Posted by Irene Ojo-Felix | March 23rd, 2018

Ellen von Unwerth’s World of Women

Adored yet disregarded. Enjoyed yet criticized. So much of the female form through history has been pondered about, controlled, and fought against, without much autonomy from women themselves on the matter. Still, there have been trailblazers that have deftly thrown censorship and convention out the window few more noteworthy than photographer, Ellen von Unwerth. The former German model turned image crafter has been behind some of the most seductively enticing imagery of the past 30 years finding fame shooting powerful women like Claudia Schiffer, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Madonna, Rihanna, Britney Spears and many more. From album covers to ad campaigns her women, usually sexually suggestive and glamorous, are often caught laughing or in some state of dynamic movement, seemingly unbothered by any external gaze – oh to live in such a world! As Women’s History Month winds down, we met up with von Unwerth at The Beekman Hotel to discuss her momentous career, her thoughts on feminism, the female form, and her latest eponymous venture, VON Magazine.

All photos provided by Ellen von Unwerth Studios

Interview and text by Irene Ojo-Felix

Do you shoot on location mostly? What about the element of the outdoors excites you?
Yes! I mostly shoot on location. My images always have a reportage element to them. Also, I like the unexpected so I love to shoot in hotels and bars and clubs and the street.

Well, you have to call up The Beekman!
Exactly! I’m like…wait I’ve got to shoot here! This is incredible.

I was automatically drawn to your work and how across it the common thread was this feeling of female empowerment and eroticism. Yet, not in a negative connotation – all the women from your images always feel like they want to be sexy and free. How did you come across that feeling of expression when you first started?
When I started I was a model and my boyfriend had given me a camera so I didn’t really know that much about photography other than what I learned during my modeling time. When I started shooting I just had straight away this contact with women where they opened up and felt really comfortable in front of my camera. I think when you feel comfortable you want to show your beauty, you want to show your sensuality. That just came naturally.

As far as being a woman in photography you know there’s not many in comparison to the number of men there are in the business. Do you think that being a woman and having female subjects makes them feel more comfortable with you? With the fact that you understand where they’re coming from and their perspective?
Yes, exactly. I think I understand how they feel and I know when you’re in front of the camera you’re somehow vulnerable and exposed, so I know how to make them feel good and there’s no ambiguity so it’s easier for them to open up. I always say it’s like playing with Barbie dolls – we just have fun. We are dressing up and there’s loud music and it’s just a really fun and free atmosphere.

As a creative, what do you think is important to understand of the photographer and subject relationship?
Well, I think the answer is in the question, as a photographer you have to consider the model as a subject, not as an object. I always try to direct and have conversations with my models. I work with people not only for their physical but also their personalities. Taking pictures, you get to know a lot about them, but you have to break the bridges so they let you in. Music always helps and sometimes a sip (or two) of champagne!

And what’s your process for picking subjects? Do you find yourself seeking out subjects who are already comfortable showing themselves off? Or is it you want to bring that out of people regardless?
It depends because every shoot is different. When you shoot for Vogue, you show the clothes. So when I do more of my personal shoots, for books or exhibitions you know, I think you have to provoke a little bit more and show something different and new. So then I pick girls of who I know love to show off a bit more, a bit like an actress. My last book, Heimat, was all shot in Bavaria and it was all about Bavarian culture and traditions. So the girls had to be round because clothes, the right clothes you need to fill them out. You needed really voluptuous girls so that’s why I chose Dioni Tabbers and Ashley Smith and Valerie van der Graaf you know, they were the right girls. You couldn’t choose a runway model for that.

Super fun! It looked like they were having the time of their life in the pictures I saw.
Totally! Everything was just so like… just absurd and surreal. And also you know, I love to use actresses like Syrie Moskowitz. I like to find characters.

It seems like the characters drive the visuals, even for celebrities like FKA Twigs or Britney Spears or Rihanna. They resonate with themselves and their own personalities but you almost tweak them and transform them…push it a little bit more. That picture of Rihanna in Esquire with the fan? Super, super sexy.
But she is a super sexy person. And if they trust, they go there because they want to be perceived in their womanhood. But I always make them look powerful and always in control and never vulgar.

