The Playful Sensuality of Photographer Ellen von Unwerth’s Images
Ellen von Unwerth knows what it feels like to be both in front of and behind the camera. The renowned model-turned-photographer celebrates her three-decade career with the exhibition “Devotion! 30 Years of Photographing Women,” running through March 29, 2020, at the new photography space Fotografiska New York, an offshoot of its original location in Stockholm. The show highlights von Unwerth’s bold and provocative images of women that include Rihanna, Gisele Bündchen, and Kate Moss.
When von Unwerth began her modeling career, she learned exactly what she didn’t want from her models: stiffness and stillness. “When I was modeling, I was always told that I couldn’t move and I should look to the left and the right,” she said on the phone from her studio in Paris. Her career lasted 10 years before she picked up a camera herself and decided to flip the script. “When I started to be a photographer, I really encouraged my models to live in front of the camera,” von Unwerth explained. “I give them roles to play. You get those moments where they show emotion and not just their physical beauty—that’s what I’m looking for.”
Von Unwerth’s cinematic, sexy, and feminine photographs have graced the pages of Vogue, Interview, and Vanity Fair. She’s known for her ability to give her subjects the opportunity to be sensual on their own terms. “I think they feel free with me,” she said. “It’s kind of a give-and-take.”
The photographer spoke with Artsy about five images in Fotografiska New York’s “Devotion!” show, offering insight and origin stories to some of her most exciting works.
Guess Who? (1989)
In 1989, von Unwerth’s images of then-unknown teenage model Claudia Schiffer raised both of their profiles. “Claudia Schiffer is a big, big part of my career,” the photographer said. “I just love this picture because it’s so fresh and sexy, but at the same time, it also has an innocence to it.”
Von Unwerth had been working for British fashion designer Katharine Hamnett when she was commissioned to photograph Schiffer for Elle Germany. “I thought, ‘Yeah, she’s a cute German girl,’ [but] when I came home and looked at the pictures, I noticed that she really looks like Brigitte Bardot,” von Unwerth said. “She has this resemblance and this sensuality, and afterwards we really enhanced that look.”
The photographer shared the pictures with Guess designer Paul Marciano, which landed the first big campaign for both herself and Schiffer. It took place in Nashville. “We did a kind of country-western story inspired by Dolly Parton,” von Unwerth said. It was based on a concept about a couple traveling through America. When Schiffer began dancing on a car, the car’s owner became anxious. “Please don’t scratch my car!” von Unwerth recalled him saying, laughing at the memory. She would shoot on and off for Guess for about a decade.
When von Unwerth photographed Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss in a Paris hotel room for American Vogue in 1996, the models had just begun to reach superstardom. The shoot took an unexpected but serendipitous turn. “I shoot really fast, and we very quickly ran out of clothes, and I was like, ‘Oh no, what are we shooting next?’” von Unwerth recalled. “Then I saw these little funny hats laying there, and I said, ‘Oh, come on, let’s just shoot those hats if we don’t have any clothes left, and let’s put them in a bubble bath!’”
The shoot was like a big party, von Unwerth said, and the joy is palpable in the image, too. “I love it because you really feel their friendship and their complicity, and it’s just a cute, candid, unique shot,” she said. “That’s what I love about photography: It’s magic. You never know when you get the amazing shot.”
Ellen von Unwerth, Gisele Bündchen, Saint Tropez, 2004. © Ellen von Unwerth.
Von Unwerth was shooting on a Saint Tropez beach for Victoria’s Secret when supermodel Gisele Bündchen had an idea. “She said, ‘Oh, I’m gonna grill you some barbeque,’” von Unwerth recalled. “She jumped up, there was this old barbeque laying around on the beach, and she started cooking, which was not really a big success—but she looked really good when she was doing it!” Victoria’s Secret is known for photographs that are more traditionally sexy, but von Unwerth leaned into the quirky aspects of the image: Bündchen in spiky heels and a bathing suit, a pair of tongs in hand.
It’s also a departure from the more serious side of Bündchen usually depicted in photographs. “I love the candidness about the shot and her being so carefree with the bottle of rosé,” von Unwerth said. “It’s a different side of Gisele we don’t really see so often.”
In von Unwerth’s cinematic book Revenge (2003), which the photographer calls a “photonovela,” three girls visit a baroness’s château for what they think will be a carefree weekend, but ends up being an adventure into sadomasochism and sexual obsession. Von Unwerth shot it during summertime at a castle named Le Domaine de Rouilly le Bas in Guérard, France.
“[Peaches] is really one of my favorite pictures,” von Unwerth said of the image, with three models perched on a sidewalk eating peaches, partially exposed below their dresses. Shooting personal work “can be much more free, it can be much more adventurous, it can be more provocative” than commercial assignments, von Unwerth said. Though as her career progressed, she found that many clients began to offer her similar creative control.
Von Unwerth’s color imagery is also provocative, but she finds a particular sense of liberation in black-and-white photography. “To be honest, I have always loved to shoot in black-and-white whenever I can,” she said. “I just think it has more emotion, and it’s timeless, and it just fits better with my pictures.”
Rated R (2009)
When Rihanna was looking for promotional images for her 2009 album Rated R, she called von Unwerth. “She said, ‘Ellen, where are you?’” von Unwerth recalled of the pop icon, with whom she had worked previously. “And I was like, ‘I’m in Berlin,’ and she was like, ‘Okay, I’m coming over.’”
The singer arrived the next day and discussed a plan for the album with the photographer. At von Unwerth’s request, they stayed in Berlin, shooting in an old industrial area. An image of Rihanna wrapped in just barbed wire and a corset appeared on the cover of the record’s single “Russian Roulette,” though von Unwerth’s work also appears on the cover of the full-length album itself. Von Unwerth adores that Rihanna loves to be provocative, and the singer’s fearlessness shows through in this image.
“This one was chosen for the exhibition because it’s really strong, it looks really badass, but also it’s sensitive in the same way,” von Unwerth said. “I really love this picture of her.”