Beauty and the Beach

Photographer Russell James, in collaboration with fashion photographers Ellen von Unwerth and Raphael Mazzucco work on an entirely new kind of project for Victoria's Secret - a photography book.

Beauty-and-the-Beach
Beauty-and-the-Beach

In his long association with Victoria's Secret, photographer Russell James has shot several memorable ad campaigns and special projects, such as last year's "Backstage" print and television campaign. (See American Photo magazine, March/April 2004.) Now, however, the company that put lingerie into malls from coast to coast is collaborating with James and two other photographers, fashion photographers Ellen von Unwerth and Raphael Mazzucco, on an entirely new kind of project. It's an elaborate photography book that spotlights the creative visions of the imagemakers and beautiful bodies behind the famous brand.
James's images are not typical glamour shots, however, but rather studies of shape and light that capture the enduring beauty of nature and the awesome beauty of his subjects.
The idea was to let the photographers and models visually interpret the word "swim" in any way they deemed most creative. For James, that meant flying around the world to some of the most beautiful beaches on the planet, accompanied by models like Heidi Klum, Naomi Campbell, and Gisele Bündchen.

© JAMES RUSSELL/COURTESY VICTORIA SECRET DIRECT, INC.

James's images are not typical glamour shots, however, but rather studies of shape and light that capture the enduring beauty of nature and the awesome beauty of his subjects. In this exclusive preview, we present a portfolio of James's photographs, along with his behind-the-scenes stories of how they were made.

© JAMES RUSSELL/COURTESY VICTORIA SECRET DIRECT, INC.

Interview with James Russell
R ussell, this is a unique project, how did it come about?
It grew out of a discussion with the president and CEO of Victoria's Secret Direct, Sharen Turney-you could really says the project actually comes from her mind. She had his idea to do something special with the brand, and she presented it to three photographers: myself, Ellen von Unwerth, and Raphael Mazzucco.
And what was the concept for the project?
Sharen said basically that she wanted to see something extraordinary and beautiful in the swim world, which could be collected in a book. There would be three different volumes-one for each of the photographers. So the work you're seeing here is from the volume of the book that I did.
The idea here-what Sharen told us she wanted-was for us to do anything we want, and that we should be driven by our own vision. The only thing Victoria's Secret asked, from a creative standpoint, was that the images somehow be a reflection of the idea of "swim"-what the word "swim" meant to us photographers individually. That's an incredibly open-ended assignment... It is interesting. You hear this kind of creative spin from companies all time, but Victoria's Secret actually believes that the wealth of their brand is in the creative people around it. The fact that they get these great girls, and these good photographic people, that's the bank the company has to build on.

© JAMES RUSSELL/COURTESY VICTORIA SECRET DIRECT, INC.

So where did you go with the idea?
I just let my imagination go. I thought I'd like to reflect on "swim" in the broadest sense. At first I was thinking of doing very straightforward reflections-literally reflections as seen in water; then I realized that "reflection" means a lot of things when it comes to water. I realized a reflection could be an impression in the sand, a reflection in the water-that simply the way you photograph something was reflective. And I decided right away to take a very solid, black-and-white, graphic, stylized approach.

© JAMES RUSSELL/COURTESY VICTORIA SECRET DIRECT, INC.

That seems at first an unusual creative decision. Usually when you think "swim" and "beach," you think color. How did you decide you wanted to do it in black and white, and in this particular style?
Well, let me back up a bit. Originally, I had planted the seed in Sharen Turney's mind to do something that would be extraordinarily creative in the market. Something that people would look at and say, "That
Usually when you think "swim" and "beach," you think color.
wasn't advertising, it wasn't a catalog, it was just pure images." Then she spun this notion around and gave it back to us, and said, "Here it is." And I took them very literally. I sat back and thought, Victoria's Secret is a very powerful, glossy brand, and yet what the company is saying is, "Do what you want to do." So I arrived at black and white. It wasn't just to get away from that big, glossy approach, but it was more that I just had to focus on what I'm passionate about, and what I'm passionate about is lighting and shape. And I also wanted the challenge of working in digital. I was a staunch enemy of digital to a certain point in my career, then I tested some equipment and realized that, no matter what photographers do, digital was coming down the line. So I decided to do this project in black and white because I wanted the challenge of arriving at something that was digital yet seemed authentically black and white, that felt real. I loved the idea of using the most ultra-modern digital technology and combining that with the more historical style of photography, which is black and white.