When it comes to the process of picking models, I always hear from creatives that it’s a very intimate scenario. Looking back who have been some of the models you captured that really stood out?
You know when I started I started to work for Guess one of the first girls I worked with was Carré Otis. Then I discovered Claudia Schiffer, who is incredible. Still today people are responding to those pictures. Then there was Eva Herzigova who also I discovered and who was a big big girl in my career because she was so spontaneous… and still is! She’s incredible. Naomi of course… so much with Naomi. Christy, Linda… all of them!

All of the supers!
Kate Moss! I was the first one to put Kate Moss in Italian Vogue when she started. I did a little film with her. Then you know, Doutzen and Natalia.

If you look at, these are the women that are part of our Legends, Supers and Icons lists. How do you feel about the modeling world right now as it stands? Do you think we’ll ever get close to those moments again?
Well you know, there are some big girls like Gigi and Bella and Karlie Kloss. They are great. But I don’t know it was just a time. Back then when those girls came out on the runway everybody was electrified. They were raised very powerful, very independent, and very glamorous. It just shows that now it’s very hard to feel the personality of the girls. I think it comes from they just don’t want them to have so much personality. Walk fast, walk like a boy… so it’s hard to get attached to them. So many new girls I cannot follow up anymore!

You can’t follow? We do our Top Newcomers twice a year and it’s turning into 40 girls every season! And you’re trying to be fair to everybody…
I know, which is great but on the other hand it’s hard for a girl to actually make a career and become a star because you have to work with a lot of different photographers and you have to explore a lot of different things, you have to learn how to model and I feel it’s much harder now than it used to be. The careers are really fast and the girls disappear, come and go very quickly. Unlike, when you look at Eva Herzigova, she’s still doing campaigns and it’s been like 30 years.

When you make that point that girls aren’t able to establish themselves, how is it a detriment to the overall industry? How does it affect the creatives or the magazines in being able to really cultivate girls?
With girls, you can choose a look. Look at Karlie Kloss – she changes her hair all the time! When I look at books of girls all the pictures are mostly down and a little bit sad. I want to see a picture of a girl laughing! I want to see a picture of a girl having different emotions and I don’t think that’s really explored right now. I don’t know, it’s not “cool” to laugh.

And that’s supposed to make you buy the clothes! For whatever reason.
Yes. But then it’s hard to get attached to a girl, you know? That’s why brands use actresses. Look at all of the covers of magazines are actresses. Most campaigns are actors because they want to believe that the customer attaches to the face. Now also because of Instagram, the influencers. It’s a whole new element out there! Crazy.

It has pros and cons. It kind of balances things out that the girl from the middle of nowhere that has 200,000 followers can be considered as just as much of an interesting talent as a model. I don’t know how it makes it look for the overall look of fashion, however. Do we want professional models? Or do we want real street-casted kids? A mix?
I think everything is allowed now, you know? You see on the runway all races and ethnicities which is fantastic. You see curvy girls but you don’t see enough and that’s not very feminist. I want to see sexier, curvy girls. If a girl has personality and an Instagram that is exciting enough that people look at it, it’s great that she also has a chance to get a job. At first, I was a little bit of a skeptic about it because obviously, it’s also a girl that does a lot of selfies.

What’s one main point that you think people get wrong about feminism? How do you continue to provoke and push boundaries in this post-#MeToo era?
In my opinion, I feel that being a feminist does not have to make a woman hide or deny her body and its sensual power. To be feminine doesn’t mean to be weak. On the contrary, the most powerful thing a woman can do is embracing who she is, inside and out. Women should feel free and not censor each other for being too much of this, not enough of that. As a photographer, I always showed women powerful and in control of situations and not as sad victims. Society is changing, women are changing, so there will be always new boundaries to be broken.

“I feel that being a feminist does not have to make a woman hide or deny her body and its sensual power. To be feminine doesn’t mean to be weak. On the contrary, the most powerful thing a woman can do is embracing who she is, inside and out.”

