Ellen von Unwerth Curated
German Photographer and Director
CURATED BY :
What’s the difference between seeing one of your images in a book or magazine to seeing them in an exhibition context?
Well, some pictures might look good in an exhibition, but on a wall they might not say much. In a book, some pictures tell a story as you turn the page – there might be a good flow for example. Pictures on a wall need to have emotion; you want to be able to stand in front of it and really think about it and feel mesmerised. It’s not easy to find images that work on walls, but when you do, it’s really something.
What’s your favourite image in the exhibition, Ladyland?
It’s difficult to say because each one has so much memory for me. I like the pictures I did with Claudia… My favourite though is perhaps the one I did of Kate Moss and David Bowie because I was such a fan of his. I was so proud and happy to meet him and spend a few hours with him. It’s an iconic image. I don’t think they knew each other beforehand and it was their first time shooting together. I might be wrong, but I don’t think so. They’re both so lovely, generous, fun and outgoing that the three of us just felt we knew each other before.
In what way, do you think your work empowers women?
The women in my pictures are always strong, even if they are also sexy. My women always look self-assured. I try to make them look as beautiful as they can because every woman wants to feel beautiful, sexy and powerful. That’s what I try to do.
What did you see in Claudia Schiffer that you loved?
When I first shot her for Elle, they asked me to shoot this new German girl for a story on what models do when they’re not working. She was tall and beautiful and I see many girls like that, but when I went home and looked at the pictures I saw this incredible resemblance to Brigitte Bardot which got me very excited. I’m a big fan of movies and I love 50s/60s films – I love Marilyn Monroe and Sofia Loren and Brigitte Bardot, for me, is the most beautiful woman ever. So seeing that resemblance was very, very exciting. I booked her the next day again and gave her that Bardo-esque makeup and hair and the pictures were candid and reportage style. The first campaign I shot with her was for Katherine Hamnett and later I shot her for Guess, which was such a success. It was surprise to me and everybody that it was so successful. It was the real start of both of our careers.
What was Rihanna like to photograph?
I did some of Rihanna’s first photographs when she was just starting out – she was very much a sweet young girl from Barbados. Aside from being an amazing artist, she also wants to push buttons – she’s not scared to be provocative and try out things. We can go crazy with styling, hair and makeup, which is fun because my pictures always need a bit of drama. My women are larger than life, so I need exaggeration which is why it’s so fun to work with her. She’s also incredibly beautiful so it’s easy to get good photos.
Can you tell the difference in the way men and women photograph women?
There are so any artistic ways of photography and everybody is different, so it’s hard to tell. Sometimes, there is a different layer when it’s a woman taking a picture of another woman – there’s a different kind of emotion. Maybe the picture is less posed or has more of a story; maybe it has a different light or a different kind of atmosphere. But I don’t think you can really tell; there is no rule.
How do you ensure your subject is relaxed in states of undressed?
It’s part of my personality; I’m very open and to make jokes. We always have loud music. It’s all about the casting; I don’t ask all women to take off their clothes. It’s give and take. You have to know which girls will be on that wavelength. There’s a psychological game in coaxing models to relax. That’s the fun of it. It’s not just about taking the pictures, it’s also to do with communication and direction.
What do you think the difference between nude pictures that objectify women and nude pictures that empower?
Objectifying is about the body; it’s showing the body in a sexy position. To me, the body is great, but it’s about expression and movement. To me, it’s very much in the eyes – most sex appeal, for me, comes from the eyes. It’s more about her personality, than just the body.
Multiple fashion photographers have been accused of sexual harassment over the last few months. What’s your response to that?
Of course sexual harassment is horrible and shouldn’t happen, especially rape. But on the other hand, I don’t know, I wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened. I cannot accuse these people because everybody does. It’s sad that photographers that photographers like Bruce Weber or Mario Testino who did so many beautiful pictures of incredible men and women, creating so many iconic pictures, should one day disappear. But, as I say, sexual harassment is intolerable. But I don’t judge because I wasn’t there. What’s the truth? I don’t know. I’m not judging them.
What is the future of seductive fashion photography in the Me Too and Time’s Up era?
I think women want to be seductive; I hope they don’t turn into nuns covered up head-to-toe. There needs to be attraction between men and women; you can’t hide from that and it must exist. We just have to be careful and what’s important is the respect. What we have to learn is to respect each other. The great thing is that women are now saying, ‘hey, this happened to me and it can’t happen anymore.’ That’s because they want to be respected, and also feel beautiful and powerful sexually. I’m not going to start taking pictures of women wearing boxy clothes looking sad or harsh. No, women want to be beautiful and I want to show that. The respect thing is very important. We need to start by teaching our children; it has to start very, very early.
Have you ever been treated differently because of your gender?
