When it comes to John Russo’s photography business, everything gets a personal touch. From creating his own exclusive line of goods, establishing a successful public relations company, founding a magazine, to photographing the biggest celebrities around, John’s personality shines through everything he does.
John’s celebrity portraiture has graced the covers of GQ, Bazaar, Vogue, Esquire, Rolling Stone and numerous key art for major motion pictures. If there’s one thing that John doesn’t have a shortage of, it’s talent and drive.
Hey John! Thanks so much for joining me. Can you tell me and our audience a little bit about yourself and your work?
Thanks Chris! Well, first off, I’m a very driven individual. I’ve always been extremely passionate about photography. My photography career really doesn’t seem like “work” because I look forward to coming to my office every day. I’m fortunate to work with an amazing team. We get excited about every new job that I get. My work is also pretty diverse. While I’m primarily known for my celebrity portraiture, I also do fashion shoots, hotel campaigns and so much more. I’m also celebrating the one-year anniversary of my magazine GIO Journal, which adds a tremendous amount to the list of different activities I do daily.
Does it make it harder to sell yourself when you have such a diverse body of work? I’ve found a lot of photographers specialize in doing just one type of photography.
I set it up that way because, honestly, why should I limit myself? Sometimes I’ll take a job doing something that I’m not known for, but I don't care. Sometimes I’m asked how I'm able to shoot a cover of Vogue men and then go shoot food. I simply tell them it's because I love photography. It's my passion. It's what I do.
On the other hand, I also feel comfortable branching out because I feel like I’ve truly mastered celebrity portraiture. It’s what I’m primarily known for. When I teach workshops, I typically encourage the attendees to specialize, but when they have “made it,” they can do anything they want. It’s all about how you represent yourself. It’s also important to keep it separate. When you go to my website, JohnRussoPhoto.com, they see the celebrity and fashion work. When they go to JohnRussoTravel.com, they see my hotel campaigns, travel and lifestyle work.
Often, if a hotel client comes to me, they know how well I do celebrity work. I’m able to showcase my talent to them in my pitch. For example, I just brought models to do a 10-page fashion spread at Montage Los Cabos. I also shot Gwyneth Paltrow for the cover of Vogue at the Mandarin Oriental London. I’m bridging that gap and pulling the two aspects of what I do together and the clients absolutely love it. I think what I setup has been really paying off.
It definitely sounds like it. That flexibility explains a lot about where you are now. Where did you get your start? You’ve been in the industry for roughly 20 years now, correct?
Well I finished college at 24 years old and started shooting immediately. So that means I’ve been photographing professionally now for almost 25 years. My god, where did the time go! But I remember being 15 years old and taking pictures of all my friends. That’s where my love affair with photography really began. I remember admiring the work of Bruce Weber, Herb Ritts, and Greg Gorman. They were my idols at the time. I remember when Madonna’s Sex book came out.. the way that Steven [Meisel] and Madonna were putting it all out there and not caring about what people think. I said to myself, “I want to do what they do.” I got to meet them in Miami and they were so kind, and so supportive of my work. I think that a lot of photographers need to be the same way. In fact, I pride myself on being supportive of other photographers instead of seeing them as a threat.
Is there much of a community for high end photographers such as yourself?
Surprisingly, no. In LA there are so many photographers shooting high end work and they just don’t know each other. So, I reached out, trying to make friends, trying to be inclusive, inviting them to parties and trying to put together charity events. A lot of them said things like “why would I do that with you when I can do it on my own?” Others just wouldn’t get back to me. I get it though, it’s a very competitive field. But honestly, I don’t feel like I’m directly competing with them. We all shoot that level of stuff, we’ve all shot our big covers. We’ve all shot new releases. Why would a client pick me over them? My personality and what I bring to the table. Me not being a “drama” photographer. Reputations spread easily, especially in LA. Sometimes I’ll hear from editors say “ooooh, so and so. Oh God, I don’t want to work with him.” That stuff goes around. So when people are making the decision of what photographer to go with, it’s really going to boil down to “I want to spend five or six hours on a day with this photographer because I think they’re pretty amazing to be around.”
That’s really interesting. When you started off, did you mostly focus on portraiture or were you as well rounded as you are now?
No, not at first. I was located down in Miami when South Beach was really a “happening” scene. I wanted to be a fashion photographer but the time when photographers were getting flown to New York City or Los Angeles or Europe to shoot were quickly coming to an end. At this time I was first building my portfolio. It was much more gritty and fashion oriented. When I finally moved to Los Angeles I started getting into celebrity portraiture and became really inspired by Herb Ritts. I loved everything about his work. I loved the clean lines, very linear, super crisp, beautiful locations. It really taught me that there’s so much more to it than just a famous face and a white background.
Can you tell me about your process? What goes through your mind when you’re offered a job?
When I first get a job, I immediately start planning. I typically have a look in mind and I put together a list of different lights or techniques that I need to use to achieve it. I have a whole team that works with me. They’re amazing. I have a producer, I have a location scout, I have an entire company that I built to help me manage all the different aspects of all the shoots, because often we have more than one in a planning stage at a time. I think that’s a benefit of achieving a certain level of success with your career. You can pick and choose your projects. I have that freedom to say “no, I don’t really want to go to Brazil to shoot this.” or “no, I’m sorry that isn’t enough money for the time it would take to execute the project.” But when I get the right ones, it’s amazing to get to work hand in hand with the creative team, and say “Listen, I know you have a concept but I also want to give my two cents and show you what I’m thinking as well.” And maybe we can be collaborative, you know? They’re hiring me for my vision, so I want to make sure that my vision shines through. It’s so important to have your own voice.
