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.

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