Profile: Ellen von Unwerth

Ellen Von Unwerth Drew Barrymore

Vv Magazine’s Vicki Hogarth met up with iconic photographer Ellen von Unwerth last year when she had an exhibit showing at Izzy Gallery. If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the epic photographer, read on…

“It looks good,” says Ellen von Unwerth, surveying the room for the first time. Large-scale versions of some of her most famous photographs stare back at her on all four walls of the gallery. A topless 19-year-old Drew Barrymore strategically covers her breasts as she casually holds a kitten to her cheek.

In red and black plaid pants, black patent combat boots, a knit cardigan, and a beret-inspired toque, Unwerth looks every part the artist as she walks around Yorkville’s Izzy Gallery, where her exhibit, “My Way,” was on display earlier this year. She’s tall — at least 5’10, which isn’t surprising when you remember she got her start as a fashion model. The move from in front of the camera to behind the lens was a natural process. With first-hand knowledge of how awkward and sometimes uncomfortable photo shoots can be, Unwerth knew how to make women at ease before taking their pictures, and she also had her own ideas about what stories she wanted to tell.

Her big break came in 1989 when a then emerging denim brand called Guess hired Unwerth to shoot a then unknown model named Claudia Schiffer. Although Schiffer wasn’t even wearing Guess clothing in the ad, the Brigitte Bardot-inspired image catapulted the brand into the public consciousness, turned Schiffer into a household name, and made Unwerth one of the most sought-after photographers in a male-dominated industry overnight.

Schiffer and Unwerth have collaborated multiple times since, so it’s no surprise to see her image in the “My Way” lineup — this time in a bedroom-set photo wearing a barely-there bondage-inspired leotard, staring back at the camera. If Manet’s “Olympia” called the “male gaze” into question back in post-Impressionist days, Unwerth has taken the concept a step further by removing the male artist from the equation. She’s created a world where art, pop culture, erotica, and feminism can co-exist in single image and has shot everyone from the world’s biggest supermodels, like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, to Hollywood’s biggest stars, from Winona Ryder to Jennifer Lawrence, to the most legendary women in music, from Madonna to Courtney Love.

Ellen von Unwerth Claudia Schiffer

Her editorial work has appeared in the most influential fashion and pop culture bibles, from Vogue and Vanity Fair to Interview and i-D. She’s shot campaigns for fashion houses as elite as Chanel, as mainstream as Diesel, as sexy as Victoria’s Secret, and as conservative as Banana Republic. And, yes, she’s shot the reigning most Googled woman alive — Kim Kardashian — too.

Vv: In light of the title of your exhibit, “My Way,” what first inspired you to get into photography, specifically taking photos of women? What part of the conversation in photography did you seek to change when you first started out?
Ellen von Unwerth: I was just discovering art, and discovering that I had a talent for it. It really came by surprise. I just got really passionate about it and wanted to make images of women, and empower women, and show women in the most beautiful way and most adventurous way.

When you first shot Claudia Schiffer for Guess, how did that photo shoot change your career path?
It was quite in the beginning of my career. I photographed Claudia Schiffer and made her look like Brigitte Bardot, and I shot her for the Guess company looking this way. It was a surprise that people reacted to it in this way. They loved it so much. It was a surprise. It brought my name out there, it brought Claudia’s name out there, Guess’s name out there, so it was a very important step for all of us.

Who, after that, have been some of the most amazing women to photograph?
There have been so many! After Claudia, I discovered Eva Herzigova who I worked with a lot, and Drew Barrymore, Naomi Campbelll — there are so many! The fun part of it is to always find someone new.

What is that’s so special about being a female photographer who shoots women nude and in more erotic situations than being a male photographer?
I think it’s just easier. A lot of women like to be photographed in a sensual, sexy way and look beautiful. I think they feel more comfortable to do it in front of a woman than a man. I think it’s just easier.

Ellen von Unwerth

Are there still women you’d like to shoot?
I haven’t shot Angelina Jolie yet. I think she would be very jolie in my pictures. There are lots of women I’d still like to shoot, and that’s what keeps it interesting.

The “male gaze” has always been a topic that comes up with regards to the female nude, in both painting and photography. How does your work fit into that conversation? What do you hope people take away from looking at your work?
Maybe they want to know the person in the photo, or they want to be in the situation, or they want to buy the print!

You just shot Kim Kardashian for a campaign, but she’s made a lot of news lately for her nude shoot for the cover of Paper Magazine. The shoot is still a controversial subject, since a lot of people don’t know what to think about it. What is your opinion?
I think it’s cool. She has these curves, and she shows them in a humouristic way. She was clever to do it with Jean-Paul Goude who is known for his quirky art pictures. It’s done very tastefully, and it’s humourous. And she has these amazing curves, so why not?

Which photographers influence you or do you do admire most?
I love Helmut Newton, and I love lots of vintage photography. I love Brassai…

How did your experience as a model influence the way you take photos?
I know exactly how you feel when you’re in front of the camera, and you don’t feel good. You feel insecure, and you feel exposed. I know how to make the person feel comfortable and make it easy so that they get used to the camera and then forget about it.

How has the internet and the digital era impacted photography in general, and has it affected your career path specifically?
It hasn’t affected my career path, but I think what happened is that everybody became a photographer. In the long run, it’s going to affect photography, and it’s going to kind of disappear because everybody is a photographer. It’s going to get watered down.

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What’s your life like? Where have you traveled to for work in recent weeks, for instance?
I’ve been in Goa, Thailand, Paris, New York, and now I’m here, and tomorrow I’m going back to New York. It’s a lot of traveling and taking pictures of different people and places, but I love it. I love traveling, and I’m a very good traveler. It’s great to be able to do that.

When you’re working with a woman for the first time, how do you decide what the setting will be and what the narrative of the shoot will be?
It depends a lot on the person. I try to think of the personality, and often I look to the past. With Claudia Schiffer, for example, she reminded me of Brigitte Bardot and it totally kicked me off because I’m a big fan of Brigitte Bardot. It’s very exciting when someone looks like someone you love. Then I make up stories and get inspired by movies. I also work with teams – stylists, set designers – so it comes all together.

How did you come up with the story to inspire “My Way”?
The story came from the idea that it’s Christmas, so I thought of a fairytale point of view, and of Beauty and the Beast. Going through the edit, I guess I’ve lost a little bit of the beast! I like that it’s mysterious women doing it “their way” and following their path.

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What’s next for you? Is there anything on the horizon that you haven’t done yet?
I’m planning to do a movie, so that’s the next big thing.

Can you say anything about it right now?
No, it’s top secret, but it’s very close to my photos.

If you’re a fan of Ellen von Unwerth, what are some of your favourite photographs by her? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below or tweet us @ViewTheVibe.

Vicki Hogarth

Vicki Hogarth is an award-winning writer and the Managing Editor at Vv Magazine. The former Senior Editor of Strut Magazine and Passport Editor of enRoute,she has interviewed Justin Timberlake in the penthouse of the Chateau Marmont, talked film over tea with Keira Knightley and gone head-to-head with Kanye West in an unedited battle of the egos. She has a Master's degree in English literature from McGill and is currently working on her first book. Follow her on Twitter @vicki_hogarth.

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