As a model of course. Photographers would always be flirty – there were always things going on, but I never had a problem with that. As a photographer, I never had a problem being a woman – people didn’t book me because I was a woman, they booked me because of my photography. I never even thought about it. I was so passionate about my work that I did what I felt. It didn’t stop me.
Which women do you find interesting to photograph today?
There are a lot of great young models and new singers that I discover every day. I started working with Miley Cyrus recently and I have fallen in love with her. She’s so lively, vibrant and intelligent. She has so much to say and she says it. She has so much self-confidence. I’m smitten by her. I love Jessica Chastain; she’s a great actress and wonderful to work with.
How do you feel about selfies?
It’s ok to take selfies from time to time, but it annoys me so much to see people walking down the street holding a camera or phone in front of them. I find it sad and, even with people who I really respect, when I see that their Instagram feed is just selfies, it makes me think ‘is that what you’re really all about? Don’t you have anything else to say?’ It’s a sign of the time. Something else will come along.
What’s your take on Instagram?
It’s a great way to communicate, to show your voice, talk about things you love and show what you’re doing. But in terms of what I do, it means that photography is getting watered down. You can be on a set now and other people are taking pictures of the shoot before you share yours. It makes it very complicated. You have to act like the police on set to tell people not to take pictures because if other people are sharing their pictures before your campaign or editorial comes out in two or three months you look old news.
Of all the people who have photographed, who has been the most unforgettable?
It’s hard to say because it’s a great experience each time – well not each time, but most times. It’s always great to discover someone. Like Claudia Schiffer or Eva Herzigova. The moment I started shooting her I thought there is so much of a connection between us. She’s one of my favourites. Then there's Adriana Lima. I shot her when she was 16 and ended up shooting a whole book on her in a day. I cannot say one person, there are so many.
What are the ingredients of a successful Ellen von Unwerth picture?
It’s like magic. A lot of pictures are great and end up in fashion and beauty editorials but a picture that hangs on a wall needs to have something more; an emotion in it. A person looking at it needs to wonder what is happening there. Sometimes you feel it, sometimes you built it up.
The way you portray women can sometimes be erotic, almost provocative. Are you never afraid of being misunderstood, of going too far?
I am not afraid and I work with women who want to be photographed by me and feel empowered by it. It’s fun. We don’t try to do erotic pictures. It’s a playful exaggeration and models are being silly because in my pictures there is always a sense of humour. You cannot please everybody. Actually, it’s mostly women who come up to me and tell me how much they like my work and want to be photographed by me.
What are the pictures you haven’t taken yet that you wish to take?
I hope I’ll get a chance to photograph Cate Blanchett at Cannes Film Festival this year. I have never photographed her and I am such a huge fan. I also love to discover new people. With my own magazine, Von, it’s very exciting because I am free to do my own stories and to photograph young artists and designers. There are loads of magazines out there but not so many outlets to show the work of up-and-coming people.
What would be your advice to a young photographer starting today?
Find your own style. Don’t try to copy what’s already out there. Copy never has the strength of what you invent yourself. Train your eye, have your camera always with you. When I walk on the streets I see things differently when I have my camera with me. This way I catch moments.
How did you select the pictures for Ladyland?
I decided to make it all about women because it’s my favourite subject and these are my most iconic, well-known, pictures. All these pictures were once shown in different galleries and museums around the world.
How did the exhibition Ladyland come about?
Well, I’ve been working as a photographer for 30 years now, and for much of that time I’ve been devoted to photographing women, so I decided that it was really time to celebrate that. I also really wanted to do something in London, and the owner of the gallery approached me and it was just like ‘great timing!’ You know, I love photographing men, too, but the time felt right to focus on women. It’s kind of where I started.
Of the selection, is there one that stands out as a true favourite in your exhibition, Ladyland?
I love very much the image of Nadja Auermann, the one that she’s wearing the black lace mask in. It’s probably one of my favourites ever, not just from the edit that makes up Ladyland. It was taken right at the beginning of my career, when I had just discovered Nadja and we started working together. It was taken for British Vogue, I think, and I love it as much today as I did the day I took it.
When you started out, the fashion industry was pretty male-dominated when it came to the likes of designers and photographers, some of whom stepped over the line of what’s appropriate. What do you make of it all?
I am so, so glad that women are speaking up and coming out and telling their stories, and the more that do, the more will feel empowered to make their voices heard. I don’t think that fashion photography is as male-dominated as it used to be, which is a good thing, you know, and there are some things only a woman can portray when she looks at a woman, there’s that unique connection that comes from a shared experience. It’s difficult though, because to bring out someone’s beauty, a model’s for example, there has to be a relationship. But ultimately I think some people have taken these relationships too far, and it can't go on.
How do you see the industry changing in light of the revelations?
