Photographer Ellen von Unwerth Isn’t Afraid to Use Men as Accessories

By
Photography Ellen von Unwerth

Published January 17, 2020

Ellen von Unwerth is nothing short of prolific. The German photographer’s 30-year career has included jumping in the shower with Rihanna, hitting the movies with Kate Moss, and clutching pearls with Madonna. Her work has appeared on countless magazine covers, including one for this publication in 2007, when she took Brad Pitt to India: “He was like, ‘I have a great idea. Let’s shoot in the Temple of the Rats,'” she says. “Thank god that place was like five hours away so we dropped that idea. I was already seeing myself covered with rats.” Von Unwerth was instrumental in defining the chief aesthetic of ’90s and 2000s fashion photography: flashy, kinky, and never without good humor (and killer heels). Her subjects—mostly women, with the occasional male model ogling in the background—are positioned in control of their sex appeal, unafraid to wield it. As von Unwerth says, “Men were in the pictures, but always a little bit like accessories, a little bit mistreated. Do we hate men? No. We keep them in control.”

It’s only fitting that women are the focus of the photographer’s latest exhibition, Devotion!, at Fotografiska, the newly-opened Swedish photography museum in New York. The photos, which include a mustachioed Keira Knightley in a bathtub, a newly liberated Miley Cyrus in a corset, and hordes of models in Eyes Wide Shut-inspired masks and lacy lingerie, are divided by theme: play, gender, power, drama, love, lust, and passion. For von Unwerth, the inherent sexuality in image-making is never without fun; whether her women are playing a naked sack race, drinking rosé from the bottle, or walking the dogs in a ball gown, they’re always having a hell of a time.

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“Again?” New York, 1997. All photos courtesy the artist and Fotografiska.

“This was a photo shoot that I did a while ago. I think it was a Japanese magazine. It was a fashion story and it was a Brazilian model. We were just playing around. I said to the guy, like, “Okay, you can get out of the picture,” but the girl was just grabbing his pants. It was a very spontaneous moment. I love it because it’s so fun and playful but naughty at the same time. She’s taking control. It’s one of my favorites.”

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“Bathtub,” Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss for Vogue US, 1996.

“That was a shoot we did for American Vogue. I like the picture because you can really feel the complexity and the friendship, and that’s what makes it special to me. [Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss] were inseparable. They were always together and always partying. It was a great time.”

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Gisele Bündchen, Saint Tropez, 2004.

“That was the picture I did for the Victoria’s Secret shoot. Gisele said, ‘I’m going to make barbecue for everybody.’ We didn’t get to eat much, but I got a picture of her being very carefree and just … there, living her life, drinking rosé. You don’t usually feel like this. The wine is called Whispering Angels. It’s this amazing place in the South of France.”

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Rihanna, Esquire, 2014.

“She is amazing. I did a lot of shoots with her. Actually, I shot some of her first, first pictures when she was sixteen. She’s so out there to push it and so giving and so beautiful and up for anything. We did this boxing story in the studio. It was really hot and we moved a lot and everything. And in the end, there was this little shitty shower in the studio. It was really not very glamorous. But I said, ‘Come on!’ It was so hot from jumping around. ‘Let’s just do a picture in the shower.’ We did it. And it just happens that she puts it in her pants. It’s such a cute moment. Her smile is so cute and spontaneous and somehow innocent, but still naughty. I’m so proud of her. She became such a businesswoman.”

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“Guess Who?” Claudia Schiffer.

“That was a picture for Guess. We went to Nashville and I did a shoot with Brigitte Bardot, Miss Dolly Parton. This is one of the first shots. I shot with Claudia when she really just started. I thought she was a pretty German girl. And then when I looked at the pictures, I noticed that she had this incredible resemblance with Brigitte Bardot. The super sensual, sex kittenish quality she has. I made her look really like Brigitte Bardot with the hair and the makeup and it took off her career and mine. It’s a really great moment, very unexpected.  She was actually standing on a car dancing. She looks like such a goddess.”

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“Kino,” Kate Moss for Vogue US. Paris, 1995.

