Although he now works for some of the world’s most famous luxury brands and with some of the world’s most beautiful women, Russell James never forgets that it wasn’t that long ago that life was a lot less comfortable. Indeed, he describes the time between 1991, when he took his first shots as a professional on an old Polaroid, and 1996, as ‘some very hungry years’ when he ‘never earned a dime’. And although success has come in the past ten years, Russell takes a stoic approach to what’s gone before and says: “There’s no place for regret in photography. Just keep shooting and learning.”
A relative latecomer to professional photography, Russell lived a nomadic existence until becoming ‘obsessed’ with photography at the age of 30. Up to then, he had experimented with a number of careers, starting work in a metal factory in Perth, Australia, aged 15, before becoming a labourer, a tradesman and even a police officer for a couple of years! But rather than being a hindrance to his career, Russell has found that the broad knowledge and experience he acquired in those earlier years have given him a greater insight into subjects and influenced his perception of images through the lens.
Despite having no formal photographic education, Russell has since developed an enviable portfolio of clients including companies such as Hermes, Victoria’s Secret, Rolex, Revlon, Ralph Lauren and has photographed such celebrities as Scarlet Johansen, Halle Berry, Mary J Blidge, Kate Bosworth and supermodels such as Gisele Bundchen and Heidi Klum. He attributes his success to his passion and commitment, but says: “That doesn’t mean being obstinate and single-minded; it means listening, learning and never letting the failures overcome you (and they are always out there waiting in this hungry commercial world). So learn from mistakes and use the lessons to make better images. There is an old saying: ‘The harder I work the luckier I get’. That is the truth of success.”
That’s not to say that he in any way disapproves of a formal education; in fact, he positively recommends it, even though he himself left school at the age of 15. But he also believes that where there is no opportunity to remain in education, ‘passion and commitment can take you just as far!’ Most of Russell’s early training was on photographic shoots, beginning as an assistant and then later he was fortunate to be adopted by a ‘terrific’ New York creative director named David Lipman, who taught him composition. Russell’s technical skills have been self-taught, mainly through ‘trial and error’, but also through the many books on photography he has studied.
Although he puts his success down to passion and commitment, when asked whether he’s satisfied with his achievements, Russell’s response reveals another self-motivating aspect of his character: “Never. I truly appreciate what the industry has given back to me and the many places my images have been published. But I think it’s a driving force to always wake up thinking your images are not good enough and that they need to be improved.”
On that basis, it’s not surprising that, for Russell, his most interesting assignments to date have been his most formidable: “I would say that the more extreme the production and the more challenges, the more I like it. Some that stick in my mind are shooting in deep water for my Nomad project and for Rolex; taking over an entire theatre in LA to create a backstage book for Victoria’s Secret with the best models in the world; and photographing in the glaciers of Iceland for Ralph Lauren.”
And for such varied and demanding situations, Russell needs a camera system that is both flexible and able to capture the best possible image, whether a portrait of a celebrity in a studio or a shot of a girl swimming naked through a sea of feeding sharks. In the Hasselblad H system, Russell has found the quality, reliability and flexibility to meet his needs. He originally chose Hasselblad for its lens quality, but says: The release of the H1 a few years ago gave me an all round solution - from a studio portrait camera to a motor drive outdoor camera. For me the H1 meant less equipment to drag around and less downtime on messing with various systems.”
Meticulous planning is also crucial to the success of Russell’s assignments as he explains: “I start with the concept. I look at it, ask questions and digest it. Then I choose a producer and start working through the logistics like where to shoot it, which models we should work with, how we will execute the shoot. It only takes between 2 seconds and 1/500th of a second to capture a great image, but it takes days and sometimes weeks to plan it properly.
Russell offers young photographers who are starting out on their careers the following advice: “Stay open minded. Listen, learn and don’t decide early that ‘this is the best way’ or ‘this is the best light’. Don’t get depressed by the rejections and don’t get too high on the success. Try to keep focussed on making pictures and leave the glamour stuff to everyone else.”
For more examples of Russell’s work, please go to: www.russelljames.com