The sum of us
Nancy Pilcher, an American-born former editor of Vogue Australia, forged a magical partnership with photographer and creative director Patrick Russell. Together, their shoots were quintessentially Australian, full of vitality and charged with an obvious electricity. Here, Pilcher looks back on a dynamic creative friendship spanning more than 40 years.
MY FIRST TITLE at Vogue was secretary to the marketing director in 1973, but they could have asked me to do anything; I just wanted a job there. At the time, I was only supposed to be in Australia for a minute. Warwick [Pilcher’s Australian husband] and I were due to return to America but one morning, while walking down Pitt Street, I discovered Vogue on the newsstand. I couldn’t believe there was an Australian edition. I went straight to the magazine’s office with my resume and asked to speak with the personnel officer. Of course, there was no such person, but I was introduced to Mr Leser [ Vogue Australia’s founder] and one thing led to another and suddenly I had a meeting with the editor, Eve Harman. I remember she was sitting at a round table, not a desk, and when she stood up she was wearing the most beautiful cashmere sweater. We talked and talked and she hired me on the spot. It was really a dream. Later, when I was appointed fashion editor I couldn’t have asked for anybody better to work with than photographer and creative director Patrick Russell. Apart from the fact that he is just incredibly charismatic, he loved Australia so much and taught me a great deal about photography and all the elements that go into making a good picture. We had no money back then, nothing to work with and no production vans – we would work out of my little red station wagon, fill it with clothes and drive somewhere, maybe a train depot or a park. Patrick would inevitably →
create something extraordinary like a ski shoot, as if we were actually at the snow.
He is very much an artist: I think that is the secret to Patrick’s magic. He is also a great writer, but I think his love of Australia makes up the whole encompassing factor. He loved the light in Australia; he loved the faces of Australians. He is also very brave, very funny and very worldly. Together, we worked madly. We created all the pictures in the issue, all the covers; his eye was so great. When he looked through the lens, he knew what was right and what was wrong. Of course, it had to be perfection, because there was no post-production and we were using film; nothing could be out of place.
I recall one particularly great shoot with Patrick in Tahiti. We packed nothing but black clothes, and it was striking. The model was American and we would boat out to this tiny little atoll, about as big as a table. There was nothing there, just a single palm tree. I’d be sitting on the speedboat with all the clothes and Patrick was so clever, nothing fazed him. Together, we had a great collaboration and I think he appreciated what I put in front of the camera for him.
In my mind, the most amazing shoot was our China story. It was 1981, and we were one of the first magazines to shoot in Beijing, which was still called Peking. It was a sea of bicycles, with only one or two cars on the road. We had to travel every day with a team from China and then every night we would attend banquets with the officials. We found extraordinary things to photograph, but it was tough. I remember asking the hotel for an iron and they brought in this big block of iron which I then had to heat up. Thank God for Australian wool: inevitably I discovered it was easier to hang the clothes up in the shower and let the steam smooth the creases out. It was a trial at every moment, but I think the pictures still stand up today.
Patrick’s vision was always to create a story that represented Australia, no matter where we were. Underlying his creativity, always, was his love of Australia and his appreciation of the life that we have here. Today, we still have the most wonderful conversations about all sorts of things. He was just so clever in his approach and had the ability to make the models feel comfortable, which is crucial on a shoot. He was never gruff with them, or bossy. We would know, however, when he wasn’t happy with the elements going on in the picture. He’d walk away from his camera and look at me and say: “I don’t know what this means!” We still laugh about it today, because we would all panic and rush in to fix this and that in order to make it work.
I was the first Australian Vogue editor to go to Paris for the collections. I would travel on my own, and the British Vogue team would kindly take me under their wing and let me ride in their car rather than take the Métro. I remember everybody seemed to recognise Australian Vogue for its very distinct signature style. For one thing, no-one had that magical light like we have in Australia. The Italians used to say to me: “Where do you get that light, Nancy?” I think they all appreciated the magazine for its vitality and energy, and the way we captured the spirit of our life here. It was truly a wonderful time.
Patrick’s vision was always to create a story that represented Australia, no matter where we were