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SI Swimsuit Photographer James Macari Reflects on How He Got His Start

We’re Taking Notes On How to Achieve Your Dreams Over Here

When James Macari photographed Ashley Graham for the 2016 SI Swimsuit Issue, he didn’t know his work was going to land on the cover. In 2016, the body positivity movement was in its infancy in mainstream culture and fashion. Graham is a household name today, but at the time her cover star-turn was seen as groundbreaking. Macari cites that 2016 cover as a turning point for the brand. “The whole world probably changed at that point in time in terms of body positivity, what fashion represents, what Swim represents, and it’s all history after that,” he says.

Three SI Swimsuit Covers all photographed by James Macari.

Three SI Swimsuit Covers all photographed by James Macari.

Last year, on set in Hollywood, Fla., we sat down with Macari to go over his long tenure with the franchise. At the time, he was in Year 10 of working with SI Swimsuit. It’s no surprise that this year, following his 2021 cover shoot with Megan Thee Stallion, he’s back in the fold for the 2022 edition. Some of the sneak peek images we’ve recently released of our next rookie class were shot by Macari in Montenegro, like the one below of 2021 SI Swim Search winner Katie Austin.

Katie Austin photographed in Montenegro by James Macari.

Katie Austin photographed in Montenegro by James Macari.

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Early Career and Background

Macari, born in Dallas Texas, always knew he wanted to be an artist, which petrified his father who worked in real estate. He begged James to consider a different, more traditional career, but once Macari fell in love with photography, there was no stopping him. “As soon as I developed that first image, as soon as I put the film through the camera, racked it, brought it out, hung it, put it through the developer, I was like, Wow, this is cool, this speaks to me. Ever since then, I just [wanted] to be a photographer,” Macari recalls.

After college, he moved to New York City in the early 1990s to pursue his new dream and quickly landed a job as an assistant to legendary photographer Richard Avedon.“I think it was pure dumb stupidity of being from the South, thinking anybody can just call Richard Avedon, so I called his studio and I said, ‘I just moved from Texas. I want to work for Richard Avedon.’” Serendipitously, the studio had just fired their third assistant and hired Macari.

Left: Behind the scenes on set in the Hayman Islands, Australia, 2013. Right: Alyssa Miller photographed in the Hayman Islands, Australia by James Macari.

Left: Behind the scenes on set in the Hayman Islands, Australia, 2013. Right: Alyssa Miller photographed in the Hayman Islands, Australia by James Macari.

The job wasn’t glamorous, but Macari was happy to just be in the studio. Explains Macari: “I just wanted to learn. I wanted more information. I wanted to know everything about fashion. I wanted to know everything about light, and I just sold myself to working until I thought I was able to go off on my own and become a photographer.”

After his time with Avedon, Macari worked with Patrick Demarchelier. Working for two master photographers with vastly different approaches to portraiture gave Macari a unique perspective and capacity for capturing images in versatile situations. “Knowing those two styles has been important for me because sometimes you want to bring out something that’s deep inside somebody and they don’t know it. Knowing how to pull that out of somebody, [that’s something] Dick did really well. Knowing how to make someone feel comfortable and relaxed was Patrick’s specialty,” Macari says.

Macari and SI Swimsuit

Macari recalls aligning with Si Swimsuit editor in chief MJ Day from the moment they first met. “From the second MJ and I met, we hit it off,” he says. “We were on point for knowing the past of SI and knowing the future of SI. Every year MJ always comes [up] with a new idea and I will do anything for MJ.”

From his start in the Seychelles in 2012 to Montenegro today, Macari produces striking images again and again. See below for some of our favorites.

Nina Agdal photographed on Desroches, Island by James Macari in 2012.

Nina Agdal photographed on Desroches, Island by James Macari in 2012.

Ashley Graham photographed in Turks and Caicos by James Macari in 2016.

Ashley Graham photographed in Turks and Caicos by James Macari in 2016.

Aly Raisman photographed in Aruba by James Macari in 2018.

Aly Raisman photographed in Aruba by James Macari in 2018.

Interview Highlights

What keeps you coming back to Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, at this point?

“I mean, it’s probably one of the most iconic brands in America.The team is a family at this point, and I will do anything for MJ.

What are you most proud of?

“[The 50th anniversary cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit.] I will hands down say that might be my favorite thing I’ve ever done.”

Who do you look up to?

“Walter Iooss was always one of my idols. Obviously Richard Avedon. Patrick Demarchelier. Annie Leibovitz.”

What is something people misunderstand about you?

“I’m a little moody sometimes. If I get moody on set it’s not because I’m angry, it’s because the image for me is not perfect. I think that’s what people [sometimes] don’t understand. If I seem intense or just not happy, it’s because I’m not able to take a perfect picture…[or] achieve what I want in my head, what I want to deliver.”

What is something you are excited about?

“I’m excited about the future. I love putting people in beautiful light. I love having people leave my set and my workplace feeling like that was enjoyable. I feel like if that's always there, then I think I’ll be O.K."

Left: Behind the scenes on set in Utah, 2015. Right: Chanel Iman photographed in Utah, by James Macari, 2015.

Left: Behind the scenes on set in Utah, 2015. Right: Chanel Iman photographed in Utah, by James Macari, 2015.

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