Intimate images capturing star quality

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Ellen von Unwerth

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Portrait of Britney Spears by Ellen von Unwerth

From Britney to Beyoncé, veteran German photographer Ellen von Unwerth has captured them all. She talks to Cat Woods about burlesque beauty and creating sensual dreamworlds.

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Ellen von Unwerth is the grande dame of fashion-and-portrait photography who has captured Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus – in all their near-nude, high-glam gloriousness. She is also one of the cameos in TV series Emily In Paris, where the platinum-blonde image-maker plays herself in a photoshoot scene. Despite decades of high-profile work in the fashion industry, it is Darren Star’s Netflix series that has turned the 69-year-old photographer into an instantly identifiable celebrity for the under-30s fashion audience. Now, Von Unwerth’s images are being celebrated in a US exhibition, Ellen von Unwerth: This Side of Paradise, at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Fashion Museum in Atlanta.  

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“[The cameo role] was a very fun experience and I was surprised by the impact it had,” Von Unwerth tells BBC Culture. “People recognised me in the street after the episode had aired… it has a really wide audience, and it has made a lot of people dream about Paris and fashion.”

The work of photographer Ellen von Unwerth (pictured) is the subject of an exhibition, This Side of Paradise (Credit: Ellen von Unwerth)

The work of photographer Ellen von Unwerth (pictured) is the subject of an exhibition, This Side of Paradise (Credit: Ellen von Unwerth)

Her own work conjures up a dreamlike vision of fashion and beauty. The photographer’s roll call of subjects is an A-Z of every influential pop-culture icon from the 90s to now. Lady Gaga, Dita Von Teese, Paris Hilton, Christina Aguilera, Cyrus and Selena Gomez have emanated erotic energy in her candid shots, but – and this is central to how enjoyable Von Unwerth’s work is – there is never any doubt that the women in her photos are exercising full agency over their bodies.

The images showcase the sort of organic, electric sensuality that is rooted in trust and celebration of female sexuality, that isn’t about women attempting to shrink themselves under a male gaze. There’s a sense that the subjects trust Von Unwerth, who empathises with the vulnerability of being in front of the camera.

I want [the celebrities or models] to have fun, to be silly, funny, to play themselves or a character in front of the camera, and to get transported into a creative trance – Ellen von Unwerth

“It can be quite intimidating to be in front of a lens,” she says. “You can feel bare, especially in today’s society, where pictures can be taken out of context, and criticism is very easy. As a former model, I know how it feels, so I do everything to make them feel at ease. I usually arrive and sit down with them while they’re still having their make-up done, talking and making jokes.”

Beyoncé photographed in New York, 2006 – Von Unwerth's images frequently capture stars in unexpected moments (Credit: Ellen von Unwerth)

Beyoncé photographed in New York, 2006 – Von Unwerth’s images frequently capture stars in unexpected moments (Credit: Ellen von Unwerth)

She adds, “We always put on some energising, funky disco music so that the model and the team are singing and dancing between takes. [Celebrities and models] have lots of shoots weekly. It can be quite stressful, so I want them to have fun, to be silly, funny, to play themselves or a character in front of the camera, and to get transported into a creative trance. If they have fun, it shows in the photos; they are brighter. It’s important for me to leave them with a good memory.” 

Good memories, and good photos, have been Von Unwerth’s stock-in-trade for more than three decades. The Frankfurt-born photographer worked as a commercial model after being scouted on her first day at Munich University, though it wasn’t long before she recognised that the power dynamic tilted in favour of the person behind the camera.

Her future career was fomented when, on a modelling trip to Kenya, she used any spare time to capture portraits of the local Maasai women on her basic, domestic-use camera. French magazine Jill duly gave her a six-page spread, and UK magazine The Face also commissioned early shoots by the photographer. She was soon being hired for advertising campaigns with burgeoning fashion designers, including, notably, the British self-made designer and activist Katharine Hamnett in 1989.    

Von Unwerth's work has a unique energy, and often reflects her love of burlesque (Credit: Ellen von Unwerth)

Von Unwerth’s work has a unique energy, and often reflects her love of burlesque (Credit: Ellen von Unwerth)

That same year, the photographer’s breakthrough moment arrived when Elle magazine paired 17-year-old supermodel Claudia Schiffer with Von Unwerth, assuming that the German-born pair might find enough common ground to translate into creative magic. Indeed, that magic burst forth in images of Schiffer with bouffant, Bardot-esque hair and va-va-voom glamour oozing from her seemingly endless limbs and cheeky smile.

Both Von Unwerth and Schiffer were swiftly hired to shoot a Guess Jeans campaign, which depicted Schiffer in epic heels, skintight denim, her tousled blonde hair tumbling about her cherubic face. A few years earlier than fashion photography’s “heroin chic” embrace of bony chests and sunken faces, Von Unwerth captures Schiffer in seemingly candid, unguarded moments, such as reaching to adjust her corset around her breasts or fixing her stiletto shoe firmly to her heel.