I hope that we’ve now reached a point where people will be responsible and behave properly, but to impose strict rules and regulations on fashion is difficult. Fashion is provocative and bold – and to create art there really needs to be a certain amount of freedom. It’s about balancing that freedom with safety.
You’re crediting with helping to launch the careers of the likes of Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, and Eva Herzigova. What were they like back then?
I started working with Naomi and Kate when they were 16, and I started to work with Claudia when she was 18, and Linda, and Christie, and you know, all of them. And there were other great girls that you’d work with around that time, too, but these girls just stood out by a mile. They were beautiful, and glamorous, and totally professional, and they all had such incredible personalities – they were so vibrant, and playful, and fun. It was such an amazing time, the designers would make the girls special dresses, and it was just electrifying seeing them come out at shows.
Are there any girls on your radar at the moment who have the elusive ‘thing’ you saw in the supers?
It’s very different now, but there are some amazing girls in the industry. You know, Gigi is having her moment, and Kendall and all these girls, and they are totally beautiful. But for me, what’s exciting is seeking out the new talent that no one has found before.
What’s next, after Ladyland?
Well, I recently launched my own magazine, it’s called Ellen von Unwerth’s VON. I wanted to call it just VON, but there was a problem with the name, so what could I do? I worked for 30 years for so many magazines and so often you’re a little bit disappointed when your shoot finally comes out, and you’ve spent all your time and energy on a project. So I thought why not put out my own? I just threw a big party in a boxing club in New York called Overthrow, which a lot of women box at, so it seemed like a good place to do it. The first issue is the fight issue, which is why we threw the party there, and Winnie Harlow and Anna Trevelyan are both in it, and Hailey Clauson is on the cover. And now, we’re on the the next one.
Is there anyone you’d really like to shoot that you haven’t yet?
Yes! Marilyn Monroe (laughs). Can you imagine? She was my dream. If there’s one person in the world I would have loved to shoot, it would be her. She embodies everything I want to portray: vulnerability, sexuality, and strength… Imagine the cover! But, otherwise, there’s lots of women I’d love to shoot. Cate Blanchett for example, and Angelina Jolie.
What is your favourite photography technique or style?
I already have the technology and the assistants, who are responsible for ensuring that it looks the way I like it. They know exactly how my light is supposed to be. They know how I will set up the camera and how I would like the background colours to look. Since I have my style, it’s true that I don’t even care about it myself, but count on my assistants to properly adjust everything. Otherwise, there is a fight. I prefer focusing on the image or scene and conducting the people so that they look good and interesting in the light.
If you look at your pictures an erotic element plays an important role. Or is sensuality the better word?
I would say sensuality. And a love of life. And pretty women. Perhaps a little frivolity.
When is a picture finished? You once said that when you started taking photographs, it was very important to develop the images, edit and retouch them yourself. What role do you play after the photograph has been taken?
This definetely plays a huge role. I was perhaps one of the last to have switched from analogue to digital. But in principle, it’s still the same. We can tweak the colours, and we can now do even more, which is great on the one hand, but difficult on the other, because there are so many possibilities. It is always difficult to find your own style. Therefore, it is very, very important that, for example, the black and white clicks, that the grain we use is not too heavy or too light, so that we get this dark, dirty vibe in a good way. The same applies also for colour – it’s fun to play around with it. I work together with my team until it works.
You initially said that this S Magazine project was fairly large. What did you like about it, or do you prefer working on smaller stories?
No, I thought it was absolutely great. I was so happy to be able to do this. It was pretty exciting to do something like this at least once in your career. The project was actually like a book. And it’s fun to focus exclusively on it. I am doing a lot of fashion shoots for magazines. Then you’ll get eight or ten pages, but you can’t let your imagination run freely. But here I’m able to say “I’ll do this today and this and this and that” and then compile, and talk to people about it – and this is very exciting. And then there is the quality of the publication and the camera, which has been pretty great!
How much freedom do you usually have with contract work?
The customers who book me know what they are getting into. They book me for my style. On the other hand, I also know what you can do for which customer and how far you can go. I’ve been doing this now for quite a while and I know what the customers want – for some I have to tone down everything, for others it must not be too sexy, and for the next one it cannot be too tame. The bottom line of course is that I always try to take good pictures. As I said earlier, I know my customers and they know me. They know what I’m doing and they want to have this love of life. I love projects which offer creative leeway for individual ideas.
What you have done for this S Magazine is both nostalgic and modern all at once. Do you see the images as capturing the zeitgeist or as something more timeless?
A bit of both. It is very current because of the people who were involved. But I believe that the images, when viewed in 20 years, will still be up to date because they are not too much focused on fashion. My images age well because they are more about life, love and personalities than about style and fashion. At least that’s what I hope! It would be nice if the pictures live on and you can rediscover them and then say, “Oh, these are still great.”