How is the transition for you been from film to digital? With the now digital swing, has this emphasis on digital, social media, and fast pace been a positive thing or a negative thing for you?
Overall I’d say definitely positive. One of the last shoots we shot all on film was 5-6 years ago. Straight away you get used to digital. It’s so great. Before, you have the contact sheet and all of that long squeezing of my eyes thinking, “oh my God, I’m getting wrinkles!” Looking through the loop, for hours and hours, checking those contact sheets. It takes so long to get your film back and then you do contact sheets and prints and a frame. Now it’s so easy. You shoot and then hours later you have it. You can choose on the computer. It’s so much more convenient. And there are millions of possibilities. However, we still “film” with every shoot a little film.

To me film just seems so much more special. Maybe digital makes it less so.
Well also, it’s more special because it’s super expensive. So when you take pictures you really concentrate on your composition. Sometimes when I shoot digital something is in the picture and I’m like, oh whatever, I’ll take it out with retouching.

But with film everything has to be perfect.
Yeah, 36 shots so you really pay attention. Both are great but you cannot get around digital.

I would assume that now because everybody wants things so fast, digital seems a necessity to be able to deliver.
Totally. People want it straight away. They want to see. They want you to shoot and edit. I’m like, no no no no no.

You don’t like people looking at your pictures?
No! It’s like they’re looking in my soul, you know? When you shoot you work up to something. You cannot just show every frame. The picture is the one you choose. Not every picture is good. It’s really, the picture is the one you choose as the photographer.

For sure. Take us back to some of your first shoots. Do you remember your first shoot where you thought, now I’ve made it? “I’m Ellen Von Unwerth,” so to speak.
It wasn’t really like this, you know. I just love working and I did my first shoot after my boyfriend gave me that camera. I went to Kenya for a job as a model and I started shooting street photography and then I came back. My friends were doing a magazine called Jill. They saw the pictures and you know people always think that models are stupid.

It’s not true but…
Of course, it’s not true! But at the time models were considered stupid. So when people saw my pictures which I did in Kenya, they were like, “oh, Ellen these are really nice but you’re a model? How could you do this?” So that was really awesome for me and also a surprise because I did not know that I had the talent for photography. They gave me 6 pages in Jill magazine so that was a really big emotional success. My first story in that magazine was inspired by Pigalle which is the red light district in Paris. (British designer) Katharine Hamnett saw the pictures and she booked me straight away for a campaign. I had only one camera in a little metal box and I went to London. **laughs** Then I started to work for The Face and for i-D magazine and then for Guess!

Did you recognize back then as a woman in fashion photography that there weren’t that many of you? Or were you just focused on your own thing?
I was totally focused on my own thing. There were some other women like Deborah Turbeville, but not that many to be honest. I wasn’t really thinking about it and also I don’t think ever it was a problem for me to be a woman. As I said, people responded to my first pictures. Katharine Hamnett responded to them and then I did Guess with Claudia Schiffer.

Do you think that the experience of being a woman and shooting a woman is inherently a deeper connection?
I don’t really think so. You know when I was a model, to be honest, it depended. As a model, there were women photographers where I just didn’t feel comfortable with at all. One woman made me pose for hours in the freezing cold. There are photographers like this and then there are photographers like Oliviero Toscani. He made you jump and it was really fun. I think everybody is different and you cannot really generalize like this. But I think with female photography there seems to be a deeper layer. It’s a little less superficial I’d say when a woman shoots a woman.

It’s a great time I think for women and for diversity. Is there anybody right now that really excites you? Or are you pretty much discovering people every single day?
Ummm kind of every single day. *laughs* That’s why I love to go out and go to parties. Sometimes I do go-sees and I see a girl and I don’t really get her but then I’ll see her at a party having fun and I’ll be like who is this girl? I really love this girl Stella Lucia, I think she’s really exquisite in the face and she’s so funny and cute. I love Peyton Knight. There are so many.

