Ellen von Unwerth is celebrating three decades of working in fashion with a new exhibit at Fotografiska in NYC. The exhibit, titled Devotion! 30 Years of Photographing Women, tracks her career through seven themes that reoccur in her work: love, play, gender, power, passion, drama, and lust. The Daily caught up with von Unwerth recently to discuss her approach to photography, and what the next 30 years looks like (hint: a film might be on the way).
Congrats on 30 years in fashion! What was it like going through your past work?
It was interesting to see where it all started. Through the years, all the countless people I photographed… it was a real journey and brought back lots of memories. I rediscovered lots of pictures I forgot about. It was really fun. And it was good because I worked with a curator, and we decided to make the exhibition all about women which is my favorite subject. I do photograph men! People are always like, “Oh, you only photograph women.” No. I do photograph men.
Why were these the themes that best categorized your work?
I think my pictures are more about emotions. And they have a little bit of a cinematic quality to them. So it was more interesting, for me, to separate them this way.
How has your career evolved? Did you see any changes from your earlier stuff to your newer work?
Yes and no. Of course techniques change. But in the end it’s always what I love: to bring out life and spontaneity and make women look powerful. We talk a lot about powerful women but I think that’s what I’ve always photographed. I’ve always photographed my women in an empowered, strong position, but at the same time full of life and fun and sensuality. And in a way that’s still what I love. So it didn’t actually change that much over the years. And I’ve always loved to grab the random shots, the candid moments.
Tell us more about how your work empowers women. What does a strong, empowered woman look like to you?
She’s just very aware of the way she portrays herself. It’s about her look, about her position. She owns the picture — she owns what she’s doing, and that’s important. She can be naked or wearing an evening gown. It’s really about her and the way she’s showing her personality. That’s what I loved to bring out in the people I photograph.
Can you tell me about your casting decisions and trying to find the right women to bring that vision to life?
When I shoot fashion or even celebrities, I try to make up a little story, almost like a movie. I choose the models fitting to this subject. But lots of times I get inspired by people. Like when I discovered Claudia Schiffer 30 years ago. I thought she was a beautiful girl. But when I saw she looked like Brigitte Bardot then I kind of enhanced the look, made her look like Bridget and it was inspired by movies with Bardot. So when I meet people it also inspires me to do certain shoots with them.
Who have been some of your favorite models to work with over the years?
Oh my god! There’s so many! Of course from the start it was Claudia, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, and Naomi Campbell. Then later on it was Adriana Lima. I did a whole book with Adriana— I still think she’s is amazing. Natalia Vodianova. Lindsey Wixson, who is blown up huge in the window of Fotografiska. And it’s always fun to find someone new that really keeps you going. In fashion you see the shows, new faces, and new attitudes. That’s really exciting.
How do you push yourself forward creatively?
By doing lots of shoots for myself — not only working for fashion magazines. Its great, but also limiting because you have to shoot the clothes, you have to shoot the advertisers, you’re not allowed to smoke, drink. There are so many things you’re not allowed anymore! My book Revenge, that was something I shot for myself and that was really, really fun. I had total freedom. I wrote a story and really set it up like a story with the different characters. That’s how we push ourselves forward: finding new themes to explore and also what’s going on in the world. And finding new people you’re inspired with. The teams are very important. People bring a lot of ideas for the clothes, the hair. It keeps changing. There’s a whole new wave of young people that are super creative and super talented. It’s important to always look out for new people.
Which young or rising photographers are catching your eye and inspiring you these days?
I really like Nadia Lee Cohen. She’s really talented. I love what she does, it’s really quirky, and different. And also very fun. In fashion I think there’s a lot of photography which is a little bit down and I’m more like… I love to see fun! Not only [fun], but when it stands out and is interesting.
The styling in your images often has a sexy pinup vibe, but you’re often seen in a tailored suit. I’m curious — how much does your photographic aesthetic appear in your real life?
I’m like a circus director [on set], so I’m dressing more like a circus director! [Laughs] But also I look better in suits. I wish I could look good in a strapless dress but I don’t have the body, it doesn’t look good on me. So it’s just my look, and I feel good like this. I feel powerful like this, or like it’s my personality. But in each person you shoot a little bit of yourself too. Sometimes I show the models what I would do in a position because I also modeled for like,10 years. It’s kind of a wave which goes through the model and gives something of yourself. There is a lot of my personality in the pictures too, even if the girl looks totally different. But maybe in the expression… there’s always humor. I love to put humor in the pictures. If the picture is sexy there’s always something funny about it.
