Model, Muses and the art of photography

Words by Natasha Silva-Jelly

30 June 2020


The launch of fashion and art photographer Russell James’ new book Angels drew Cindy Crawford and all the top models out during New York Fashion Week.

Quintessentially went inside the model-fuelled book launch of acclaimed photographer Russell James, who has spent his career photographing beautiful, sensual nude imagery of the world’s most iconic models. The latter include Cindy Crawford who attended the event, along with the Victoria’s Secret Angels. “I love Russell, he makes you feel so comfortable and having that kind of trust, which all the models have with him, allows you to have much more freedom. Some of the favourite shots he’s taken of me are so beautiful, but they are fully nude, so aren’t in the book as I have a 19-year old son, and that’s a testament to Russell. I love the whole vibe of his shoots; they inspire you to think: “How do I feel sexy, and beautiful as a woman today?” said Cindy Crawford on the night.

Quintessentially: Congratulations on your latest book Angels 2018
Russell James: Thank you. I’ve published nine books, but never anything on this scale. This book is a limited edition, only 1000 copies have been printed, and I went all-out in terms of the quality. I wanted to do something once in my life that was free of financial or creative limitations. It was conceived in 2014, when I published a collection of mostly nude works, and I realised I had an opportunity to do something more comprehensive.

Q: What was the vision for this book?
RJ: The point was to celebrate the collaboration between all the girls. It came together through partnership and friendship. A few years ago, I wondered if I should be doing this book, which is mostly nudes, but it turned out quite the opposite. Many of the girls were saying: “We don’t want this genre to die, we just want to decide when we do it and who we do it with.”

Q: I’ve spoken to Cindy Crawford and many of the other big models tonight and they all say how much they love to work with you and how safe and comfortable they feel, especially posing for nudes.
RJ: I don’t know if it’s down to the fact I was beaten up by two sisters growing up, but I have always loved and respected women, and this formed the approach to my career; to shoot beautiful images of women, for women.

Q: That sentiment is certainly very relevant now, given the movement towards female equality and empowerment.
RJ: Yes, but that has always been the approach to my work. Most of my clients are women’s brands and I have always only shot for women’s magazines. Ultimately, the art I produce, and how I look at the success of the collection, is through the people in the photograph. If they don’t look at the image and love, or I won’t love it, in five years’ time, I won’t publish it.

Q: Do you have a favourite image from this collection?
RJ: That’s like asking me to name my favourite child. Many of the girls have become good friends; some are like my kids. I do have favourite images, though, which represent all aspects of who I am. The image of Kendall [Jenner], on the tree, combines my love of nature and the outdoors with this genre. And I love the shot of Jasmine [Tookes] who I began working with when she was just starting out; she is such a great person, and such a great model.

Q: Is there a message you are trying to send?
RJ: When I started out in this industry, the one thing I found shocking was the way we treat age. I hope that what is demonstrated in this collection is that I never considered age. Someone asked me tonight, “So how old is Cindy Crawford?’ and I said, “I wouldn’t have a clue, actually”. Age should be irrelevant.

Q: What does beauty mean to you?
RJ: I embrace beauty from the perspective of inside and out. Beauty, to me, is a combination of who the person is - obviously their physical beauty is important - but also what they stand for, and what they are trying to do socially.

Q: Can you share a career highlight or memorable moment?
RJ: There’s a myth that we don’t re-shoot. I was shooting Daniela Pestova on a beach in Mexico once, and we didn’t notice that the tide was coming in. She was standing on a huge rock, and a four-foot wave came over and threw her out to sea.

Q: How would you describe your sensibility and photography aesthetic?
RJ: One thing I learned from the greats, like Irving Penn, is that you can make a cigarette butt, or a landscape, look as compelling as a beautiful woman, and I believe that’s the art of photography. For me, photography is about light, balance, purity and no gimmicks.

Q: Beyond the book launch, what’s next for you?
RJ: I have an exhibition that will tour China throughout the rest of 2018. In 2017 Victoria’s Secret held their show in Shanghai where I was there launching a new book and exhibition featuring two decades of behind the scenes imagery from Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. It generated so much interest I was asked to take the exhibit throughout China, and the event is often hosted with Victoria Secret’s models
Martha Hunt, Elsa Hosk and Romee Strijd.

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