Victoria’s Secret Fashion Shows, Supermodels and the Rise of Kendall Jenner: Russell James Has Seen It All

Just back from New York City, where his fame as a fashion photographer accelerated in the ’90s, Russell James was re-acclimating to the time zone shifts Friday night in Perth, Australia.

Gisele Bündchen is among the supermodels whose careers unfolded with his. More recently, he had a hand in Kendall Jenner’s image making, having handled a 2018 shoot at her request. Such high-wattage subjects are featured among the 40 fashion shots and portraits that are now on view in Berlin’s Camera Work gallery through June 17. The show provided him with the opportunity to curate a gallery show that tracks the onset of what he likes to call “the original supermodels” to the current celebrity-filled scene. Images of Alessandra Ambrosio, Bündchen and Jenner, whom he became acquainted with as a teenager, are a few of the highlights.

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The ascent 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 their covers and made them household names. When “that abruptly stopped” and magazines transitioned to primarily celebrity covers around 2000, James saw how digital photography gave way to digital social media.

“In a lot of ways, Victoria’s Secret became a vehicle that took over the magazines’ [power] and became a vehicle. They realized there was a vacancy and propelled their models to become household names. Then social media took fire and became the magazine covers.”

Russell James
Alessandra Ambrosio backstage at a 2015 runway show.

Much of that trajectory has returned, with Bündchen once again omnipresent, Linda Evangelista returning to designer advertising — while others like Naomi Campbell never left — and Victoria’s Secret gearing up to bring back its runway show. ”Look, it’s fascinating. Cindy Crawford is on fire still. If you were able to sustain that level of fame from the supermodel era, and then adapt to this new world, that is the double whammy.”

Acknowledging the many intriguing photographs that social media helped to splatter on the wall, James said mining favorites from ”that digital jungle” is not a slight to the industry, but is due to his not having to face that challenge. That blizzard of content has made him appreciate “the constant quality and thoughtfulness” in more disciplined photography like the work of Annie Leibovitz, he said. “There is sill some extraordinary work coming out of so many directions, and I am still a fan of such greats like Annie.”

His current work centers on filming, interviewing and photographing Aboriginal elders in his homeland of Australia, which is celebrating ”the Year of the Elders” and their wisdom. ”As the U.S. can relate to, there were terrible atrocities committed against Aboriginal people. We are perhaps finally trying to rectify that and really value those people,” said James, adding that a July exhibition is planned.

James offered, “I think I’m living my best life now. Sitting talking to elders is pretty amazing.”

Russell James
Behati Prinsloo in Seminole Lands in 2008.

It took a while for James to find his way to photography. After dropping out of school and working as a trash collector, he later became a police officer for five years, as a way to work with dogs. That 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. Further back he got a glimpse of photography composition through his detective father’s black-and-white box camera shots of murder crime scenes. As a one-man operation investigating different incidents in rural parts of Australia, his work was extensive.

During his recent Manhattan stay, where his family still has a home, the Australian lensman did a NDA-protected portrait shoot and caught up with his friend Donna Karan. Seeing her reminded him of those like her, who laid down the foundation for what is now called the American designer, James said.

“There was a period in fashion, where it was all being driven by brand and not design. Sometimes at those award events, I would get a little confused because it seemed we were awarding the brands and not the pure, physical beauty of the designs, which is where it all starts. With social media, the same thing has affected photography.”

Russell James
“Alessandra Reclining Cowgirl in Aspen 2017.”

He continued, “Just as everyone is allowed to be a fashion designer, everyone is allowed to display their photography. It’s very difficult to sort through. Discipline has to be applied to the industry over the next few years so that we make sure where the real talent lays. That might be in the most remote areas of the world or under our noses walking down the street in New York,” he said.

Russell James
“On Stage Backstage 2006”

That will also require disentangling from the daily commentary on social media that dictates trends, versus when designers like Calvin Klein and Halston “really created trends and told everyone to follow them, as opposed to the other way around.” He added. “There are wonderful designers. Tom Ford still inspires me incredibly. I know he’s getting out. It’s pretty tragic.”

Toni Garrn on fur in 2016.
Toni Garrn on fur in 2016.

Doing portraiture sittings remains his “number-one passion,” whether they are former heads of state, fashion industry personalities or icons. As for the Berlin show, that will benefit the Toni Garrn Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2016 by the model of the same name to help impoverished girls throughout the continent of Africa. James said, “In this world of social media haze, it is great to be involved with galleries, where you can give space and breathing room to one single image on the wall to appreciate what’s in it. That’s my hope with this show. I thank the 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 it or love it than be in the middle.”

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