“Women are not just there to be admired, they are there to be enjoyed.” – Ellen von Unwerth
Evocative and erotic is what comes to mind when you first look at Ellen von Unwerth’s photos. Self-assured and uninhibited, she finds the glint in her models’ eyes, the thing that says they are women and sexy and in control. “I love women who are playful and fun,” von Unwerth says. “I love sexy, intelligent women. Sexiness is hard to define. Of course a woman can be beautiful, but I think it’s something in the eyes. It’s a woman saying something secretive, something in her eyes that’s almost animalistic.”
Ellen von Unwerth’s past reads like one of her fanciful photo shoots. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, she was orphaned at the age of two. At eighteen she went to see a circus in Munich. She says, “It wasn’t like these big spectacles with animal acts. It was a very poetic and charming little circus with beautiful lights and music. I went to the director, who looked at me and said, ‘Ah, you look like a circus girl. Okay.’ I got to dress up in a top hat and fishnet stockings, put perfume on people, and blow bubbles. It was a great experience.” She ended up handing knives to the knife-thrower and assisting a clown at night while attending classes during the day. She stayed with the circus for two years until she was discovered walking down the street in Austria by a modeling agency. This began a ten year career in front of the camera as a fashion model.
She recalls that she was never really at ease in front of the camera, and began to spend more time behind it. Her boyfriend at the time gave her a camera to start playing with. He gave her some quick lessons on how to use it. She says, “I did reportage pictures in Kenya and shot my model friends, after I made them up and dressed them with my clothes. I knew already how to print black and white photos, as we had a lab in our tiny apartment.” In the mid-1980’s she left modeling to move behind the camera professionally. It was a 1989 shoot for Guess? that pushed von Unwerth and her then unknown model, Claudia Schiffer into the limelight.
She began shooting for Harper’s Bazaar, Interview, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. In 1991, she won first prize at the International Festival of Fashion Photography. Her work has been featured in campaigns for Baccardi, Victoria’s Secret, Banana Republic, H&M, Chanel, Miu Miu and Diesel among others. She has also moved into film work, directing videos for Duran Duran and Christina Aguilera as well as commercials for Clinique, Revlon.
She is unique in that she is able to capture a level of eroticism that is distinctly feminine. When asked how her work was different than most male photographers, she offered “The difference is that I don’t stand behind the camera drooling. I think that women open up more to a female photographer. It’s like little girls playing around. You can be a bit naughty and do things you wouldn’t do in front of boys. It’s more relaxed somehow. I think it’s an empowering experience – and no, I don’t believe they are objectified.”
Technically, Von Unwerth prefers to use film over digital. She uses a 35mm because she says she likes to shoot quickly. She says digital shutters have a little bit of a lag and she tends to miss the shot she had in her head. She criticizes digital, saying it produces shots that have “too much information”, are “too sharp”, and “you have to spend too much time on them trying to make them look good”. Her photos are not always crystal clear but that has become part of her style, a style that helps to tell a story that shows the playfulness of the scene.
She encourages movement in her images “because I know what it feels like to be in front of the camera, I can be more sympathetic to my subjects.” Von Unwerth continues “Being in front of the lens, you are very vulnerable. It’s not a nice feeling, and I don’t miss it. But it’s very helpful to know exactly what it’s like. When I was a model I hated when I wasn’t allowed to move, so I love movement and I encourage my subjects to play around, to move and to be silly.” It’s important to her that she and her models enjoy themselves — to have fun, she believes, is to be in control, “which is the most important thing: a woman should fight for that”.
Though she cites influences like Helmut Newton and Jaques Henri Lartigue, it is her unique vision that has made her one of the most sought after photographers in fashion. In both 1998 and 2005 she was listed as one of the Most Important People in Photography by American Photo Magazine. In 2001 Ellen was the principal photographer of an Armani exhibition in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Her provocative and seductive images have now filled four books (Fraulein, Couples, Wicked, and Snaps) and have appeared both inside and on the covers of almost two decades worth of fashion and celebrity magazines.
Ellen von Unwerth has been described as someone who really loves life, who doesn’t act like she’s above or below the people she photographs. She is someone who doesn’t use the camera for judgment, but instead as a tool to connect with other people, which is something that I am trying to bring to my own photography. Her work has not only made an indelible mark on the world of fashion, but she will no doubt be remembered as one of the pioneering female photographers.