Just back from New York, where his fame as a fashion photographer rose in the 1990s, Russell James was re-acclimating to the time zone change on Friday night in Perth, Australia.
Gisele Bündchen is one of the supermodels whose careers have developed alongside him. Recently, he participated in creating the image of Kendall Jenner, conducting a photo shoot in 2018 at her request. These powerful themes are among the 40 fashion and portrait shots that are now on display at Berlin’s Camera Work Gallery until June 17. The show gave him the opportunity to curate a gallery show that traces the origins of what he likes to call “original supermodels” to the current celebrity-filled scene. The photos of Alessandra Ambrosio, Bündchen and Jenner, whom he met as a teenager, are just some of the highlights.
The rise of supermodels was fueled by the worldwide editions of Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, which focused on a very small group of models on the covers and made them household names. When around 2000 “it suddenly stopped” and magazines started focusing mostly on celebrity covers, James saw digital photography give way to digital social media.
“In many ways, Victoria’s Secret has become a tool that has taken over the magazines [power] and became a vehicle. They realized there was a vacancy and made their models a household name. Then social media ignited and became magazine covers.”
Much of that trajectory has returned, with Bündchen ubiquitous again, Linda Evangelista returning to touting designers – while others like Naomi Campbell never left – and Victoria’s Secret gearing up to bring back her runway show. “Look, it’s fascinating. Cindy Crawford is still burning. If you’ve managed to maintain that level of supermodel-era fame and then adapt to this new world, it’s a double hit.
Acknowledging the many intriguing photos that social media has helped spatter on the wall, James said the favorite mining of “this digital jungle” is not an industry snub, but it does mean he doesn’t have to face the challenge. He said this blizzard of content made him appreciate “constant quality and care” in more disciplined photography, such as Annie Leibovitz’s work. “Extraordinary work continues to be created from so many directions, and I’m still a fan of celebrities like Annie.”
His current work focuses on filming, interviewing and photographing elderly Aboriginal people in his native Australia, which celebrates the ‘Year of the Elders’ and their wisdom. “As the United States may relate, terrible atrocities were committed against Aborigines. Maybe we’re finally trying to fix that and we really value these people,” James said, adding that a July show is planned.
James said: “I think I’m living my best life right now. It’s amazing to sit and talk to the elders.”
It took James a while to find his way around the photo. After dropping out of school and working as a garbage collector, he later became a police officer for five years as a way of working with dogs. This later led to a little camera work for the department. But while traveling in the late 1980s, an Irving Penn exhibition in Sweden made him obsessed with the field. Then he had a flash of a photo composition of black-and-white crime scene shots taken by his detective father. As a one-man operation investigating various incidents in rural parts of Australia, his work was extensive.
During his recent stay in Manhattan, where his family still has a home, the Australian photographer did an NDA-protected portrait session and met with his friend Donna Karan. James said seeing her reminded him of people like her who laid the foundations for what is now called an American designer.
“There was a period in fashion where everything was driven by the brand, not the design. I was a bit confused at times at these giveaways because it seemed like we were rewarding brands rather than the pure, physical beauty of the designs where it all starts. With social media, the same has affected photography.”
He continued, “Just as anyone can be a fashion designer, anyone can show off their photos. It is very difficult to sort it out. Discipline needs to be applied in the industry over the next few years to make sure where the real talent lies. It could be in the most remote corners of the world or right under our noses walking the streets of New York,” he said.
It will also require a break from daily social media comments that dictate trends, unlike when designers like Calvin Klein and Halston “really created trends and told everyone to follow them, not the other way around.” he added. “They are great designers. Tom Ford continues to inspire me immensely. I know it’s coming out. It’s quite tragic.
Taking portraits remains his “number one passion”, whether they are former heads of state, fashion personalities or icons. As for the program in Berlin, the Toni Garrn Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 2016 by the model of the same name, will benefit impoverished girls across the African continent. James said: “In this world of social media fog, it’s great to be involved in galleries where you can give space and breath to one painting on the wall to appreciate what’s in it. That is my hope with this program. Thank you people for taking the time to try to understand why they do or don’t like it. By the way, I’d rather they either hate him or love him than be in the middle.”