“I wasn’t a person who woke up and said photography is my passion,” recounts professional photographer Russell James on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. A rather inconsequential statement on the surface, the revelation is curious when read with the knowledge that this 55-year-old’s gig is being the exclusive photographer for all of Victoria’s Secret’s campaigns and shows.
How does an Australian with no innate passion for photography and a resumé peppered with a stint as a police officer end up the lens through which America gets to scrutinize a quintessential American brand? With a quasi-immense breadth of work that includes stunning celebrity portraits (Barbra Streisand, Bill Clinton, Hugh Jackman and a pregnant Lori Loughlin, among plenty others), multimedia exhibitions, books, fine art projects and more, James is aware that his work on the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show has evolved into a cultural phenomenon. A phenomenon that, paradoxically, no longer says much about the brand’s original concept (sexy lingerie for the masses) but rather sheds a light on the culture to which it caters. With his latest book, Backstage Secrets: A Decade Behind the Scenes at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, out December 15, James attempts to strip down the show’s facade and take us behind the camera and into his privileged point of view. (The photographer granted Playboy a first look at some of his images from his sixth book, below.)
James could have easily released his book’s images on social media, defaulting to this decade’s standard practice of exploiting exclusive access by boasting about that access online. But he decided not to because, as he says, "It’s about curating the point of view of one person. People [will] either like that or not, but I appreciate hearing [and seeing] someone’s perspective, especially in this broader mashup of information that we receive.”
It’s not only access to these seemingly unreachable models that he is trying to sell us. His ability to take a picture doesn’t make him a good photographer; it’s the curation of that image that defines his craft, a sentiment echoed by the subjects of his work. “A nice photo taken from a phone does not require the refined technical skill that you get [from] a photographer like Russell,” Victoria’s Secret model Martha Hunt says. “Working a professional camera and lighting a subject is an art form.”
It follows, then, that the pique of artistry is not strictly achieved through the mastering of certain technical skills, a fact that became apparent to the photographer back in 1997 when he shot a now-iconic Sports Illustrated cover with Tyra Banks. James attributed the success of that photo, the first time a black woman appeared solo on the cover of the magazine, to his own naiveté. “They had hired a guy who had no preconceived ideas,” he recalls. “It never occurred to me, to be honest, until they said, ‘This is the first black woman to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated.’ That was a post-event wakeup call for me about the power of the image and how we have to use it responsibly.”
Twenty years later, the artist seems to be hyper-aware of the barriers that his photos can both erect and destroy, especially when dealing with female subjects. “I am constantly reconsidering how I portray women in this particular environment and I ask myself, how have I portrayed [them]? Is it empowering or exploitation?” Whether his thought process is a result of the current social climate or part of his innate worldview is hard to say, but his words feel like fresh air, as someone who is so deeply entrenched in the entertainment industry.
“I’ve always wanted the person on the other side of the lens to love the image,” he says of his creative process. “The first person to see the image after I’m ready is the person in the image. I present them a series and if they have any problem or something, we kill the shot. It’s always been a collaboration.”
Is he aware that others in the industry don’t behave similarly, as recent headlines have proven? Yes, but when commenting on this, he is careful to avoid generalizations. “The positive [of all this news coming to light] is an incredible focus on a really important issue and we are going to some day wake up and say, if anyone has an accusation, they cannot defend themselves because the moment they do in this environment, they are going to be absolutely annihilated. So, of course, some people are going to use this opportunity to avenge the grievances they have, which may be right or wrong, but as a whole, this is a necessary process, and it’s not just Hollywood.”
He goes on stating that there could, potentially, be various degrees of inappropriate behavior, a common argument. “Some [people] I would say are devious and incredibly despicable and others tend to be, I certainly wouldn’t call them innocent but they tend to be of a lesser offense. We’re going to have to find out, Where do we set the boundaries? I think the pendulum swings all to one way right now and we have to find a healthy balance. But it’s necessary that [the pendulum] swings all that one way so that we can have a close look. So, while it makes a lot of people uncomfortable, it’s healthy and necessary and part of the social evolution that we have to go through.” The thought circles back to what seems like James’s motto: Perspective is everything, an unsurprising point of view in and of itself. After all, he’s the guy with the camera.