Australian photographer Russell James isn't a stranger to pushing boundaries with the subjects he turns his lens on. He shot Tyra Banks for a Sports Illustrated cover in 1996 and Ashley Graham for her groundbreaking Swimsuits For All ad campaign that appeared in SI 18 years later. The man credited with helping Kendall Jenner launch her modelling career, even photographing her for Miss Vogue Australia cover in 2012, is working with the model again for L’Officiel USA.
Just ahead of Russell reuniting professionally with Jenner, Refinery29 chatted with the photographer about what it was like to shoot the L’Officiel cover, what makes a true supermodel, and how Kendall is proving the critics wrong.
Refinery29: How does it feel to work with Kendall again after all of these years?
Russell James: I have to reflect on that from the point of the beginning of her modelling career and seeing her evolve. It's terrific. Obviously, she won the genetic lottery but she still really had to carve her way through the industry, learn her craft, and learn how to really position herself as a model. She had a brand that was attached to her family and she had to rebrand herself which is a lot harder to do than to create a new one. I just watched her navigate these years from the time she was 17 until today with the greatest admiration.
When you shot the cover was Kris on set? Did she offer any advice?
No. When I started shooting Kendall, Kris would very often be on the set. However, you know the one thing I observed — and Kris deserves credit as well [for this] — because they really were asking the industry for feedback. Kendall didn't come in like 'make me a model!' But she did say that modelling was her passion and [asked] if there was anything she could learn. I didn't write the book on how to become a model, but I do know what I know from being in this business for this long and I always found them to be very open to ideas and thoughts.
The biggest observation that I’ve had about Kendall since the very beginning is that unlike other people, she had complete comfort in front of the camera where most people have almost a stage fright of cameras. But on the other hand, she also learned how to depersonalise from the cameras because they were always looking at her. One of the things you have with modelling is you really have to personalise it to connect with the camera in a way that the audience looking at the photograph or the film feels that you’re looking at them. You have to have to get really personal with the camera.
I know you’re on the other side of the camera but what do you think makes for a successful supermodel in today’s industry?
First, you have to win the genetic lottery and I can’t tell you why that is. Sometimes people say: such and such is the new such and such and I’m like no one ever is the next anyone because that’s the indescribable anomaly about supermodels. But the other part of it, I’d say the other 70% percent of it, is how they learn to conduct themselves in front of a camera. Do they connect with the camera? How do you handle rejection? People saying to your face I don’t like how you look until someone finally says I do, and not taking that personally. There is no one that I know that is lazy who becomes a supermodel. You have to work really hard.
Do you think cracking down on the age perimeters of the models on set will curb some of the inappropriate things that sometimes happen at shoots?
I’ve been lucky, but apart from being lucky, part of my reputation has become about trust and I’d be mortified if it wasn’t that. Yeah, age is important but I don’t think people under the age of 18 shouldn’t be photographed. I think in the right conditions, they should be. It’s like my own daughter out working in a restaurant at age 16 to get her skills. She’s exposed to things and some of it makes me feel uncomfortable. She talks to me about it and I guide her through it. But you have to create the conditions where it should feel safe.
And after that happens, it still may not be bullet proof. Someone may say or do something inappropriate and I can’t control every little thing that happens. But it should be safe [enough] that nothing truly bad can happen. The fashion industry has as much responsibility as any other industry to provide a safe work environment. Young people should be able to come in and be safe. But the truth of it is, it’s going to be driven by the people at the top of the food chain.
Okay, Russell. Last question. What do you say to people who say Kendall is not a real model because, among other things, she was discovered in her mother's kitchen?
That's a jarring response. The number one reason that Kendall is a supermodel is because of the amount of dedication and absolute commitment that she put into it. If someone thinks it's about being discovered in a kitchen, honestly, you can have the kitchen conversation, but it’s been years and years of hard work that came after. It’s true that she comes from a family that has done great in business but that shouldn’t preclude someone from following their own dreams. The only reason Kendall has become a supermodel is because she worked her ass off. She really did. There is an untold story there about how damn hard that girl works. I know she can’t say it because she’d get chopped off at the knees for saying it but I can certainly say it. I wish all of my kids had that much work ethic and that much commitment. She was absolutely focused.