Do you think the landscape has changed a lot since the beginning of your career when it comes to casting? Do you think that now that there are more options, it’s better? Can you take us back to compare the two timeframes?
When I started, if I wanted to do a story with Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington for Italian Vogue it was like, “great, fantastic.” Today if you want to do a 2 girl story it’s like, “oh but she doesn’t do doubles” – it’s more difficult now somehow. They don’t want them to be in a double or they want the cover. The cover? The cover is probably a personality!

It is limiting fashion wise too?
Everything is a bit more complicated. You have to shoot the full look and there is not so much creativity for the stylist. It’s actually much more difficult to be creative. Even if you go backstage at a show now everyone is on the phone. Before, I remember people were drinking champagne and it was a party and everyone was chatting. It was very, very social and the big girls were in control of their career. They’d say I want to do this and I want to do that. The other day I met this girl at a party and said, “Hey! We’re shooting together on Monday!” and she responded, “Oh! I didn’t know it was you!” Well, you should ask your agency who is the photographer next time…

I always hear that from girls all the time! Like you said, models don’t really have that much control over what happens in their schedule even 3 days ahead, not to say the day before.
Yeah and I think they should. I think because it’s the most beautiful time in your life. When you’re young you could be going out just partying with your friends but as a model, you have to go to sleep early to look beautiful the next day. At least use that time and make the best out of it!

How are visuals evolving for you? Do you do motion a lot? Are you thinking that the next frontier might be movement?
I think it’s really moving towards movement. I always have my girls moving anyway as I don’t like static. I love when they move and they live in front of the camera. For me, it’s actually fun to do film and I always have somebody filming with me. The magazines, it’s sad to say but they’ve been doing not too well. So many magazines have closed and it’s a very strange period of time. People watch everything on Instagram but a good picture is a good picture. If it has good emotion you can just live with it and stare at it and it always brings you something.

I always liked the fact that you do fashion photography but also have shot some of the music album covers that I love. For example Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope!

I like the fact that you don’t see her eyes. I wonder did you have to convince her to be like this?
No, we were just like shooting in the studio. We had all kinds of different pictures and actually I gave her a selection of pictures and she chose that one! I was surprised too! I would have preferred something else because she has such a lovely face and an amazing smile. But she chose this one and you know people they still ask me about it. The other day someone said, “Can I have a print?”

So amazing!
I’m like, yes of course! So it became more iconic in a way. Also, the one I did with (Hole frontwoman) Courtney Love in 1994. She decided not to have herself on the cover but an image of Leilani Bishop inspired by Carrie.

Were you always in the mind-frame of “I want to do everything”? I assume that the process would be different for celebrities because they’re a little bit more selective.
I see myself as a photographer, just fashion is the biggest part of me because I know the business and I love it. I love to go to shows, I love to work with editors, I love the models, I love to tell stories. But it’s amazing to have somebody like Rihanna or Beyonce or Madonna. They’re more difficult but then they have so much to give. Such huge personalities and when you connect with them and you create something then it’s really very rewarding. It’s interesting to discover the personality and bring something out. I just love the whole thing. To only be a fashion photographer would be a big worry for me. But to do everything is great! Never boring! *laughs*

It seems all of your women are not afraid of showing their power. They’re not intimidated. Is that a reflection put on by you as well? Is that what you want all of your subjects to show?
Yes, of course. I want a woman to be strong. I want the women to have control. I want the woman to be sexual but totally in control of that. And at the same time have fun and enjoy life. That’s my goal! Strong women who enjoy life and I do everything to make them look as gorgeous as I can. *laughs* When you look at fashion shows they tell the girls to walk like a man, to not shake their hips, to walk almost robot-ish. But then you see Kaia Gerber at Alexander Wang! Everybody is showing me this video because that’s really what people want to see! They want to see the feminine. You know, we are women. So let’s embrace it.

I used to look back at the clothes back on Naomi and they became alive on her! Years later, you’re paying attention like, what is this outfit she’s wearing I need it now!
Yes, especially with that little spin and the turn, shake! It’s strange that it feels like now womanhood is being almost suppressed. But then there are different designers also. I saw the last Versace show it was the same- amazing.

