How A Model-Turned-Photographer’s Erotic Images Empower Her Female Subjects

After nearly 10 years as a top fashion model, Ellen von Unwerth stepped behind the camera in the mid-’80s to find her true calling. In the decades since, she has developed into one of the world’s most sought-after fashion photographers, as she parlays a natural creativity and affinity with her subjects into arresting imagery that celebrates a certain rebellious femininity.

Von Unwerth’s path—from an unstable upbringing in Germany, to becoming a knife-thrower’s and clown’s assistant in the circus, to launching a modeling career after being scouted on her first day of university, to taking on more creative agency as a photographer herself—speaks to a restless and confident spirit that translates palpably to her images. Von Unwerth advocates for a rejection of objectification, allowing her models the freedom to be kinky, playful, or childlike, and resulting in works such as Double Trouble, New York (2008) or Swanky! Spanky! (2011), in which girls romp in a world seemingly devoid of men. Of this attitude, von Unwerth explains, “I also shoot men, but my work is more about women. Men are more like accessories.” Her most famous works are of empowered women, including Kate Moss, Monica Bellucci, Carla Bruni, and Claudia Schiffer—who featured in her career-launching Guess photoshoot—in which the frisky sexual presence for which she is known is visible in full force.

Influenced both by the canonical art photography of forebears like Helmut Newton and Jacques Henri Lartigue and fetish cultures, von Unwerth nonetheless rejects a masculine gaze, empowering her subjects to project their own sexuality. This impulse to resist normative attitudes toward female sexuality, as well as a careful attention to color (or the lack thereof), texture, and studied composition, brings her fashion photography into the realm of art, as it suggests an alternative  perspective of the feminine ideal.

—K. Sundberg

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