“I kind of hated modeling, but somehow I did it for 10 years. I was not really the exhibitionist type. It’s hard psychologically to be a model. And mostly people told me not to move when I was posing. I just wanted to be like the girls in my pictures now.” -Ellen von Unwerth

Student — no, model

Ellen von Unwerth’s career began as she was registering at the University of Munich when a model scout approached her. In von Unwerth’s words ” … that was about as far as my university life went!” She moved to Paris and modeled with Elite. Her life changed, she says, “I modeled all over the world for about 10 years while living in Paris, and then one day when I was about to leave for another shoot in Kenya, my boyfriend gave me a camera.”

Model — no, photographer

Ellen von Unwerth has photographed for all of the leading fashion publications, Interview, Vogue, Vanity Fair, The Face and Arena to name some of them. Her photographic career soared when she photographed Claudia Schiffer for Guess. Her strong, unique style of photographing strong, provocative, seductive women having fun in playful ways informed Guess campaigns for years to come. She went on to shoot campaigns for Dior, Ralph Lauren Uniqlo, Thierry Mulger and others. Von Unwerth admits that she wasn’t enamored with being a model. She says,

NSFW caution

Photographer and director Ellen von Unwerth
On set: Ellen von Unwerth

Ellen von Unwerth’s work while gorgeous, it is often blatantly sexual. On Photography recommends that you enjoy her work in a safe environment — definitely not at work. Her latest book “Heimat” (look it up at Taschen.com; links omitted on purpose) features supermodels in the backwoods of Bavaria where luscious maidens folic with rugged farmhands. Ellen von Unwerth is a playful spirit who does not shy from erotic imagery. Her many books are controversial in their visual content. Her photographs will disturb many in similar ways to those of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Von Unwerth always gives her models something to do, some way to move. She explains,

“When somebody’s not moving I get bored. I take two pictures and I say: ‘Great, I have it now.’ But I love the body in movement. I like the nude body in movement.”

One model, Alexina Graham, puts it this way.

“You bring fun, sexy, craziness to set. I always enjoy pushing my boundaries, embracing my femininity/sexuality and of course my personality always loud and proud when we work together️.”

Another, Syrie Moskowitz says,

“Ellen von Unwerth’s playful and empowering photos are such a joy to be a part of and I am so happy she is there to represent women in such a male-dominated profession!”

Richard Godwin, talking with von Unwerth about “Heimat” for an article in The Guardian notes that “one of your pictures does literally depict two people having sex in a hayloft.” Von Unwerth replies that “It’s more inspired by a B-movie sense of camp. I wouldn’t say porno. (After our interview, one of her assistants calls me to make sure that I don’t think it’s pornographic.)”

Photography today

Ellen von Unwerth sums up the state of photography this way,

“It’s not special anymore to be a photographer. Even when I take a picture, everybody stands next to me and takes the same picture. Five minutes later it’s on everyone else’s Instagram and I’m old news — so I’m forced to take pictures on my iPhone too.”

No matter. If her sexually charged work does not put you off, it’s worth a look at her on Instagram.

Thanks to Richard Godwin’s article on “Heimat” that appeared in The Guardian for quotes in this On Photography post.

Read more mini-biographies of influential photographers on Photofocus.

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