Pupil becomes master

Celebrity portraitist John Russo lives his childhood dream

By Jeff Kent
Images By ©John Russo
First Published in April 2006

“When shooting both celebrities and private clients I incorporate the same fundamentals of my craft. I find out the needs of the client and execute a game plan. I follow through with the same attention to detail for both types of clients. The main differe

Growing up, John Russo was the kid with a camera in his backpack, recipient to a love of images passed down from his adamant photographer dad. As he got older, Russo idolized the likes of Herb Ritts, Mark Seliger, Greg Gorman and Bruce Weber. Posters of their work hung on his walls. Pictures torn from photo books cluttered the spaces around him. Later, while studying photography in college, he would take images from his idols with him on assignments and try to emulate their techniques. His growth process paired classroom learning with location practice, studying the images he loved, and making it happen in his own setting.

After college, Russo flirted briefly with fashion photography. He moved to Miami, got an apartment on Ocean Drive, and went about trying to break into the highly competitive field with little more than his college portfolio and a good store of tenacity.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t know anything about the photography business,” he says with a laugh. “I was under the impression that all the jobs in fashion photography were booked in Miami. I didn’t know how to get a client, who to contact for work, or how to do a portfolio presentation.”

Russo made ends meet by working as a waiter and picking up a few small fashion jobs here and there. The photography work wasn’t enough for him to make even a minor mark in the business, but he did get some great portfolio shots of beautiful models that would later prove invaluable.

In time Russo realized that fashion photography wasn’t for him. He packed his bags and headed to L.A., where he shifted his focus to the equally competitive world of celebrity portraiture. This time, however, the photo gods would smile on him. Getting work as a celebrity portraitist is the Catch-22 of photography: To photograph celebrities, you need celebrities in your book. How do you get those first images of celebrities? Russo’s lucky break came when he met a publicist at a party. This is where his fashion work with models came in handy. The publicist saw that Russo had a great eye, strong composition and style, and the ability to make his subjects look stunning in a variety of settings. It was enough for him to hand Russo a small job shooting a then little-known actor named Josh Hartnett. If you’re familiar with Hollywood, you know that Josh Hartnett is no longer little-known. As the young actor’s star began to rise, so did Russo’s.

Magazines started calling to license his pictures of Hartnett. The publicist, pleased with the press his client was getting, handed Russo more work and introduced him to other publicists. New clients would start Russo on something small; he’d nail the assignment; they’d send him out with one of their bigger clients. “I had consistency in my work, which people like,” says Russo. “Publicists started recommending me to other publicists, publications and advertising agencies. It started spiraling, and I got bigger jobs with bigger celebrities. And then one day I woke up and had this incredible body of work.”

These days, Russo is one of the nation’s most sought-after celebrity photographers. He does a variety of advertising and editorial work for monster media clients like Paramount, Miramax, Warner Brothers, ABC, CBS, NBC, Elle, GQ, Playboy, Maxim, Cosmo and many, many others. His subjects range from Sly Stallone to Sophia Loren, and just about everyone in between.

When I was starting out, I contacted publicists and told them I wanted to do spec shoots with their smaller clients. And of course, today’s smaller clients are tomorrow’s stars. Relationships in Hollywood are a multidimensional beast, but if you understand the system you’ve already got a leg up. Publicists represent actors. If you want to photograph a particular actor, you have to go through his publicist. Once you’re in with a publicist, you’re golden. But you need to please the publicist as well as the actor. On top of that, you must please the clients who pay your bills. For Russo, these clients are often magazines, advertising agencies, movie studios and other companies that commission images of high-profile celebrities.

For those interested in his line of work, Russo recommends starting out like he did, snapping up the smaller fish until you can land the big tuna. “When I was starting out, I contacted publicists and told them I wanted to do spec shoots with their smaller clients. And of course, today’s smaller clients are tomorrow’s stars. You build relationships with these young actors early in their career. As their career grows, so does yours. They might even start requesting you for shoots.”

With a book chock full of celebrities and work published in some of the highest-profile media around the world, Russo has achieved the kind of success that he used to dream about. If names like Ritts, Seliger, Gorman and Weber are established luminaries, then Russo’s star is rising fast to join them. Maybe one day, very soon, some kid with a camera in his backpack will tack Russo’s photographs all over his wall. Now that’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

JOHN RUSSO TALKS SHOP
Professional Photographer: In the January issue of Professional Photographer, Greg Gorman talked about actors hiding behind characters, and how it is sometimes difficult to strip those characters away in order to make a portrait of the real person. Have you noticed this in your work? If so, how do you deal with it?
John Russo: I agree with Greg in that respect. They are actors, not models. I often find myself having to give more direction to certain actors. The more seasoned actors usually need less direction, but of course there are exceptions to every rule. I always engage my subjects with conversation. I find laughter to be the best antidote. It brings out a range in the actors’ emotions.

Creatively and artistically, what do you feel sets you apart from other photographers working in your field?
My passion for the medium. I love what I do. It shows in every aspect of my life.

Where do you see portrait photography going, artistically, in the coming years? Where are the new trends coming from?
Actors want to be shot in a more fashion driven manner. In the very near future the two genres will be intertwined, creating a new breed of celebrity fashion photographers. Gone are the days when the supermodels reigned in fashion campaigns. The fashion world is now celebrity driven, thus replacing the traditional model with a recognizable actor. I do not think this trend will be short lived. Fill in this equation: Being successful in the world of celebrity takes… 25 percent personality, 30 percent talent, 30 percent hard work, 10 percent marketing and 5 percent who you know.

If you were speaking to a group of professional photographers who were interested in doing what you do, what would you offer as advice?
First of all, you have to understand the dynamic of the celebrity-publicist photographer relationship. Without this, you will have limited success in this field. The key word here is “access.” You need to find out how to get access to photograph a celebrity. There is a certain protocol in trying to organize or even be considered to shoot a celebrity. The bottom line is anything is attainable. If you want it bad enough, you can make it happen. I am living proof of that notion.

To see more of John Russo’s portfolio, visit www.johnrussophoto.com.

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