Ellen von Unwerth: Master Of Not The Girl Next Door

Ellen von Unwerth knows her way around both sides of a camera. The German-born fashion and beauty photographer spent 10 years in front of a lens as a fashion model before moving behind it. The insight gained from this experience permeates the pictures she produces. Her most recent book, Ellen von Unwerth, Fräulein (Taschen), is a collection of female icons, including Claudia Schiffer, Kate Moss, Vanessa Paradis, Britney Spears, Eva Mendes, Lindsay Lohan, Dita Von Teese, Adriana Lima, Carla Bruni, Eva Green, Christina Aguilera and Monica Bellucci. Many of these women were photographed on assignment for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Interview, The Face, Arena and, in the case of Schiffer, a series of memorable ads for GUESS. Whatever and whomever she photographs, von Unwerth blends fashion and fantasy in her scenarios and lets her models become an integral part of the act.

DPP: Unlike many photographers, you seem to embrace movement in your images rather than avoiding it. How did this approach come about?

Ellen von Unwerth: I get bored very quickly if the girl is just sitting there in front of my camera. After two frames, I ask her to move. I always have lots of movement in my pictures and try to capture something spontaneous. I was kind of bored during my modeling days because photographers were always saying, "Don’t move!" I always wanted to do something funny, and they would respond, "Oh, no, no, no!" I like surprises. I don’t like to do something that’s just there. I try to discover something. So now I encourage the people I photograph to move, to do things, for them to express emotion, to play little roles—to be sad, to be jealous, to be waiting impatiently for their boyfriend….

DPP: When did you start shooting?

von Unwerth:?While in Africa on a modeling trip, I photographed my model friends and did some reportage. My boyfriend at the time had given me a camera. He was a fashion photographer. He also taught me how to print. I went to a little village and photographed the women and the kids there. This was in Kenya. At this time, there was a magazine called Jill whose art director was a friend of mine, so when I got back to Germany, I showed him the pictures. He was, like, "Wow!" He couldn’t believe it because everybody kind of thought of models as stupid. So he was surprised that the pictures looked so nice. Jill ran eight pages of my pictures straight away.

DPP: You had no thoughts of being a professional photographer at that time?

von Unwerth: Not at all. I thought it was a very difficult, complicated thing. I surprised myself by the pictures—it was a great discovery. I then started to test with models.

DPP: You’re credited for helping put one of the first supermodels, Claudia Schiffer, on the international map. How did that come about?

von Unwerth: I think German Elle asked me to do a story with a German girl, and it was Claudia. When I was looking at the pictures, I thought, "Oh, yeah, she’s cute." But then I realized that she had a big resemblance to Brigitte Bardot, so I made her up with big hair and similar makeup, especially dark eyes. I shot her for Lei magazine and then for GUESS, and people just started going crazy over her. It was very unexpected.

DPP: You’ve also photographed many celebrities over the years.

von Unwerth: I love Drew Barrymore. Her sunniness and her charm come through in every picture. Early on, I did a photo of her with a cat. They both look so cute. That was done on a shoot for Playboy, though this one didn’t run. I just like to snap around; that often results in the best pictures. The kitten was there at the shoot just running around. I’m happy that if in a day of shooting I have one picture that I would actually put in an exhibition or a book of my work. I like lots of different types of photos—photos of my daughter, pictures that I snap in the street.

DPP: Do you think your pictures tend to have a positive look?

von Unwerth: Yeah, but I have a decadent and dark side, too. It’s just like different emotions, but I do like to have a laugh. I like to have fun.

DPP: Do you storyboard your ideas?

von Unwerth: Occasionally, but almost always it’s spontaneous. I just have an idea.

DPP: How did you come up with the idea for the Original Sin series?

von Unwerth: The Original Sin series was actually commercial work. It was advertising for Sauza Tequila. Original Sin is the theme that they commissioned to photographers to interpret. They approached me and said they wanted my interpretation of the meaning of Original Sin. I’ve always been fascinated by New Orleans and wanted to do different pictures than fashion pictures there, so I said I would love to do it in New Orleans in an old-fashioned style. Even before I had ever been there, I was fascinated by the photographs by E.J. Bellocq of Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans. When I finally visited the city, I fell in love with it and found some great locations. Storyville doesn’t exist anymore; it burned down years ago. I went to people’s homes, such as a singer down there with an amazing house. It’s old, and the walls are falling apart.

DPP: Were all the characters professional models?

von Unwerth: The main girl. The only thing was that she had to be over 25 because the shoot was for advertising alcohol. The other people I found there. The work of Bellocq was an inspiration. I never like to copy anybody, but I like that atmosphere and the way he portrayed women. I never exactly copy a picture; I think that’s boring. I’d rather do it myself and have a surprise—that’s the interesting thing about photography.

DPP: Were you using natural light?

von Unwerth: Mostly, it’s natural light. There’s another that I lit to make it red and fiery. Mostly, I use daylight.

DPP: Even though it’s a still photograph, there’s a lot of energy, a real-life feel. Which other photographers have inspired you?

von Unwerth: Helmut Newton is great. I only worked once with him when I was modeling because I wasn’t his type of woman, but he was great. I also love Lartigue and a lot of reportage photographers such as Sebastião Salgado

DPP: That’s interesting because your style is really a cross between them, in a sense—reportage/fashion.

von Unwerth: That’s true. The sexiness of Newton, the realness found in reportage and then the kind of lively, charming side of Lartigue. That’s what I love.

See more of Ellen von Unwerth’s work in the book, Fräulein, from Taschen.

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