yuki james creates balenciaga ads for a parallel universe
The New York-based photographer and former stylist imagines a world in which people of all ages, colors, shapes, and genders are considered billboard-worthy.
Yuki James's portraits have the mysterious domestic settings of Gregory Crewdson images mixed with the grit and spunk of 90s Comme des Garçons ads. His subjects over the years have included: his mom's friend Vivian, who gamely modeled latex and leather in a Japanese mansion; his grandmother, who recently posed in a floor-length pink dress in an Alabama graveyard; the exotically made-up New York club kid Sussi Suss; emerging transgender fashion designer Gogo Graham; a school of Nepalese monks; nursing home residents; an elephant; and himself, wearing everything from bondage gear and tutus to nothing at all. James has captured every one of these people (and animals) with the same exacting attention to detail, lighting, and composition that goes into creating a fashion image. Except his subjects are not, for the most part, the typical models of mainstream fashion photography.
In one series, James overlays his images with brand logos — Balenciaga, Prada, Céline, and Comme des Garçons. But his work doesn't always focus so intently on fashion. (See: his pictures of the shiny stars of New York's latex ball, or his intimate portraits of friends in their New York living rooms.) James worked as a freelance stylist and magazine editor before he began taking photos and if anything that encourages him to look away from the types of bodies and personalities traditionally associated with glossy editorials.
When did you start taking photographs, and how, if at all, has your work as a stylist informed your photography?
I began shooting about four years ago. I took night classes at both SVA and ICP and started shooting myself and anyone else that would sit for me — mostly family members and brave friends. Since then, I've shot more people than I can keep track of and have honed my skills through each of these. I feel a great sense of gratitude and loyalty to my early subjects.
I don't see my photographic work as being fashion oriented but I have been told by many that there is an obvious influence. It all boils down to shapes and proportions for me so I'm sure being a stylist helped in training my eye.
I remember seeing amazing photos you took of your family members on Instagram years ago. Can you tell me about that series?
I was toying more with absurd and staged photos at that time, in a very amateur and lighthearted way. My Japanese family was just really open and down with my antics. It ended up becoming a bonding experience for us.
What kinds of subjects are you interested in at the moment?
I'm most drawn to people with a unique beauty, a beauty that many people wouldn't even recognize as such. Presently I'm moving towards middle-aged people as they seem to be the least photographed.
What ideas do you enjoy exploring when you're shooting yourself?
I haven't been shooting proper self-portraits as much lately, but it's always been about a certain vulnerability and facing fears. If I'm afraid to post it, it's probably a successful shot.
What's behind your preference for shooting in domestic environments — often in people's homes?
Environmental portraiture adds another layer to the photograph — clues that the viewer can use when coming up with the story in their minds.
How much styling and staging goes into your images? When do you want to dress someone and when do you want to let them dress themselves?
The styling element is always a collaboration. I like to challenge people, but more to bring out something latent or hidden inside. I never push a look on someone if they can't carry it.
I love your "fashion ads." What do you hope those images communicate?
The idea of an ad in a parallel universe interests me, where the brand essence is maintained but the model cast to represent the brand is very different. Where an old, gender non-binary, or just "normal" person could sell a fashionable product. Where character and personality are held in equal or higher esteem to the standardized ideals of beauty.
I love to shoot people who are not normally lavished with attention. I find I often get something more genuine and vulnerable, and thus relatable, from these people. After working with models for so long as a stylist, it was a natural pendulum-swing that proved fruitful — not only in the richness of the product but also in the process.
Are you working towards any larger projects right now?
I'm in the midst of shooting a very exciting editorial project — a dream collaboration with a designer I'm obsessed with. I'm also in the process of planning my first solo show of portraits. Stay tuned!
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Yuki James