Known for her vibrant and vivacious style, German photographer Ellen von Unwerth is one of the most influential fashion photographers alive today. Her unmistakable aesthetic blends beautiful women, eroticism and a sense of playfulness with consummate skill.
Before taking up photography, von Unwerth spent many years working as a top model and the knowledge she gained has played an integral role in shaping her working practice. Her ability to get more from her subjects helps her to create alternate realities where things are just that little bit more free and fun.
Her hedonistic teenage years spent between circus tents and hippie communes remain a big aesthetic influence and she draws upon these experiences to weave narrative into her photography. Her ability to perfectly balance escapism with a sense of timeless glamour has led her to work for some of the world’s most renowned publications and luxurious brands.
Continuing our series focusing on the most influential fashion photographers of all time, we take a look back at the life and career of Ellen von Unwerth.
Childhood and Early Modeling Career
Born in 1954 in Frankfurt, Germany, von Unwerth experienced a tough and testing childhood. At the age of two she tragically lost both her parents and spent many years moving around orphanages and foster homes in the city. Despite this turbulent upbringing, von Unwerth recalls that she had a positive outlook on life as far back as she can remember. In her book, Fräulein, she recalls that she had a sunny disposition. "I didn’t suffer too much," she said. "In fact, I remember my childhood as being fairly happy”.
This ability to remain upbeat has served her well throughout her career and has become entrenched, stylistically, in her photography. Von Unwerth encourages her models to showcase their personalities: they come across as happy and engaging; the antithesis of the unobtainable trophies portrayed by many of her contemporaries.
Her desire to showcase confidence and character can be traced back to her time as a professional model, a career she fell into by pure chance. After being spotted by a talent scout at university in Munich, she was asked to do a trial shoot for Bravo, a popular German teen magazine. It went well and she soon moved to Paris, working with influential photographers such as Guy Bourdin and Oliviero Toscani.
Although she enjoyed many aspects of the profession – the dressing up, meeting new people and traveling - the constant demands and scrutiny left her feeling exasperated. She never felt comfortable showing her true self in front of the camera, believing that the photographers she worked with purposefully stifled her personality. “I wanted to have fun and jump around in front of the camera, but I was always being told to stop and sit still," she later said. "I always found this really frustrating."
As the years passed, the work became increasingly tedious and she found the superficial nature of the industry harder to deal with. Despite falling out of love with modeling, she began paying more attention to how photographers worked, closely observing their methods. The practices and techniques she absorbed in this period would later go on to inform both her photographic style and work ethos.
Introduction to Photography and Early Career
Like so many of her passions, von Unwerth’s introduction to photography occurred by happy accident. Her fixation began after a boyfriend at the time gave her a camera as a gift. After a brief lesson on the camera’s technical operation, she was soon photographing her friends and the places she travelled to through work. What started out as a hobby turned into obsession after Jill, a cult French fashion magazine from the early ’80s, published some of her travel shots of a trip to Kenya. She was soon contributing images to them on a regular basis.
Her early photography featured plenty of movement and energy and her mix of spontaneity and classical glamour soon attracted many admirers, including British designer Katharine Hamnett. Seeing her early images in Jill, Hamnett offered her work shooting an advertising campaign in 1989 and the resulting black and white images continued her street and reportage style.
Later that year, she received her big break when she shot an advertising campaign for Guess with an unknown 17-year-old German model named Claudia Schiffer. The sensual, sophisticated imagery was a departure for von Unwerth but the shoot would transform the fortunes of both women. It was widely seen as the moment the world was made aware of Schiffer, who would go on to become one of the most successful supermodels of all time.
This shoot announced von Unwerth to the fashion world and subsequently landed her a job shooting for Vogue Italia in 1990. As her reputation grew, her style developed. She blended the glamorous eroticism of Helmut Newton with a uniquely feminine view of sexuality. It exuded the necessary sophistication and opulence required for the glossy magazines, but underneath the surface was a suggestive irreverence that fitted the feel of the early ’90s perfectly.
Over the next 20 years, she continued to shoot powerful, intimate images of women for clients such as Playboy, Vanity Fair, GQ, Vogue and Agent Provocateur. Always choosing to focus on a model’s personality and sense of fun, her stylized photography managed to balance art and fantasy with sadomasochistic themes to create visceral, eye-catching imagery.
Her Background as Inspiration
There are many reoccurring themes in von Unwerth’s work and a lot of her imagery tends to focus of the dual ideas of freedom and transformation. Although these powerful motifs are prominent throughout her career, they can be traced back to her formative teenage years.
Soon after leaving foster care, von Unwerth relocated to Oberstdorf, a small town high up in the mountains to the south east of Munich. She and several friends started a hippie commune in an old farmhouse; she said of the time that “it was here that I started to enjoy my life." With artists, performers and musicians from all over Europe passing through, a creative community began to emerge and this new group of people piqued her interest in unusual and non-conformist behavior. Although she didn’t realize it yet, the experiences she had during this time would become a central theme in her later photography.
This love of the alternative lifestyle was further cemented when she began work at a circus in Munich in the early ’80s. Although it was only a brief period of employment, the bright lights, vibrant visuals and elaborate costumes stylistically significant in her later work. Many of her most enduring shoots, including a Harper’s Bazaar editorial in 2015, feature the big top as a backdrop. For von Unwerth, the circus is a succinct visual metaphor, a subtle way to tell stories of escapism, freedom and transformation.
Work in Music
Although widely known for her work in fashion, von Unwerth has also managed to establish herself as an internationally renowned photographer across a range of subject matters. Early in her career, she merged her love of photography and music when she shot promotional imagery for British band Duran Duran’s 1990 album, Liberty. She would continue to work with the group over the next decade, shooting album covers and tour posters and even directing the video to their single, "Electric Barbarella".
As she established a reputation for herself, many more musicians sought her artistic guidance. Albums for Janet Jackson, Bananarama, All Saints, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera soon followed. She has also worked extensively with Rihanna, most notably shooting the covers of both Rated R and Talk That Talk.
The relationship has since developed, with the two working together on several photoshoots, including a notorious GQ cover story in 2014. The pair seem to be a perfect match, with the effervescent Rihanna taking little persuading from von Unwerth to showcase her coquettish and playful side.
In a career that has spanned well over 25 years, Ellen von Unwerth has dramatically helped shape the way women are portrayed on camera. Working in a profession dominated by men, her unique approach to displaying sexuality has broken with convention and paved the way for many female photographers.
As well as striking a different path to her male counterparts, her photography manages to capture the very essence of desire, eroticism and pleasure – three cornerstones of modern fashion advertising. Her inimitable use of sensual imagery has not only led to commercial and artistic success, but, in a broader sense, it has altered the way female sexuality is represented within fashion.
Check back next month for a fresh installment of Know Your Photographers.