James Houston’s new book is aimed at raising awareness for the environmental issues that plague the world — but the fashion and celebrity photographer addressed this in his own inimitable style…
Try lecturing someone about changing the world for the better and you’ll be inevitably met with a glazed expression. People will literally cross to the other side of the street when they’re hit with reality spam (someone wearing a brightly coloured jacket, carrying a clipboard and wanting to intercept you during your lunch hour), no matter how worthy the cause. Photographer James Houston was fully aware of this fact when he set out to stir some awareness for the environment; he knew he had to make Mother Nature sexy. “Alongside my usual beauty and commercial work, I always want to create images that make a difference and I was noticing stories that young people weren’t connecting to environmental causes as much as we’d like to think,” he tells us on the phone from New York City. “I think they were disconnected from it because the focus is always on what’s missing and what’s disappearing, rather than what we have got to be grateful for and the beauty that exists in nature right now.”
With this, the concept for his latest book was conceived. Natural Beauty would feature some of the world’s most recognisable faces in a series of themed shoots inspired by the elements, seasons, landscapes and even creatures. A year later and the 120-page book is ready to hit the shelves and raise awareness and funds for the partner and beneficiary of the campaign, Global Green.
“In today’s world you have to look at what is going to get people’s attention,” he continues. “Images are very powerful — there’s Instagram and Facebook — everyone’s looking to images to communicate messages. The images in Natural Beauty are very strong and powerful but the fact [that] they involve some of the top models and celebrities in the industry, shot in interesting and creative ways, is definitely going to have some traction. The by-product is raising awareness and getting people to consider a cause. I wouldn’t shoot celebrities planting trees because it wouldn’t have as much of an impact as the images in this book.”
Cleverly, James combined two of his biggest passions, the human form and the natural world, featuring the likes of Emma Watson, Christy Turlington, Brooke Shields and Elle Macpherson.
One of his favourite shoots was inspired by jellyfish; ocean dwellers that have lived for over 500 million years. “I’ve always had a fascination with jellyfish and I studied them before the shoot, looking at how they’ve been photographed over the years,” he explains. “I really wanted to transfer that feeling into an image with a girl, and that’s how I came up with the idea of shooting [top model] Anja Rubik underwater with chiffon.” The floating fabric mimics a jellyfish’s body pulsing through the water, and the coral reef-coloured lights complete the transformation. Another of James’s best-loved series stars a muddied and rain-splattered Emma Watson caressing a flower. “It’s all about the rebirth of nature and Emma going from a young girl to a woman as an actress,” he says of the Harry Potter alumnus.
Each high-grade imaginative image had to be pitched to the celebrities first to make sure they were on board with what James wanted to throw at them. “Models need to know less than celebs,” James tells us, “you can tell them at the shoot, but when you’re working with high-profile personalities it’s their image as well so you need to make sure they’re on board with everything. There’s a lot of nudity in the book so they needed to be comfortable with that.” Shoots lasted just three hours, so agreeing on concepts beforehand saved crucial minutes on the day, and you can see how it all unfolded when a series of behind-the-scenes webisodes are released in March 2013 (www.houstonphoto.com).
The key to capturing such spectacular shots was to put the subject at ease and deliver clear and focussed direction. James has honed this skill over his 25-year career: “Firstly outline what you want to achieve with the shoot and then direct them through it so they feel confident,” he advises. “Celebrities aren’t models so they’re not sure if what they’re doing looks good. You need to reassure them [that] it looks terrific. My goal is to not only do something that’s really edgy and modern but also create an image that they will love.
If they don’t feel beautiful then they won’t feel like their time was worthwhile spent. Obviously with a community project like this, they’re dedicating their time for free so you want them to feel proud of what they’ve helped produce.”
The entire contents of Natural Beauty were recorded on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II under a 8variety of lighting conditions. As a native of Australia and having spent some time living in Greece, James has plenty of experience working with natural light. Now he’s based in New York, he spends most of his time in the studio and prefers to use a continuous lighting system as opposed to strobe. “That way, you can see where the shadows are falling,” he points out, “and there’s something beautiful about the way constant light falls on skin that can be lost when shooting with strobe. It can kill the moment. I like capturing how the skin looks for real.” Part of his mission to make skin look as tangible as in real life means only using the lightest of Photoshop retouches. “There’s something beautiful about an image that’s simple and straightforward and just a beautiful subject, you don’t need to over-compensate. So many images today are over-retouched and you can’t see the texture of the skin anymore, that’s why I’ve spent so much time over the years finessing my lighting.” Before dedicating years to a career in photography, James started out as a sculptor. Influenced by the almost-abstract, monumental bronze sculptures of Henry Moore, his first subjects under the lens were bodies and landscapes. He combined the two in his book titled RAW; a collection of portraits and nudes in black and white, incorporating landscapes. “I’ve always had a sculptural slant to working with form,” he says. “I’ve always had a fascination with shooting beautiful forms so there’s something that’s been there from the get-go. Incorporating that with landscapes and various objects pretty much sums up my style.”
Having a signature style and speciality subject is a must in New York City, as James discovered.
It was a challenging move, uprooting from Down Under where he’d reached such creative heights as shooting the 2000 Sydney Olympics and high fashion for Australian Vogue, and moving to America where he was an unknown. “When you come here they’ll ask you ‘what’s your speciality?’ ‘What’s your thing?’ There’s so many people here doing incredible work you have to really focus on one subject.”
When you’re the kind of photographer whose regular clients include high-profile names such as L’Oreal Paris, Hugo Boss and GAP, and when celebrities like Hugh Jackman, Jessica Alba and Kirsten Dunst will happily set some studio time aside, you need some stories of hardship to stop people from hating your guts. Luckily for James, he does. “How much time do you have?!” he laughs, “Everyone who comes to New York has a story because it’s such a hard place to come and work. I didn’t work for a year and a half when I first moved here. I was here during 9/11 and moved to Los Angeles to try and kick-start my celebrity photography again, which wasn’t happening because America just died at that point. It was tough to go from being a successful photographer in Australia and then start from scratch.” Having no Plan B and an indomitable drive to achieve helped James overcome what he remembers as “the hardest point” in his career.
If he were to pass on some key advice to fellow photographers pursuing similar aspirations, it would be to always shoot personal work alongside commercial commissions. “Of course, we all want money to pay for our lifestyle, but it’s important to connect back to who you are and what inspires you,” he shares. “Sometimes when I’m only doing commercial work, I have to talk myself back off a ledge. Explore ideas, be creative and if you can make a change in some way, seize it. As artists, we have the opportunity to produce work that can really make a difference.