Russell James | Starting with a Blank Canvas

Depicting the human body has been among the greatest accomplishments, captivations, and challenges of artists for decades.  The notion of the nude in art has brought about discussions concerning sexuality, identity, privacy, and beauty. The nude body is one of art’s most impressive themes, having shown up in almost every major art movement from Cubism to Surrealism.  

Russell James,  (1962-) a fashion, celebrity and beauty photographer, is known for his work with Victoria’s Secret, as well as his work with a variety of magazines such as Vogue, Sports Illustrated and Marie Claire. James often fuses compelling natural landscapes with beautiful portraits and nude photographs of acclaimed models such as Cindy Crawford and Candice Swanepoel. Crediting Irving Penn as a crucial influence on his work, James often captures his subjects nude, catching the very moment of their life in a raw and honest manner maintaining that nude photography allows the subject to define themselves rather than being defined by the clothes or situation they are in. “I’m just worried about the subject’s beauty, the lighting, and the form,” argues James. His work puts emphasis on the human body, focusing on the form, composition and emotional content. 

The artist’s images connect the raw beauty of women, often combined with the natural elements of air, water, earth, and sun. James is most known for photographing women in differing stages of undress – several are completely nude, while others wear undergarments, yet, what stands him apart is his insistence on the subject selecting the photograph themselves, claiming that “It’s about them choosing what they’re doing, and when they do it, and how they present it.”

For James, nude photography resembles a blank canvas, and its greatest challenge is attempting to convey emotions through this work. James has famously photographed model, Candice Swanepoel repeatedly over the years, with works such as “Candice, Necker Island, 2010” and “Candice 3, Necker Island”. Swanepoel states that “Each picture I have from Russell is a memory of some amazing adventure or moment in my career,” she says.  His way of work separates him from other photographers in this field who are focused on traditional methods. By doing so, Russell James has a considerable influence on contemporary nude and fashion photography. When speaking about Swanepoel, James argued that he wanted to celebrate her body as, after having children, the internet has not always been kind to her, regarding her body. 

Another subject in James’ work is supermodel Cindy Crawford, such as the image “Cindy On Floor Malibu, 2018”  which displays James’ admiration for Crawford’s self-aware yet approachable attitude demonstrated through the domestic setting and natural lighting. The defining aspects and components in James’ photographs are not illustrated by the male view on the nude, nor the influence of the nude when it comes to commercial messages. Rather,  his work portrays supermodels looking and peering at themselves, they stage themselves, and they present their own personalities. Crawford stated that she felt completely comfortable with Russel and that “He photographs women as beautiful and sexy, but never in a way that feels lascivious.” she continued and argued that “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.”. These works are considered a testimony to the evolution of nude photography, in which the supermodels themselves are questioning their own identity.

“I make sure I look at everything from the subject’s point-of-view,” says James. “The line for what is “too sexy” is really drawn by the person being photographed. I let the subject find the boundary of where they’re comfortable”