A one on one with Hollywood’s most iconic photographer’s,
I had the pleasure to sit down with John Russo and chat about his 20 years on top as a celebrity and fashion photographer, his role in creating iconic images of celebrities, and how his empire just keeps growing.
Current location: Los Angeles and Montecito
Current vehicle: Mercedes G wagon is my every day driver. And there’s fun little Ferrari for the weekends.
Favorite designer at the moment: John Varvatos with a side of James Perse.
Between your Beverly Hills and Montecito living, you seem quintessentially Californian. How did your New Jersey roots become so well adjusted to the West Coast?
Being an outdoorsman, I’ve always yearned for the mountains and beach. I love the fact that I can go snowboarding on Saturday and spend Sunday driving up the coast.
What speaks to you about Montecito? Los Angeles?
I love the fact that Montecito is a small town. I love the views and it does remind me of the east coast. The beautiful sprawling estates, the people are so nice without being over the top and it’s the perfect place to decompress, play tennis and enjoy my friends. I should work for the Board of Tourism because I love LA. I love the weather, all of the amazing restaurants, and that you can have anything, any time. More importantly, you can have it delivered!
What was your journey to becoming one of today’s most in-demand celebrity photographers?
I was so driven that I basically put horse blinders on and had my eye on the prize. I was incredibly focused on becoming what I knew I was destined to be. I believe in manifesting things. When I was a 19-year-old living in New Jersey, I literally made a vision board and knew that I would achieve the things I set out to do. There was no fallback and no plan B. I’m not doing that!
When did you know you were going to be a photographer?
My dad was always an incredible photographer and he gave me my first camera. The was my first and original inspiration. I knew it would be my career after my first critique in my first photography class in college. My professor’s name was Wendell White and he hated me. We put up our photographs and he asked who the photographs belonged to. I claimed them and he was clearly impressed. He told me, “if you stay with this, you’ll be incredibly successful.” I believed him.
You attended Yale for a period of time. Is Yale known for their photography department?
Yale is known for their photography program, but it’s more of a fine art program. To be honest, I didn’t go entirely for the photography and in restrospect, I went for all of the wrong reasons. But I have a great sweatshirt as a result.
Many celebrity photographers focus solely on portraits and people, but you are equally skilled at shooting interiors, food, cars—basically, you can make anything look sexy. What’s your secret?
I just love photography. I love every aspect of photography and I’m the kind of person who’s not going to allow myself to be limited. I decided I wanted to travel the world and stay at the best hotels. So naturally, I decided to shoot said hotels. I’m the kind of person that it’s all or nothing. I can’t only shoot actors, it has to be musicians, models, all of it. I don’t just want to stay in the best hotels and eat the best food, I need to photograph it all.
What is your prep process before a big shoot?
If it’s celebrity, I do extensive research on existing shoots to see what worked and what didn’t. I always find out what they like, what they don’t like, are they fond of photo shoots, what is their favorite food, etc. I do extensive storyboarding with my team—we have giant easels and panels where we map out the poses, lighting, wardrobe, makeup and hair. A lot of work goes into it, but I never cut corners and don’t believe in skimping.
You’re a bit of a real estate mastermind. Do you have a history in real estate or do you just know a good deal when you see it?
When I first moved to LA, it was my idea to buy dumps—basically run down houses, fix them up, decorate them, photograph them for fabulous magazines and sell them furnished and turnkey ready. I sold my first two houses to rock stars and quickly realized there was a niche market for that in the LA area. People just want to walk into a home with their toothbrush and clothing. I’ve done 6 homes in total, and am on my 7th. About one every year and a half or so.
Do you use a designer or design your homes yourself?
I use an amazing designer, named Erin V who understands my sensibility and style. She’s incredible with texture and very good at pulling together my vision.
What’s your next real estate move?
I have Malibu on my mind.
I’m amazed by your fragrance line, cosmetics, nail polish and now handbag collections. How on earth are you successful in so many varied fields? Do you follow a formula?
The formula is branding, branding, branding. I put out super high quality products with my name on it. No one can argue with quality. The first book that we did was a tremendous success and we have another on the way.
Tell me about 100 Making a Difference.
100 Making a Difference is a collection of amazing human beings who have devoted a large portion of their life to philanthropy.
Do you have a background in business? How do you find the time to create on so many levels?
My dad was a business owner and as as child, I watched him create his business successfully. I’ve always wanted to be in control of my own destiny, and have my own businesses to promote the products and ventures that I love.
What’s your current interior esthetic? Is it changing?
My current esthetic includes lots of textures with greys, black and beige. Yes, it’s changing—it used to be all white, all the time.
You’re an avid tennis player. How many of hours do you play each week and with whom?
This is not a trick relationship question. In my next life, I’ll be on the ATP tour. I’m pretty much obsessed with tennis. If I could play all day, every day, and my knees would allow it, I would. In addition, my partners are always changing.
What is your current relationship status?
Currently single and dating until the right partner comes along.
If given the choice of set or on location, which do you choose?
On location. Always.
You’re very close to your parents. How important is family to you and why?
My parents are so amazing and have been supportive in every aspect of my life. Family will always be important to me.
What’s next for John Russo?
To continue this amazing journey, while playing lots of tennis, spending time with my friends and enjoying minute of it.
Words by Elizabeth Chambers
Photographed by Jason Bush