angela

  4. Happy to hear from your life an thoughts. I am allways with you snd your (my) family far away. Miss my old life!!

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