Do you ever see yourself doing a photo shoot where the model is styled like you?
I was actually thinking about it! There are so many funny situations all the time and you take crazy positions when you shoot. There’s always a front — what people see at the end, and then there’s all the backstage. So I was actually thinking about doing a shoot like this. It could be quite fun. Before I thought it was too narcissistic, but nowadays… things changed. Narcissism is celebrated. You have to go with the flow I guess!
How did your years as a model effect the way you work with models now?
When I was a model I was not that happy because I was not really comfortable. To be a good model you really have to be a bit of an exhibitionist and that was not my personality. That’s why I always wanted to do things like express myself and be silly, do something funny. But the photographer was always like, “Don’t move. Look to the left. Look to the right.” When I started to [shoot] I was like, “No, I want you to move! I want you to have fun! I want you to jump around! I want you to make a funny face!” I really push people to show their personality and be lively in front of the camera.
Who has the biggest personality in fashion? Who really lights up a room or is great to run into at party?
Naomi [Campbell] is always amazing. She always looks amazing, she’s always fun. I’ve known her since she was 16. I love Pam Hogg. I think she’s fabulous. She incredible, she looks incredible. She’s such a nice woman. So full of life and she’s so interesting. I really love her and also she goes out — I always see her [around] when I’m in London.
Often when we see you at parties you’re carrying a camera. Will we ever see a book of party photography from you?
I should really work on that because I have so many great pictures. That would be really fun. All of them from over the years, from the early days in New York when it was such a great scene and there was so much going on, to today. I have to work on it if I find a moment.
Your work always has a distinct aesthetic, but fashion is constantly changing. As an artist what has it been like navigating that?
I have my style. Of course you adapt a little bit with what going on, but you shoot what you love. I haven’t really changed. There was the time… the ’90s grunge time, and it was everything like heroin chic. I never really did that and that was a big thing at the time. I just keep doing my thing. There’s times where it’s more up-to-date and others it’s less. Now, fashion is much more prudish. But I still feel like women should still be able to have fun and be sensual and show their personality and not dress like a nun, you know? Or behave in a certain way because of everything that’s going on [in the era of #MeToo]. A strong woman is a strong woman and she knows how she’s going to present herself.
Do you think as a female photographer your eye for female sensuality is more nuanced?
Yeah, I feel like women photographers have a little bit more depth in the way they shoot women. There’s always a little bit more of a story, a little bit more of a emotion. I think you could say that. But you also cannot generalize. There’s many different men that take lots of beautiful pictures. There’s a lot a lot of variety.
Is it ever intimidating to working with people like Rihanna or David Bowie?
Not really, because they’re very open. Of course, you think what are they going to be like but actually they’re very cool and they are just happy to also create. Mostly it’s the people around. The artists themselves are mostly super cool, super happy to work, but often people around make things more complicated.
View this post on Instagram
Like their assistants and managers and stuff?
Yeah, it’s just people around… I don’t want to be too specific.
Are there any actors or actresses that you’re a big fan of that you’d really love to work with?
I’m a really big fan of Billie Eilish. She’s amazing. She’s so young, and an incredible talent. There’s so many new people also coming up and this is great. That’s super exciting.
What do you love about her?
It’s such a new sound. It’s not pop, it’s a little bit more deep, it has more depth. And it’s dark and sexy. It’s just a new sound — it’s not like the pop which I grew up in the ’70s, with all the amazing music of The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. I find music these days very light and it doesn’t have too much depth. I think she has really come up with something quite powerful.
What does the next 30 years of your career look like?
Many more shoots! I have so many pictures, I want to do more books or exhibitions. Actually, I’m going to make Revenge into a movie! I’m working on it. We’ve got a script and we’re going to start casting.
Do you have a dream cast in mind?
Yeah, but I don’t want to [say]. It’s too early to talk about it.
Ellen von Unwerth: Devotion! 30 Years of Photographing Women is on now at Fotografiska NYC and runs thru March 29, 2020.