While it’s hard to imagine an unflattering image of Claudia Schiffer, there’s something about Von Unwerth’s photos that, to this day, demand attention and reverence for the female body – the dynamic female gaze, the kitsch quality of hyper-coloured, big-haired, darkly-lined eyes looking directly and unashamedly into the camera, so that the viewer feels seen and engaged.

Von Unwerth's portrait of Lady Gaga, taken in Brussels in 2009, captures the singer in uninhibited mode (Credit: Ellen von Unwerth)

Von Unwerth’s portrait of Lady Gaga, taken in Brussels in 2009, captures the singer in uninhibited mode (Credit: Ellen von Unwerth)

Asked to pick favourite subjects and shoots from the many she’s done over the past 30 years, Von Unwerth responds, “Without hesitation, all the ones with Claudia Schiffer for Guess. She is – in my eyes – the best; she’s sexy and graceful and at the same time, funny and professional.”   

Female gaze

Far from the domineering male photographers depicted in movies like Blow-Up, Gia or Zoolander, Von Unwerth favours a storytelling approach with her models. Rather than seeking the perfect still shot, she moves around the set with her subject, encouraging music and motion, conversation and collaboration. The resulting images are often a whirl of colour, models in motion, colour, frills and eccentricity.

[The circus] shaped my taste for burlesque, the appeal of a glamour show, and the unexpected… A circus and a burlesque show create a universe that makes you dream – Ellen von Unwerth

She traces this back to her earliest work experience. “I started my career as an assistant in a circus, and I think this experience shaped my taste for burlesque, the appeal of a glamour show, and the unexpected… A circus and a burlesque show create a universe that makes you dream, to wish you were on stage dancing like these talented performers, wearing beautiful and extravagant costumes, playing different acts – there’s so much to play with. It’s all these things that inspire me and make my photography strong and full of life.”

For musicians and dancers, inherently accustomed to movement as a form of expression, this approach is a good fit. In 2003, Von Unwerth captured 21-year-old pop ingenue Britney Spears. It was four years after a school uniform-wearing, gum-chewing Spears debuted with Baby One More Time, and other photos from the era depict a grinning, all-American teenager. Spears was fulfilling what the US music industry demanded of its young stars: that they look sexually provocative but also express their chasteness. Von Unwerth, unafraid of this absurd dichotomy, ditched the 50s pin-up theme proposed by Spears’s creative management to instead embrace a glittery, debauched 1920s Berlin nightclub aesthetic (think Cabaret and Weimar-era burlesque).

Von Unwerth's portrait of Britney Spears – shot in 2003 – captured the singer's mischievous energy (Credit: Ellen von Unwerth)

Von Unwerth’s portrait of Britney Spears – shot in 2003 – captured the singer’s mischievous energy (Credit: Ellen von Unwerth)

In the resulting images, Spears’ kohl-lined eyes glare into the camera, daring you to tell her she can’t do whatever she wants. Like a fiercely feminine force of nature, her hair whips around her bare shoulders, her gloved hands resting casually on her hips. She is a woman who – despite what we know now about her father’s control – looks thoroughly, joyfully in control of her image.

“Britney was, and still is, amazing,” says the photographer. “One of my absolute favourite shoots was for her Blackout album cover [in 2007]. It was in New York, she had just shaved her hair, and arrived, put this wig on, and immediately started posing. She has such a great stage presence, playing the bad girl, and she wasn’t scared to be a little provocative. When we finished, she left to pick up her children from school, just like nothing happened.”

Decades later, album covers are more likely to show up on Spotify than on CD shelves, but despite the dominance of digital and social media, in 2018 Von Unwerth launched her own glossy magazine Von. “It is sad to see more and more magazines close down,” she laments. “They were once the epitome of fashion. It was great when you had the opportunity to create a real story with amazing models and styling. It was the way to create real stars because the public saw them in all the magazines, shot by many different photographers, on covers and in different campaigns. Today, stars are created on the runway or by social media. I do get a bit nostalgic about the time of the supermodel and that time in fashion.”

Christina Aguilera, photographed by Von Unwerth, in Los Angeles, 2019 (Credit: Ellen von Unwerth)

Christina Aguilera, photographed by Von Unwerth, in Los Angeles, 2019 (Credit: Ellen von Unwerth)

Still, she embraces the role of social media in attracting younger generations to the art of photography, and to discovering models, photographers and magazines from all over the world in a way that magazines once enabled Von Unwerth to discover a dream universe.

“I think one of the benefits of social media is that it’s a tool for the younger generation to find a love for photography, whether it’s on their own account or simply by admiring others. I think it transformed the world into a much more picture-influenced society.”

Ellen von Unwerth: This Side of Paradise is at the SCAD Museum of Fashion and Film, Atlanta, until 7 January 2024. VON magazine is available at selected stockists worldwide.

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