I wasn’t expecting that at the end. You definitely saw the difference between how models are now and how models were back then. I don’t want to be too nostalgic but…
No, but they were just glamorous. They looked like goddesses. Twenty years later. It was crazy, the excitement. It inspires lots of stories you want to do. It’s cool.

Do you miss it?
Yeah. I miss it but I still love to go to shows and I’m still always entertained. Even in a bad show, there’s something you’ll see which is good. I’m easy to be entertained but it is different now.

From now talking to you… your experience as a model, you seem like you are much more interested in shooting pictures and directing things from your own perspective. But do you think your history as a model helped you in the understanding of movement since movement is such a huge element in your style of photography? Do you feel like you needed that because that wasn’t what you got to do as a model?
Exactly, because when I was a model I always was supposed to sit still and look to the left and the right. I’m always super active and I always wanted to do silly things. The photographer would say “No, no, no! Don’t move.” When I started to take pictures that’s exactly why I say the opposite. I say, “Move!” I want to capture a moment, you know? I want to get something which is not posed and which is not staged. That’s why I need also girls to have a personality so they can move and they can act and they can be silly in front of the camera and do spontaneous things…

What are your feelings on the fashion world today and the disruption of digital. Do you think it’s been an asset? Do you think it’s been a positive feeling for you and your evolution? And how do you see yourself in the next era coming out of it?
Well, it’s definitely positive in the way that when you do a story, everybody sees it. You don’t have to buy the magazine. You can have so much exposure. On the other hand, everybody is now shooting. Everybody is now a photographer. I mean when you do a job the model is taking selfies, even the client starts to shoot. Everything goes on Instagram and they put your name attached to it and you’re like… hmm…

No social media on set!
No, but this can’t happen. You have to have an army of people on set shooting BTS and it waters everything down because there is so much imagery. Also too fast, you can’t even digest what you do. On the other hand, I have fun playing around with it. I do Instagram myself. I get more and more into the moving images and also I’m really thinking of doing a movie.

I was going to ask are you going to make a film or would you want to?
Yes! That’s really my next step. To go into something a bit deeper. I think to do a movie, it’s like a totally different process and you dive into this story. It has so many more layers. The set and the costumes – I’m really really excited about that. To go a little bit away for a moment and see if I like it or not.

And I hear you’re on to another new venture, VON Magazine! With the industry’s laser focus on digital, what inspired you to create your own print magazine?
Even though we have amazing digital platforms I think people still appreciate to hold a magazine in their hands, smell the ink and hear the crinkling of the paper. Actually spending some money makes the object more precious and meaningful instead of constant, free, fast-food consumption from the internet. Making a printed object is a step beyond sharing online. You need everything to be perfect, the printing, the paper, the binding. People can keep it for a long time and sometimes pull it off from the shelf to have a look at it, rip the pages out or even frame it on their walls (Ellen von Unwerth’s VON comes with a print). Many young people are telling me they grew up with my pictures on their walls or fridges, which makes me so happy and I would hate to see that disappear.

What makes Ellen von Unwerth’s VON different from other magazines that are out right now? Did your visual language need its own personal home?
It was my dream for a long time to do a magazine of my own in order to have a playground without other people’s rules. Also, I’ve worked for so many amazing magazines, it is quite rare that I am really happy with the way my stories come out. To actually have created VON allows me to control everything: layout, choices of images and especially people I want to photograph, people I want to work with, and stories I want to tell.