© JAMES RUSSELL/COURTESY VICTORIA SECRET DIRECT, INC.

Tell us about about the shooting of the project itself...when did you do it?
I shot it during a three-week period last fall, from October through mid-November. So it was shot in a short time frame, as these things go. There are two ways to do a project like this: One is to do it a little at a time, between your regular commercial assignments. The other is to have someone say, "I want you to focus on this, and here are the resources to get you to the place, to get from the place, and getting the girls won't be your problem, we will help you with that." So it was terrific. Victoria's Secret unleashed the creatives. When you talk about getting to the locations, you're talking about some pretty spectacular places. We took one trip to Sardinia, one trip to St. Tropez, and one trip to Mexico. And of course the company was incredibly supportive. For instance, I was in St. Tropez, and I wanted to get to Sardinia, and there was no practical way to do that, so they sent a jet down-one of their private company jets-and took us out of St. Tropez and dropped us into Sardinia, so we could be shooting in St. Tropez in the morning and shooting in Sardinia in the afternoon. Gotta love 'em for that.
How big a crew were you hauling around for this?
It fluctuated in size. Sometimes we'd have multiple girls, a lot of producers, so the crew was 15 to 18 people, which is a lot. But there were days when we'd have a basic crew of only five or six, when we needed to access really remote locations.
Who were the girls you shot?
We had terrific partners on this. And I use that word in regard to the model very carefully, because they were full partners in the creative development of the images. And they were basically all doing this for free, so to speak. In terms of the book, not a single dollar was paid to the creative talent involved on camera. Which was a challenge. The company said, "Look we'll back this project, but you have to do it. But we ended up with the very top girls who work with the company: Heidi Klum, Alessandra Ambrosio, Ana Beatriz, Gisele Bündchen, Naomi Campbell, Karolina Kurkova, Adriana Lima, Angela Lindvall, and Marissa Miller, to name a few. The creativity involved in working with all these famous models...that's an interesting idea.
How did the project play out as you shot it?
Like any project, I started with a preconceived idea-at first, it was going to be very expansive- about the locations as much as the girls. But once I got to the places, I found that it was just much more interesting to shoot a piece of coral in very tight closeup, and then the beauty of the girl. The project from my standpoint just didn't need much more than that. It's just an example of the way these things often work, where you preconceive an idea, but you gotta let it flow, or it doesn't come out.
Did the locations themselves present any particular creative problems or opportunities?
I had stayed at all those places while shooting different projects, but basically the locations, even though they don't scream it in the photos, each offered a different kind of inspiration. In this case, since the models were full partners in creative process, we would all have to adapt to different places. Girls would react differently in different locations. If you take a girl to Costa Careyes, Mexico-one of the places we shot-she's going to have to fly through two different cities, then get into a car and drive through some wild country for two hours, then she's going to be staying in a house in the middle of nowhere. So you really get into another space. It's so removed from the rest of the world, from agencies and managers, so it's possible to sit and chat, to have a cocktail and say, "Hey, let's do something really cool," and you're able to partner with the people. So while the locations might not seem visually significant in the final images, they were all very important because they were all very remote and beautiful, and they allowed me to get with the girls, the stylists, and the hair and makeup people, and just have little one-on-one conversations. I'd ask the girls what inspired them, or I'd give them concepts, like a shell, or seaweed, sticks, water. Karolina, for instance, gravitated toward these dry, crusty sea weeds, which as a photographic element at first glance you say, "How am I going to make this work?" Then you realize there's something beautiful in everything-in seaweed, in driftwood, everything.
What did other models react to?
With Gisele it was simple. She was huddling from cold because it was a windy day, and there was sand blowing all over her body, and I thought, that's a great element. And she's like, "Bury me, baby, bury me." And so into the sand she went. And so a lot of the pictures evolved in that way.
Tell us about the shot of Heidi sitting on the beach....
I've shown these pictures to a number of people, and they all say that series of images, and that shot in particular, is just captivating. It's a terrific character drawing. It was made in Costa Careyes. We were able to coordinate it so that Heidi could join us there. She

