Ellen von Unwerth: Master Of Not The Girl Next Door

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.

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