“This is one of my favorite Kate Moss pictures. It was a picture for American Vogue. It was a bit of the ’60s-inspired story of a girl arriving in Paris and trying to make it. I always love to make up stories. I always love to give more of a character, so they’re not just pretty, but they’re also acting a little bit. In this picture, she’s in the cinema. We just don’t know what she’s looking at. Everybody can fantasize about it. I love that about it.

NECHAMKIN: What do you think she’s looking at? What kind of film?

VON UNWERTH: Something naughty. The two fingers in her mouth—it has an innocence to it, which I really love. I love her huge eyes, the way the glasses make her eyes look so big.

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“Punishment,” Rouilly-le-bas, 2002.

“That’s for my book, Revenge. The book just came out some years ago. It was kind of a telenovela because I shot it almost like a movie. It’s about these innocent girls; basically, they get caught and imprisoned. And then they become powerful and free themselves. That’s the last picture in the book. They overcame everything. Actually, I’m planning to do a movie about it. It’s in the making.

My women were always powerful. Men were in the pictures, but always a little bit accessories, a little bit mistreated. But of course, there’s always a lot of humor in it. Do we hate men? No. We keep them in control. That was always my position. As I say, it’s very relevant today. But for me, I always saw my women like this. They were always very strong and in control.”

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Madonna, New York, 2014.

“It’s very Madonna. It’s very her. She’s so inspiring throughout all these years, all the records she did. All the way, she pushed and provoked everything. I love that about her. It was amazing to work with her. She was so nice. I remember it was one day before Christmas, I was going to take the plane at night. But then we just started shooting and she had so much fun, and I missed my plane and everything. But it was worth it. She was just singing and dancing. I think she had a really good time.”

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“That was a shoot we did for a music magazine in England. It was so special. I had photographed [Bowie] before, but with Kate Moss? I mean, what a combination. She was so fun and so easygoing. We did it a little bit like that movie Blow Up in the scene with the photographer, and Kate Moss was like the Veruschka part. We were just playing around them. It was quite free and spontaneous. It was like a paparazzi kind of moment. I love it, how he’s protecting her from the camera with the hand. It’s always fantastic when you capture something like this. It’s so gratifying.

I was the first one to put Kate Moss into Italian Vogue. I remember, at the time, she had done already quite some shoots with Corinne Day for The Face. I did a little movie with her too. She was very, very young. She’s a huge inspiration. I mean, there are others too. There’s so many. Claudia [Schiffer] and Linda [Evangelista] and Natalia [Vodianova]. What’s really great is to discover new ones to inspire you for new stories. That’s really, really exciting.”

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“Office Story,” Paris, 2007.

“I was inspired by that movie, Secretary with Maggie Gyllenhaal. I love to be inspired by movies. Of course, then we just play around and come up with all kind of different pictures. But I love especially that shot because, again, it’s something you look at it and you don’t know what’s happening. But it’s intriguing. There’s a lot of humor about it. That’s what I like. I’m not into S&M, the hardcore. I was always very inspired by Betty Page and those movies from the ’50s. It always comes back a little bit in my pictures.”

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“Rich Bitch,” Bianca Balti for Vogue Italy. Paris, 2004.

“She’s shopping and she doesn’t care. The guy’s almost chasing her. It’s just so funny, but it’s very glamorous. It’s very Parisian. It’s a little bit of critique too, but always with humor. I always love to play with the positions. She’s a rich bitch and she’s with the people and then her husband cuts her credit card. And she gets kicked out of the town and she has to survive and she becomes a dog walker and sleeps in a pot. She has to sell all her bags. And then in the end, she becomes a messenger, and she’s really powerful and she actually loves it. She feels free. And that was the idea of for the photo shoot.”

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“Sack Race Me,” Bavaria, 2015.

“We did this very traditional game they do in Bavaria with the bags. I just love it because the girls are naked, but there is no vulgarity about it. It’s fun and very carefree but seems very essential at the same time. And growing up in Germany, we don’t really have a problem with nudity. There’s naked girls on the covers all the time. It’s a different culture than over here. So for me, it’s a normal thing. I think it comes through in the picture that they’re just really, really free and having fun.”