The first issue is titled “The Fight Issue” and has bombshell Hailey Clauson on the cover. Why this title and did you feel like you had to come out swinging to standout in an oversaturated print market? Who is the VON Magazine woman and what does she encompass?
The title ‘VON’ is because it’s a part of my name, and I wanted the project to reflect my artistic universe. It all started when I passed by the Overthrow Boxing Club actually quite a while ago and found out that Ashley Smith and Hailey Clauson, models I worked with a lot were training there. As the club is very gritty but super stylish I got the idea and was excited to do the first shoot there. Since that, so much in society has shifted and I think the Fight issue theme is now more relevant than ever. I wanted to have female power as a central subject for all the magazine, and ”fighting” is a very literal and visual way to represent this power. I chose the cover of Hailey because it shows a larger than life bombshell but also is so unapologetic, strong and badass. I think it really shows that some fights are worth fighting for, and women should embrace their power, but also their beauty, femininity, sensuality and never deny that their body has the right to exist. I also wanted to show sides I love of New York, quite rough and with street images of places like Bushwick. Those streets are changing every day, capturing areas which are bound to disappear soon. Taking pictures is a way to tell history. The next issue will be very different.

“…I think people still appreciate to hold a magazine in their hands, smell the ink and hear the crinkling of the paper. Actually spending some money makes the object more precious and meaningful instead of constant, free, fast-food consumption from the internet…you need everything to be perfect, the printing, the paper, the binding.”

Can you speak briefly on any contributors you have for this first issue?
For this first issue, I shot four series myself, this was the fun part! All the people are interviewed about their experiences with fighting. Also, those texts are not very long but I still feel we get to know a lot about the all the different characters. Allyson Shiffman did the interviews so we have great short stories punctuating the pictures. I also worked with a young very talented art director, Ulysse Tanguy, who I feel gave the magazine a very special new twist. And of course, great stylists like Anna Trevelyan, Sascha Lilic, and Lysa Cooper were the first to inspire, contribute and support the issue.

And how was the process of ciphering through over 30 years of your work for the new exhibition, Devotion! 30 Years of Photographing Women? How did you settle on the seven titles that break up the exhibition? Do you feel like the basis of your work has the elements of Love, Play, Power, Gender, Lust, Passion, and Drama in every image?
For the exhibition, I worked with curator, Nadine Barth. We instantly knew we wanted to work on women, the difficulty was to choose the angle. Nadine came up with the idea of dividing the selection into feelings, or themes, which is like looking through a prism to see all the different facets. We made a huge selection of images and Nadine made the final choice – even if the exhibition is huge, it’s hard to make choices! When choosing the themes, Nadine thought about all the different notions that covered the strongest feelings you can find in my images. We could have had 20 or even 500 different themes, but at some point, you have to make a cut.

Devotion is defined as love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause. What has kept you devoted to capturing the female form for all these years?
I think my devotion comes from the true passion I have for photography. It is my job and my hobby. I really am a 24/7 photographer. Also, meeting new people all the time and traveling around to new adventures helps with keeping up and getting entirely involved in what I do. And of course, celebrating and discovering the personality and beauty of women always keeps me going.

Looking back, can you point to your proudest moment?
Giving birth! But of course big steps in my career are very important, like books and exhibitions.

Last year, I had an exhibition on the highest top of the mountain in a little village where I went to school and had my first boyfriend (Fotogipfel 2017 Festival in Oberstdorf, Germany). That was a big achievement and like a closing circle. But of course, Fotografiska is my first one-woman museum show, which is amazing. And for sure my magazine VON is another tremendous adventure. But to be honest, when I cook a meal for my friends and family and everybody appreciates it, that makes me super proud as well.

“I think my devotion comes from the true passion I have for photography. It is my job and my hobby. I really am a 24/7 photographer.”

Do you have any advice for upcoming photographers or models? What do you think is the best thing they should focus on positively to get into the business?
As a model, I’d say learn the business. Learn to play in front of the camera. Learn how to make a dress look exciting. Learn how to do different expressions and emote different feelings. I think it’s good to learn different expressions and stuff and take control over your career. Ask who you’re working with and prepare yourself for photographers so you can tune in with him or her.

For photographers, I’d say find your style. Very important because there are so many great photographers now. It’s like every time you look at a magazine there are 5 different new photographers. But I think to last it’s really about finding your style and having something special.

Finally, what advice would you give to yourself 30 years ago?
Just don’t stop. But I didn’t anyway.

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One Comment to “Ellen von Unwerth’s World of Women”

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