If you saw a teenager working at Germany’s Circus Roncalli as an assistant to clowns and knife throwers, where would you expect her to end up? We wouldn’t have perceived her as a potential model or photographer ourselves, but that’s how Ellen Von Unwerth’s career turned out. On the other hand, her work is full of humour and quirky touches, so perhaps the progression is not so surprising after all.
Born in Frankfurt in 1954, and orphaned at the age of two, she spent time in foster care in Bavaria. She thinks this influenced her later on, with the loneliness making her “strong and open to all kinds of people. I love getting to know people and celebrating life through photography”, she has said.
Life in a Munich commune was interrupted by the arrival of that circus when she was eighteen. Three years later, Ellen Von Unwerth was discovered as she walked down a Munich street, and more life changes kicked in. A modelling career beckoned, and she followed it to Paris, where she became a long-term resident, or as Vogue described her, “more than half French”.
On location in Kenya in 1984, Ellen picked up a camera and took photos of the other models. It turned into a feature for the French publication Jill, and that was it – her life took yet another direction. Five years later, she shot an unknown German girl for Guess. That model was Claudia Schiffer, and for both of them, the shoot was a career-defining moment.
Her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The Face, Interview, Arena, Twill, i-D, Vogue (on one occasion with fashion editor Grace Coddington), and L’Uomo Vogue. Having seen her photographs, we’re not surprised that she won the 1991 International Festival of Fashion Photography. She has produced short films for top designers, and adverts and web films for the likes of Clinique, Revlon and Equinox, often using celebrities.
Having married music producer Christian Forteau in 1990, it’s perhaps logical that Von Unwerth includes music shoots in her portfolio, taking in promotions, albums and videos, for artists such as Duran Duran, Bananarama, Janet Jackson, All Saints, Dido, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Rihanna. We’re star struck!
As you might expect by now, this versatile German photographer has widened her scope once more along the way, this time with books. Wicked focuses on erotic images of beautiful women, while the aptly-titled Couples captures duos in sometimes comic set ups. Revenge, a novella about a group of women on a wild weekend, was accompanied by exhibits in several cities. Fräulein, a limited edition of 1,500 signed copies, deals with “women with strong personalities…who embrace their sexuality”, according to its author.
Time magazine placed Ellen von Unwerth among its one hundred most influential fashion icons. She says that she meets people who confess to having pinned her pictures on their wall twenty years before, and citing them as inspiration for decisions made in adult life. So we think that Time magazine got it right!
The featured photo is Taylor Warren Photographed By Ellen Von Unwerth For Vogue Gioiello
Photographer Ellen Von Unwerth For Chantal Thomass Lingerie Spring/Summer 2014
Model Gia Genevieve Photography By Ellen Von Unwerth For Galore Mag February 2014
From The Book “Revenge”, Published In 2003 Photography By Ellen Von Unwerth
Georgia May Jagger by Ellen Von Unwerth for Madame Figaro July 2011
Photographer Ellen Von Unwerth For River Island