Home Ed. 13 Tribute: ELLEN VON UNWERTH, Provoking through personality

Tribute: ELLEN VON UNWERTH, Provoking through personality

Written by Gianmarco Almici

Female sensuality, visionary eroticism and baroque eccentricity are the cornerstones of Unwerth’s work, where Junoesque, statuesque and uplifting bodies become, through personality and provocation, an authentic expression of disarming spontaneity. Eros becomes an integral part and element of strength in all her photographic production; the woman, strong and predominant, assumes a relevant role, where abundance and carnality, with mischievous and intelligent coquetry, reveal an alpha dominance over the male. Ellen is a modern, female Helmut Newton, portraying subjects in all their truthfulness physical, raw and pragmatic without the need for sacralisation. Her many years of experience as a model allows her to relate in a unique and profound way with those who are now in front of her lens, leading her to access the most real and spontaneous part. Unwerth’s career ranges between advertising and fashion, where she collaborates with top magazines including Vogue, Interview, Vanity Fair and the music industry, which leads her to make video clips and covers for world-famous artists such as Rihanna, Duran Duran, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears and many others. Since the 1990s, she has been publishing photo books celebrating true icons of beauty. Today we have the pleasure of interviewing this extraordinary and multifaceted artist whose vision and character traits are always clearly distinguishable and make her a tireless photographer always in search of true intelligent provocation.

Your photography mainly portrays women and your shots reflect a mix of strength and sensuality that show women as strong protagonists, dismantling the cliché of the objectified woman. Can you explain your vision and the motivations that led you to this?
I worked as a top fashion model for 10 years, before taking up the camera and this first part of my career taught me a lot, on that particular side of the lens. After 10 years modeling, I was kind of frustrated about being told to be look on the left, and then on the right and being expressionless. I wanted to highlight exactly the opposite: people’s personality, expressiveness, self-worth and beauty, and in this way, I’ll become the photographer I’d dreamed to meet during my modeling years. As a woman photographer, it allows me to develop an instant complicity with my subjects. On each shooting, I do everything I can to put people at ease and give them confidence so that people can express
their beautiful personality. I want people to feel they can be themselves and have fun. That encourages them to be seen as human beings, not objects.And of course women are my favourite subjects. I love to discover and empower them.

Did you ever take inspiration from other photographers at the beginning of your career? And what are the references in photography that have become cornerstones in your artistic life?
Photographers like Helmut Newton and Lartigue have always inspired me. Otherwise, I’ve been very inspired by the cinema of the 20w 30s 40s50s 60s 70s by actresses like Claudia Cardinal, Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot. I love their glamorous, feminine side, their way to play tragic roles and still look amazing . I also love artist like Madonna, Rihanna or Brad Pitt George Clooney, all of whom have inspired me a lot in my career.


In 1975, you moved to Paris where you began your career as a model, which you abandoned after ten years to devote yourself fully to the world of photography. What led to this evolution and how was your first approach as a photographer?
I was in Munich and didn’t know what career path to follow. I thought studying was the right thing to do, just like everyone else. On my first day at university, I was stopped and asked for modeling. A few days later, John Casablanca from the Elite agency called me and said, “Ellen, pack your bags and come to Paris.” I left Germany and never really went back. I lived in Paris but I traveled a lot during these years. I’ve visited all over the world and went to Africa, the United States and so on. It gave me the opportunity to discover the world. At
the same time, I was never really happy as a model because I was a very creative person and I didn’t feel I had the opportunity to express myself and show my personality. Then,my boyfriend at the time gave me a camera and very quickly I was passionate about taking pictures .I photographed my friends and model friends and loved dressing them up and shooting them in different situations. I wanted to give the pictures a real life effect , like a
glamorous snapshot . I was still modelling in the beginning and in the studio, I started advising photographers on where they should place the light. They didn’t appreciate that , and pretty soon it was the end of my career. But I was very happy because I was immediately too passionate about photography and I had a blast developing my photos in a darkroom. I spent days and nights
there. It was a turning point in my life.

What do you think is the concept of eroticism that is conveyed through your shots?
I don’t think of my pictures as being erotic .I want my pictures to be free and in playful situations but it’s also about playing with models and creating a story during the shoot. My pictures are sexy because people feel assured and sexy infront of my camera, which of course I am always happy to push .I
like a provocation in my pictures , it makes them memorable.

Sometimes the camera can be a pointed weapon that makes the subject vulnerable in front of the lens. Did your previous experience as a model help you to manage the set and to create the right situation with the photographed subjects?
When I started out as a photographer, I suddenly found myself in charge. I know excactly how you feel infront of the camera . When you photograph people, you get to know them, and you need to be quite psychological and intuitive to make your subjects at ease , so they can relax and perform.There are quite some tricks and a glass of champagne can help a lot .

In your creative process at the level of inspiration, what influences you the most? How does one of your shots develop?
There are lots of different sources of inspirations .Real life , movies , music art , fashion and of course people .I get very inspired by people who inspire me to be the actress or actor of a new story . Then, I organize my shoots like a movie. I like to tell stories and cast the people accordingly. It’s always about having a frame which is the concept, the story, the hair/ make up/ props and then to play with it or around it. It’s always the unplanned or the accident
that brings the spark of life and humor that makes my pictures recognizable. There is no recipe to capture a great fashion / celebrity photo.

Is there a job in your long and successful career that has particularly fulfilled you?
There are so many I don’t know where to start because I enjoyed all my shootings. I’m thinking about David Bowie and Kate Moss which was a dream couple to shoot. And time makes the pictures even more precious to me.

Model and then photographer, solo exhibitions and books, prestigious
collaborations with magazines, fashion brands and the music industry. Do you dream of further development for yourself? Is there any wish still pending?
To launch my eponymous magazine was one of my dreams. Ellen von Unwerth’s VON magazine is my platform that gives me the freedom to shoot what I want, out of the mainstream publication. Apart from that , I’m dreaming about doing a feature movie in the future.

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