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Why Photographer Russell James Decided to Do His New ‘Angels’ Book
Four years after his fine art collection Angels debuted to acclaim, famed Victoria’s Secret photographer Russell James is back with a follow-up collector’s edition. But the world this Angels project—a stunning ode to the female form, featuring Adriana Lima, Alessandra Ambrosio, Bella Hadid, Cindy Crawford, and dozens more—releases into is far different than the one that welcomed the book in 2014, as the #MeToo movement has been mobilized.
“I started to ask myself, am I tone deaf? Should I even be doing a project like this?” James admits. “But as I talked to some of the girls, they were like, to not do it, for them, felt like the opposite of what the social narrative was. They said, this is about us choosing when we’d like to do it, what kind of project we’d like to do it for. Especially Kendall [Jenner] and Cindy [Crawford, who also wrote the book’s foreword] said, ‘If I’m going to do something like this, I want to do it for art—something that feels good to me and not necessarily for selling a product.'”
courtesy of Russell James
Crawford’s writing reiterates James’ points: “Feeling safe with Russell is a testament to who he is as a photographer. He photographs women as beautiful and sexy, but never in a way that feels lascivious. Russell is the exact opposite of a guy trying to get you naked…yet, somehow, he manages to do just that. Maybe it’s the charm of his Australian accent, the spark in his blue eyes, or the casualness of his ever-present flip-flops, but he effortlessly manages to walk that fine line.”
The massive scale of the project meant it took over four years to complete.”It was actually the first time I’d gone about doing a curated point of view on one subject,” says James. “It was 2014 when I started it and then I had to be opportunistic about when the talent was available and when I had the right resources. I was shooting almost up to the day that I did the exhibition [in New York in September] and announced the book.”
He embraced collaboration. James wanted the women to plan the shoots, as much as they wanted: “The second time Elsa Hosk and I shot, in the city in Manhattan, I had a studio full of props and toys and she went about constructing everything from the hair to the waist to the shoe. It was fun to be a part of it.”
Cindy Crawford makes him as nervous as she makes you.”We actually shot twice,” James says. “I [originally] shot Cindy and I had a lot of styling. I was probably being overly conservative.” He adds, “I’m a little intimidated by Cindy because she’s an icon. All bow down to Cindy. But as I was about to publish [the original shoot], we had a conversation and I said, ‘What if we shot again?’ And she was like, ‘What about a sheet?’ I thought that was genius—and extremely confident.”
Kendall Jenner’s shoot was the most challenging, but not for reasons you’d expect. “If there’s Kendall Jenner, you’re going to the beach, and there’s nude scenes involved, you face incredible challenges,” says James. Jenner’s omni-present tail of paparazzi, of course, presented the main hurdle. “There were shots that I wanted to do of her where she would climb up to the top of this incredible tree that was on the coast—but how the heck do I do that and not get compromised? I was trying to do one of the most open shoots with one of the people that was under the most intense sort of scrutiny. [But] I showed her and she was like, ‘Get me up there. I’ll do the shot.'”
He got the luckiest with Sara Sampaio.”It was just a matter of perfect timing,” James says of his shoot in St. Barts with the 27-year-old Portuguese model. There was perfect blue water, perfect blue sky. She was at the right place at the right time, so there was that kind of opportunity to get photographs that I don’t think I could have planned for a year and actually pulled it off.”
And having Candice Swanepoel on the cover was a victory for both James and the supermodel. Swanepoel has given birth to two children in the last two years, and the Internet hasn’t always been kind to the 30-year-old regarding her body. James wanted to celebrate the phase of life she’s entered: “I shot her four weeks after the birth of her second child,” James says. “[She] is the ultimate hippie and just a beautiful soul. And, literally, I’ve had instances in my career where I took photographs of Candice in swimwear and then we had people saying ‘you shouldn’t retouch the women to look like that because it’s unattainable’—which I entirely agree with—and I’ve gone back to the photograph and there’s not not a bit of retouch on her. Sometimes Mother Nature just does what she does.”
Respect is the foundation he built his career on from the beginning.”The net sum of it all,” he explains, “is regardless whether I’m shooting nudes or I’m shooting a person fully clothed just as a portrait, I’ve always wanted them to feel comfortable.” The results are better, as well, that way, he says: “I get the best pictures when people feel comfortable. I mean, I even ask people what music they’d like to have on. You want people to really embrace what you publish. I want them to feel a part of it as much as I was.”