In 2014, fashion photographer Russell James released Angels, a 304-page book of black-and-white nude or intimate photos of top models he met through his work with Victoria’s Secret, including stars like Lily Aldridge, Gisele Bündchen, and Adriana Lima. (The book takes its name from the Victoria’s Secret Angels.) This was, James recently told me, largely an archival project. After a few years working as a photographer in other countries, James, originally from Australia, came to America as a generalist photographer in 1996, struck it big with iconic covers for magazines like Sports Illustrated, and has been shooting for Victoria’s Secret since 1997. So he was sitting on a massive photo trove. But it went over extremely well—especially with models, some of whom apparently told James they were disappointed that he didn’t include any photos of them. So on December 1st, James will release a 448-page collectors edition of Angels featuring new models.
But the cultural climate in 2018, as others have noted, is drastically different than that of 2014. Fashion and nude photography have, like so many other industries, come into the spotlight for a critical reevaluation. Longstanding conversations about whether these art forms empower or objectify their female subjects, contributing to a toxic and patriarchic world, have gained newfound traction. And since the start of the year, major stories have come to light of famous photographers and other art and fashion bigwigs taking abusive advantage of models. “There is certainly not no risk in doing something like this” in the current cultural moment, admits James. So I recently asked him how his awareness of the cultural climate affected the way he produced and positioned this project.
James, it is worth noting, has a solid reputation among his subjects and collaborators. Some of this may stem from the fact that he has never considered himself a “nude photographer,” doing naked or near-naked shoots for their own sake or for male eyes. He is equally fond of landscapes, for instance, and seems to see nude photography through a similar lens. (“I do love the light,” he says, “the form, the shape of the nude.”) Much more of it stems from his personal commitment to only shooting subjects with whom he can build rapport and trust. He has long avoided crude direction and overt sexualization, instead giving models a considerable amount of agency in their own portrayal.
That is clear in most of his work, but should be especially so in this new edition of Angels. Unlike his first archival image-based edition, since 2014 James has been working with each of the 35 new models in this version as full-fledged collaborators. Each of them took as much power as they wanted over the shoot itself, the photo selections, and the editing process. “I was able to really deliberately say, ‘okay, I want to do this,’” says James. “‘We can either work off my ideas or your ideas or a combination of ideas. We can look at the film and edit together.’” That seems to be part of why the book took four years to put together—a lot of scheduling effort with busy folks.