Samira Pillai discovers how celebrity photographer Russel Wong became the ‘Richard Avedon of Asia’.
This story was originally published in June 2012.
Watching him work in his studio on a television program, I could not help but be fascinated by the world of celebrity photographer Russel Wong. His portraits of every familiar face on screen—Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Aishwarya Rai— elicited a ‘wow’.
It was not as much about the familiarity of who, but rather how different they looked from their on-screen personas. I simply had to find out more about this talented photographer.
“Shoes For Shots”
Russel’s initiation into the world of photography actually began with his interest in sports. During his studies at the University of Oregon, he spent a lot of his time at the runners’ trails near the university. Using a low-end 35mm Topcon camera, he began shooting at the trails. This is where he photographed British middle-distance runner Sebastian Coe. In 1979, Nike offered him a pair of running shoes in exchange for this photograph and thus the “shoes-forshots” arrangement came to be.
Russel continued using this arrangement primarily because he never received an official press pass from the company. Lack of proper credentials also led to him being turned down a job with The Oregon Daily Emerald. So Russel struck a friendship with one of the marshals to gain entry from the corner of a stadium in Oregon—and he did this for almost three years. During this time he managed to shoot sport luminaries like Carl Lewis, Mary Decker and John McEnroe.
Rendezvous with Fashion Photography
After graduation, Russel returned to Singapore for an internship with Pioneer (Singapore’s armed services magazine), and simultaneously spent several evenings doing fashion photography. Soon, the need for technical grounding caught up and he joined the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles (LA), US in 1984. It is here that he began photographing celebrities and also worked for the world-renowned Elite Modelling Agency. The subsequent fashion spreads for Los Angeles Times opened doors to working with top celebrities like Michael Jackson, Isabella Rosselleni, Glenn Close and Bruce Willis.
“ I am just a good photographer shooting anything and making it look beautiful—be it a bamboo forest or a movie star.”
“A Celebrity who Photographs Celebrities”
In 1985, Russel spent four months in Milan, Italy, where he met fashion designers and photographers who encouraged him to continue fashion photography. “Milan opened my eyes in terms of fashion… it changed me and my style and only after that did I get back to LA.” He consciously worked on developing a signature style and soon enough he had also photographed supermodels, designers and musicians like Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, Anna Sui and others. Today, he enjoys the acclaim of being the first Singaporean to break into the notoriously difficult Hollywood movie industry. He eventually established a photography studio on Singapore in 1989, which brought in several big accounts. His commercial work caught the attention of leading publications from the world over—from Vogue Singapore, to international magazines like Time, Fortune, Elle, Marie Claire, New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Russel received several awards for his work and became the first Singaporean to have a solo exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum. He is also the first and only photographer to be invited for the art residency at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute. His style and approach compelled people to compare him to celebrity photographers like Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz.
On being called “a celebrity who photographs celebrities”, he says, “You can’t escape the fact that those connected with celebrities also get public attention. I would like to think it’s my work that gets the attention.”
The Soul Behind a Face
In a 2005 interview with Oregon Quarterly Summer, Russel compared photography to dancing: “The idea I’m working with is equivalent to the melody I hear in my head… but great dancing is also born of trust—not an easy thing with photography, a medium that is notorious for being invasive, particularly among celebrities.”
Needless to say, the act of photographing celebrities can be an art form by itself. Without being invasive, when a photographer successfully presents a different aspect of a celebrity’s life and personality to the world, only then is his or her work unlike the rest. So what does Russel look for? “Their [celebrities’] passion for acting or singing—depending on what they do. Also, what makes them the way they are…I try and shoot their soul and not just the physicality.” He also made a conscious decision to have his home and studio in the same premise. “It’s more comfortable for the people I shoot, as there’s a sense of homeliness and privacy and this relaxes them.”
Russel makes it a point to research people before he photographs them and learn as much as he can about them as “this makes them respect a photographer more”. He believes that treating them normally and not overly respecting them is ideal, because otherwise “it puts you at a disadvantage. You need to get your shot and have the upper hand all the time!”
A celebrity Russel has enjoyed photographing the most has been Jackie Chan. “He is always fun as he’s up for anything. We were shooting for the cover of Time magazine and running up and down the main street in Hong Kong with no security. Buses and cars were driving by but none of it bothered him!” He also has a wish-list: “… [Barack] Obama for sure! Prince, [Robert] De Niro, [Al] Pacino…”
A Timeless Style
Russel continuously strives to distinguish his work by restyling the way celebrities are portrayed. There is a lot of depth and imagination in his images. They are also minimal and brilliantly composed; much like the works of photographers he admires—Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton and Herb Ritts. He attributes his success to “a timeless style with no gimmicks, good lighting and the soul seen in photos of people I shoot.”
Russel does not seem to mind the description of ‘Richard Avedon of Asia’. “I just wanted to shoot most of the major people in Asia as there wasn’t anyone doing it here… I shoot landscapes too now. So I am just a good photographer shooting anything and making it look beautiful—be it a bamboo forest or a movie star.”
Tips By Russel Wong
• Be in control of the shoot. Explain the concept and your requirements like a director.
• T ime is always limited. So learn to work fast and prepare beforehand.
About Russel Wong
With 17 Time magazine covers to his credit, Russel believes that it is the soul in his photographs that brings him success. He is one of the most profiled photographers in Singapore and Asia and has also been voted as one Asian personality to look out for in the this millennium.
You can take a look at more of Russel’s stunning work at www.russelwongphoto.com