“[Women] are the most compelling creatures on the planet,” says renowned photographer Russell James, who recently debuted his fifth book, Angels. “They refuse to be defined in one way and especially not by my lens.” The shutterbug’s latest tome is an intimate compilation of nude photographs featuring some of the world’s most beautiful women—like Gisele Bündchen, Adriana Lima, Alessandra Ambrosio, Candice Swanepoel, Rihanna and Lily Aldridge. Last night, a bevy of leggy beauties—some of whom had never seen their finished portraits—along with Ben Stiller, Nigel Barker and more, joined James at New York’s Stephan Weiss Studio to fete his newest venture. Guests enjoyed cocktails and hors d’oeuvres while perusing the lensman’s provocative photos in a gallery-style setting.
“This book took an enormous amount of trust,” says James, who’s spent the last two decades capturing portraits, landscapes and cultures. The Australia native has always found nudity to be an equally challenging and rewarding effort. “We see statues, art—all of it is touched on or wholly informed by the nude,” he says. “When you’re photographing a fashion story, you have these amazing shapes that become a part of the photograph. When it’s a nude, it’s an empty canvas. You have no tricks or gags and you have to ask yourself, How do I make this special?” His approach starts with finding a personal connection with his subject.
“I have to cross the void where it’s just about her and me in the room,” he says. “I’ll start by shooting a close-up of one eye or their face to really understand who she is. The reaction I see is that they forget about their body. They’ll come in saying they’re nervous, but by the end, it flips—and they’re telling me what to do. All of a sudden I become the passenger. I’m absolutely humbled by the person opening up.”
James often renders his photos in black-and-white, because, as he explains, “when you’re dealing with something that’s driven by light, form and stunning beauty, color can be a distraction. The shots that demanded being in color are, but I didn’t want to force it.”
And while the title might suggest an ode to Victoria’s Secret models—he has worked with many of them, after all—its origin is separate. Says James, “I was wrangling over the name of the book. I was shooting Lily [Aldridge] and Candice [Swanepoel] together and thought, This is ridiculous, how much beauty can be in front of the lens at one time? They are bloody angels. So that was the most logical name for this wonderful group of women.”