How did you get the idea for the issue of S Magazine?
We realized quite quickly that we did not want to create a compilation of images from different shoots, but instead a coherent story. We wanted a narrative and then we thought we could create something even greater and almost cinematic. Therefore, we divided the story into four chapters and each of the shoots was organized as if we were making a movie.
Before digital, it felt like fashion photography had a huge influence on the fine art world and vice versa. Do you think it’s possible that the onset of digital created a chasm between fashion and art or are they closer related than ever?
Yeah, I don’t know if that is true. It depends what’s in the picture you know? I think that’s the important thing. The story you are telling and what the subject is. I would say it’s like a painter, like Picasso. Once he would take a brush, once he would take a pencil, or a crayon, or whatever. It didn’t matter. It only depends on what you express.
Are there any young photographers whose work you are excited by?
To be honest, there are so many! Each time you open a magazine, there are so many new ones. They’re all good… but it’s rare you see something original. It seems revisited. I like Ryan McGinley’s work, I think he really opened up a whole new way of picture taking that is really special and personal and inspiring. You see lots of people copying that.
What does being iconic mean to you?
Well you know, it’s nice to have your pictures talked about as iconic. I guess it’s just stamped into people’s minds. You think of a name and it comes back… you see straight away those pictures. There are some good photographers that you think of their work, and you can’t think of anything. But then there are others, like Helmut Newton whom I’m a big fan of, and straight away you have all these pictures coming to you. It’s special.
Having longevity in your business is no small feat. What’s your secret?
I think it’s work. You have to love your work. I still love it. For me work is like living, I prefer to work than to be on holidays. You meet new people, discover new things, like today we will photograph Maddie (Maddie Ziegler) who I love and admire. I think to be inspired, and surround yourself with young people, and be connected. That is what is important to keep on going.
What advice would you give to yourself if you were just starting out in the business?
Do what you do!
Your latest book with Taschen, Heimat is available just this month. With that project complete, what’s next for you?
It’s my third book with Taschen, so I’m really proud. It’s always great to prepare for a book. I’m also working on a film script. It’s hard to concentrate on it with my other work but I really want to get it done soon!
Has the process or philosophy behind how you create or approach a shoot changed from when you started to now?
Not really… I mean I still love to tell my little stories. I always love to find something in every picture. A picture is really great if it has emotion and spontaneity and some slice of life. I think it actually hasn’t changed that much.
We lost far too many important artists last year, some of whom you’ve worked with. Is there an artist you wish you had the opportunity to shoot but didn’t?
Jimi Hendrix! Lot’s, so many… Chuck Berry, what an amazing guy. I got to work with Prince and David Bowie, but there are so many. I mean all the rock stars from the ’60’s and ’70’s. The Doors, Janis Joplin.
What is the best way that you’ve found to relax?
I love gardening. It’s very relaxing for me… pulling out the weeds, cutting off the deadheads. I really love it, it clears my mind. Then you can come back and fill up again!
What is your favourite travel destination?
I love India. I’ve been a couple of times. I was just in Morocco, in Marrakech, which is great. I’ve been many times and it’s always wonderful to go back. I love New Orleans.
What makes a picture unforgettable?
What would you be other than a photographer?
Could you tell us how to take the best selfie?
What do women want today?
What is special about Suki?
Do you like Italy?
What makes a great fashion photograph?
In many of your images it is seen that a story is important. Tell us more.
What drives the story for each image? Is it the model you meet and then come up with a story or do you have a story and then you come up with the girl?
Were you creative as a child? Were you interested in visuals and fashion?
Were you ambitious as a child?
You said you grew up up in a hippie community. What was that like?
You grew up in foster care didn’t you? Did they encourage you to be creative?
Tell us about the period when you got scouted to be a model.
Did you feel like, when you were modelling you were allowed to kind of share your personality or is that maybe something that has contributed to why you want that in your photos?
What’s been the biggest impact on how you play as a photographer? Was it just the experience of being a model and understanding things or was it the particular style and aesthetics of photographers? Or a bit of both?
Do you remember the first picture that you took ? Was there a point where you looked at your pictures and you actually liked it and thought that this was your aesthetic and this is what you want to take?
You said that you can always tell if a photograph is been taken by a man or a woman. How do you do it?
You say the word sexy a lot and i wonder, what is kind of sexy to you?
Do you ever want to avoid presenting women in a way that is kind of traditionally appealing to men?
Many of your images show people doing something and they are not passive. Is that something that is important to you, not to have the model as an object?
You talk a lot about empowering women. Would you say that you are a feminist?
When you say sexy, do you mean sexy for women themselves or sexy to a man?
How do you hope your work is seen and would be remembered?