Ellen Von Unwerth needs no introduction as one of the most celebrated and prolific photographers of our time. Instantly recognizable, her pictures carve a fine line between sensuality and pure, unadulterated fun. They are charged with a certain kind of hyperkinetic energy that teases both the subject and the observer.
Excitable and articulate, with a tremendous smile that threatens to take over and a laugh that comes from the depths of the belly, you can’t help but be excited by the inspired maverick. Whether she realizes it not, she is often the most magnetic person in the room. “I am joyful and I tend to express it,” she laughs. “I could not imagine being on set with a bad mood or being serious.” That is not to say she doesn’t get what she wants. Improvised and uncontrived, Von Unwerth’s images inhibit the unusual space between the outrageous and the traditional, providing relief in an industry often seen as orchestrated and hackneyed. There is an obvious love for women and perhaps an honesty that only the female psyche can tap into. “I feel like female photographers capture a deeper layer, especially when shooting other women. I love to discover personalities and make women look beautiful and powerful,” she says.
An unashamed feminist (“How can you be a woman and not be a feminist?”), Von Unwerth believes photography should always provoke a reaction and be charged with physical presence. She also enjoys portraying women without apology. “I think it’s more interesting that a photograph provokes something inside us and makes us remember it, instead of simply creating a pretty image that is easily forgettable,” she says. “The women I portray are in control.”
Born in Frankfurt in 1954, Von Unwerth was orphaned at a young age. The experience made her strong. “I always had to find my own way, as I couldn’t count on the protection of my parents,” she says. The traditional path and Von Unwerth were never going to fit, and following a stint in foster homes, she joined a small circus in Germany. “It filled me with a lifetime of inspiration,” she says of her time with the Circus Roncalli. “I use it often in my stories – the performers, the lights, the mystery, the surrealism… everything, really.”
At 18, while in her first year of university, Von Unwerth was scouted by a model agent in Munich, which led to a contract with Elite models in Paris. Today, she admits to not feeling any real affinity to the craft. What it did do, however, was introduce her to the seductive world of fashion. “I’m not really an exhibitionist. Being a creative suited me more,” she says. “I remember being on set and being ordered not to move for hours and hours in the cold, wearing only a bikini. I was never asked to express myself or to have fun. Now, when I’m on set, I always ask the models to live, to have fun, and to improvise.” In 1986, she started picking up the camera herself, after a boyfriend lent her one while on a modeling assignment in Kenya. In the decades since, Von Unwerth has created some of the most arresting fashion images of our era, and helped launch the careers of supers Claudia Schiffer, Eva Herzigová, Natalia Vodianova, and Kate Moss – she was the first to photograph Moss in the pages of Vogue. “I love to discover new girls,” she says. “Some become huge stars, others disappear a couple of months later. What I love is when you find somebody you have a great connection with and people react to it.” Her favorite image is of her daughter hanging from a tree swing when she was a little girl. “Her legs are so skinny and fragile. Yet she looks fearless and just as strong as the huge tree.”
In a somewhat territorial industry spearheaded by men, Von Unwerth has managed to carve her own path: a celebratory sketch of the feminine allure with a healthy dose of self-possession and witticism. “You should never be afraid of embracing who you are, or to be brave and take risks. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t try photography after a decade of modeling and decide to make it my own. Men dominated the industry for a very long time but I feel that times are changing right now.”
It is, of course, a moment of much-needed upheaval. As the dark and stormy underbelly of the industry continues to unravel with the #MeToo campaign at the helm, there is a new set of moral compasses to adhere to. The murky waters that surround what was once classified as “art” are being scrupulously observed. The photographer is quick to separate prejudice. “I think it’s great that people are speaking out about abuse and being paid attention to. Of course, models should have the same rights as any other professionals. Having said that, some people seem to be confused between the concept of abuse and artistic freedom.”
Having recently unveiled her own fashion magazine and her first solo exhibition in Sweden in February, Von Unwerth is now working on the launch of her latest exhibit, Ladyland, opening this month at London’s Opera Gallery. It will showcase 30 of her most iconic photographs, among them a sizzling shot of Schiffer in Morocco. “I like the idea that Ladyland is more of a geographical term than a description,” she says. “It gives me the feeling that my artistic universe is a place where women can be themselves – free, beautiful, and incredible. It’s both a physical place and a mental one, too.”
What Von Unwerth teaches us is that real beauty comes from being at ease and from living outside of the news cycle. It’s easy to become so locked in a web of rules that the purpose of image-making – innovation – is lost. “Of course social media is interesting for sharing and connecting,” she comments. “But this tacit, never-ending competition to post your best self at every moment feels scary. Narcissism used to be a really bad thing, a sin even – and now it is celebrated.”
This is why Von Unwerth is different. Her vision will not be hampered by anything as prosaic as commercialism. Herein lies her background. Like her, her images are uncompromising. If you like them, you like them; if you don’t, you don’t, and nobody can argue with that.
Originally printed in the May 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia. Words by Katie Trotter.