You’re talking a lot about getting to a point where you have a level of freedom that I don’t think a lot of photographers have. How did you get to this level? Was there a certain point in your career where you finally thought to yourself, “hey, I’ve made it. I’m where I want to be”?
Initially when I first started out in LA in my twenties, I was shooting the People magazines and all the smaller publications of the world. I was not at the level where I wanted to be but it was paying me a lot of money because the work was so consistent. When I turned 30, I said to myself, “I don’t want to shoot for these clients anymore. It’s big time or nothing.” It was basically almost starting from scratch again. I started doing more fashion shoots. I was targeting all the international magazines like Harper's Bazaar, GQ, Vogue, Esquire, and they started hiring me. I basically put out there that I don’t do little jobs anymore. It’s all about perception and I’m a firm believer that when you put something out there in the universe, the universe listens and it happens.
The other aspect to this is that when I started getting booked for some of these high-level shoots, they really built on each other. It created a momentum that I was able to keep going. When publicists and clients begin seeing you shooting big projects and having the ability to refuse work, it elevates you. When I mentor people, I often tell them that they need to stop doing free test shoots. When a publicist or a modeling agency see you as a testing photographer, they will never see you as a legitimate photographer. It’s your responsibility to say “no, I don’t do free shoots. This is how I make a living. It’s not my hobby.” It’s unfortunately because our industry tends to praise this type of work but when a paid job comes in, they never call that photographer.
That sounds all too familiar with what I’ve heard from other photographers. They’re trying to catch their break but unfortunately the other side isn’t acting in good faith.
Exactly. One way that help promote myself and keep the momentum going is the way that I set up my business. I drew a circle on a sheet of paper and wrote production company, PR company, magazine, videography and photography. Normally we would contract these jobs out to other companies but instead I keep it all in-house. When a job comes in, my own production company handles it. My PR company represents some big-name brands and helps bring in new jobs. When I shoot a brand that my PR company does not represent, I recommend them. When the brand needs a videographer, I task this to my video team. The magazine helps with the PR side, self-promotion, as well making connections to new brands. It all comes full circle.
Let’s talk a little bit about the technical aspect of your job. Can you run us through a typical shoot?
Absolutely! I’ll give you an example. We just got a shoot for Jennifer Lopez for some brand. First thing is that they call and ask if I’m available. They typically talk to my agent (who is in-house) and they’ll say “John is available on these days.” My agent will negotiate all the fees and then we’ll move onto the creative aspect. Once we get a good idea of what the client is looking for, I’ll give my input. Because I know Jennifer, I know what types of lighting she likes and what she’s going to do and what she won’t want to do. I’ll say, “Since I’ve worked with the talent before, I would not suggest this lighting, I would go with a different lighting and you know what? I’ll make a creative mood board on what I think we should do and we can collaborate.” When a client sees that you actually care and that you’re not just showing up, doing what they say and then leaving, they’re definitely more engaged. I don’t force my opinions on things because at the end of the day, the client is paying… but as a creative person and as someone who takes pride in my work, I only want to put good stuff out there. Sometimes certain publications say that they want to see everything I shoot but that’s not how I work. I give them the best of the best of the shots because I know that if I give them everything, the picture that I don’t want will show up on the cover or in the ad campaign.
What about the day of the shoot?
So we get to the studio or location and I usually get there at least an hour before the talent arrives. Because we’ve pre-planned all the creative and have the mood boards ready, I’m able to jump right into pre-lighting. My assistants help me make sure the lighting works for all the various shots we have planned for the day and then once that is done, we wait for the talent. How the next part goes is usually determined by whether I already have a relationship with them. I show them the mood board, and walk them through what we’re planning on doing. I ask if there’s any particular music they’d like to listen to, make sure they’re happy and then go and take a look at the clothing. At this point, I already know what the direction of hair and makeup is going to be. If there’s anything that I don’t like, I just tell them nicely, “hey, that dress is great, but for what we’re doing, I don’t think it’s going to be the best choice but maybe we can still shoot it as a backup.” Then we shoot! I give a lot of flexibility to the talent to see the end results and give me an indication of what they do and don’t like. At the end of the day, it’s their face and if they don’t like it, they won’t promote it, and it won’t see the light of day. And of course, before everyone leaves, they all get a gift bag.
A gift bag?
Yes! I created a product line to go along with my brand so that they remember me after our shoots. Right now I have over 60 colors of lipstick and nail polish, two fragrances, and a candle line, all branded John Russo. Sometimes I’ll create Italian leather bags and backpacks as well. It’s just my little way of giving back with a touch of self-promotion. I always make sure to thank everyone on set because it’s really important for me that everyone knows that the hard work they do is appreciated. I’ve heard too many horror stories of photographers treating their team like crap.
That’s honestly great advice. I feel as though people in this industry don’t treat each other the way they should. We’d all be better off. Do you have any last words of wisdom for our readers?
I think I’d just like to reiterate that anything is possible if you work hard enough. If you don’t like the magazines that are hiring you, create your own. If you need more covers, shoot your own. If you want to do a certain spread that you’re not hired for, you can do it yourself. The resources that are out there for photographers these days are vast. It’s nothing like when I first started years and years ago. I once sat in my bedroom in rural New Jersey dreaming that one day I would be doing this and here I am now. If I can do it, so can they.