© JAMES RUSSELL/COURTESY VICTORIA SECRET DIRECT, INC.

Sometimes you put a swimsuit on a girl in that situation and it can come away looking a lot more cheesy and a lot less real, so it wasn't just about getting the girl to take her clothes off.
brought her child down, and she was down there with her now-fiance, Seal, and so we had a chat, and we talked about a lot of swimsuits, we talked about a lot of concepts, but Heidi said, "You know, where I'm most comfortable is just in being me, so to speak. In the most free way." So I said, "Okay, let's take that to the extreme. You're one of the most free, engaging people that I know, so I'm just going to cut you loose out in the wild here. We just took her down one afternoon to an absolutely deserted beach where she could have total comfort, and we just literally ran wild in the waves.
Well, the pictures are very sexy, and there's some nudity...
The nudity factor....it's always interesting. So much of what we think of related to water and the word "swim" is just natural, pure beauty. Sometimes you put a swimsuit on a girl in that situation and it can come away looking a lot more cheesy and a lot less real, so it wasn't just about getting the girl to take her clothes off. In terms of the edit of the book, we stayed away from obvious nudity, but it just worked to include these kinds of shots. Doing work like this, it's a place where you can get inspiration from someone like Irving Penn, and other absolute masters at taking shape and form and not bombarding you with the sexual side of it. Not, by the way, that I am comparing myself to Penn in any way.
What camera system did you shoot this project with?
After a lot of debate, I elected to go with the Canon EOS-1Ds. It's an extraordinary system, in that it allows you to be very spontaneous and to really go with the flow of a shoot, while also offering a big, 11-megapixel resolution. The way I usually worked was to shoot in JPEG rather than RAW, so that I was working with compressed files, which meant that I wasn't dealing with these absolutely huge RAW files on there on location. It also meant that I could shoot fast-seven or eight frames in bursts. You can work as close to traditional 35mm photography as possible.
Was this a project a way to force yourself to learn to use digital technology?
No, I shot a lot of stories digitally. After a long time I grew to have faith in the resolution of the Canon system. For a long time I battled what every photographer battles with concerning digital capture. I just wanted pictures that had the feel of film. I didn't know whether I would ever be able to get that feel shooting digitally. But I also realized that the world has just taken a digital direction, and not just in post-production. And my feeling is, we just have to figure this out. There are a lot of people out there who are passionate about traditional techniques, who are trying to figure this out. One of my great partners on this project was a lab in New York called Coloredge. They are working with the most beautiful printing techniques and papers. They basically enable photographers to go out and shoot digitally and then to give them something strong on the back end.
Did you have any problems with the digital system during the shooting of this project?
None whatsoever until the very end. And it had nothing to do with the cameras; it was all about me. It happened when we were shooting Heidi down in Costa Careyes. After three weeks of shooting on
I think I destroyed two EOS-1Ds bodies while chasing after her-each camera valued at about $8,000.

© JAMES RUSSELL/COURTESY VICTORIA SECRET DIRECT, INC.

beaches all over the world, I hadn't hurt one piece of equipment, which was remarkable. And then that afternoon with Heidi romping through the waves, I think I destroyed two EOS-1Ds bodies while chasing after her-each camera valued at about $8,000. I would run into the water to try to shoot her-she was unstoppable. That hurt. So thank God they've come out with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II. Now I can upgrade, though I won't have much to trade in....

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