fashion

Ellen von Unwerth: Satire and sensuality in fashion photography

Published 20th February 2018
Credit: Ellen von Unwerth / trunkarchive/Ellen von Unwerth
Ellen von Unwerth: Satire and sensuality in fashion photography
Written by CNN Staff
This month supermodel and designer Claudia Schiffer is CNN Style's guest editor. She's commissioned a series of features around the theme of icons and iconic imagery.
There's one thing that always binds together Ellen von Unwerth's inimitable photographs: a distinct sense of playfulness.
Although she's best known for provocative, sexy images that fully capture the beauty of her famous subjects -- Madonna, Lady Gaga, Naomi Campbell, Beyoncé among others -- she also worked as model.
"I was a model for 10 years and I was so frustrated, I was lively and always had fun ideas but the photographers were always like, just stand there, look to the left, look to the right, don't smile," she said in a phone interview.
"So when I started to shoot my model girlfriends I did the opposite. I wanted to catch something, a slice of life I always called it. I actually try to make it look like a stolen moment."
She describes this genre of photography of her own creation as "reportage edge," due to its spontaneous rather than staged nature, and she doesn't think that her shots are over-sexualized. "There is always a little bit of humor in my pictures and maybe a little bit of a parody of femininity. Girls love to look beautiful and be sexy in front of the camera, especially when it's with another woman," she explained.
Born in Frankfurt in 1954, von Unwerth started her photography career in 1991, first working for British designer Katharine Hamnett, and in the same year photographing a 17-year-old named Claudia Schiffer for the first time.
"I remember it so well, just like it was yesterday. Once I developed the pictures I was like, 'Oh my god, she looks like Brigitte Bardot!' Everybody really responded to those pictures which kicked off her career and my career."
Claudia Schiffer models for the 1991 Guess advertising campaign by Ellen von Unwerth
Claudia Schiffer models for the 1991 Guess advertising campaign by Ellen von Unwerth Credit: Ellen von Unwerth / Guess?
CNN Style picked 16 favorites from von Unwerth's Instagram feed, and asked her to tell the story behind them. Here's what she said.

Claudia Schiffer

"This picture was taken at Milan Fashion Week inside the Versace store for Claudia's book signing event. I have a long history with Claudia as I discovered her, which was the start of her career and mine too. She is like family to me. There are a lot of pictures I took of her in her new book, I also wrote the foreword. This was the moment when Claudia wrote me a lovely dedication and a paparazzi took this fun picture."
"This picture shows the first time I gave Claudia the Brigitte Bardot look. It was taken in my tiny bathroom in Paris in a Baignoire-sabot. You don't need to be in a five-star palace to take a cute picture. I love how innocently sexy she looks."

Kim Kardashian West

"I always love to watch a woman looking at herself in the mirror. There is a lot of love in their eyes (well, not always.) I loved Kim as a blonde. Marilyn Monroe was my all-time favorite actress and I can never resist paying homage to her."

Lenny Kravitz

"Lenny is someone I've worked with from the beginning of my career. I took a nude picture of him once -- which is what we always talk about when we see each other. We laugh about how I fought with his cousin about the placement of the sheet covering him. Here, I ran into him at Dita von Teese's birthday party. Shortly after, we had a cake fight."

Versace

"This was backstage at the very exciting and unique Versace show. What a great moment to bring some of the supermodels back onto the runway. I've photographed them all so many times and was lucky to get this shot while being pushed around by hundreds of photographers."

Stephanie Seymour

"This was a shot at the Madonna Inn -- one of my favorite locations -- for American Vogue, but it ended up running in Italian Vogue. Stephanie very easily convinced me that she looked better without clothes. I guess Anna Wintour was not convinced."

Italian Vogue

"This is a shot from a haute couture story I did for Italian Vogue a while ago. I always love the Marie Antoinette reference and also a bit of drama. Here the girls are fainting because of their tight corsets. Thank god those times are over. We shot in a beautiful Chateau in France."

Kate Moss

"This is the first story Kate shot for Vogue. She was 16 and had just started. I fell in love with her straight away. The story was inspired by the movie 'Lolita' -- again one of my all time favorites. We shot it in Paris."

Beyoncé

"I always love to work with Beyoncé. Besides being super talented she is also very professional and simply gorgeous."

Azzedine Alaïa

"This is the last time I saw Azzedine, a dear friend of mine with whom I have done many projects. We had a second for a hug when we arrived at the Christian Dior exhibition in Paris. I was wearing really high platform shoes and looked like a giant next to him."

Lady Gaga

"This was a behind the scenes picture from a shoot for MAC cosmetics. We had Lady Gaga and Cindy Lauper on set. It was quite exciting to work with two huge divas like that. I could feel that even though they were perfectly nice and polite there was a bit of rivalry there, which of course made the atmosphere even more electric."

Self

"I love this picture Arthur Elgort snapped of me in the middle of the road. I had flown into New York to have my picture taken by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue with other Vogue photographers. A wonderful moment to remember.

Hugh Grant

"Hugh Grant is one of my favorite actors. We only worked together twice but the memories are very rich. He is so charming and funny, we always end up having the best time. Here he impressed me by juggling with lemons while playing bar tender. He explained that he learned this while working as a handler piling up boxes of vegetables in big cargo lorries, before becoming a famous actor. We shot at the wonderful location Loulou's in London for W magazine."
Ellen von Unwerth will be exhibiting her photos at the Fotografiska museum in Stockholm Feb. 23 - May 15, 2018.