This month Taschen release Fräulein, a 500-page retrospective of top photographer Ellen von Unwerth’s remarkable career. As a former model, von Unwerth made her name in fashion photography, starting with reportage and going on to develop a highly original style that might sit somewhere between Juergen Teller, Helmut Newton and Terry Richardson.
Though her influence now extends beyond fashion into music and film, the sixth book by Ellen von Unwerth is a celebration of her favourite theme. Fräulein captures perfectly von Unwerth’s intimate, playful style, dancing between erotica and kitsch decadence with many of our era’s sexiest female icons such as Claudia Schiffer, Vanessa Paradis, Monica Bellucci, Kate Moss, Britney Spears, Dita von Teese, Adriana Lima, Carla Bruni, Eva Mendes, Eva Green, Christina Aguilera, Lindsay Lohan and many more.
Dazed Digital: What prompted this retrospective? Does it have particular significance in the timeline of your career?
Ellen von Unwerth: First I had the idea of the title Fräulein when I was in an old bookstore in Berlin, looking at pictures from the nightlife and the cabarets in the 20th, and thought this name was perfect to show a collection of my photographs with my favourite theme, Women.
DD: What inspired you to first pick up a camera?
Ellen von Unwerth: My boyfriend 22 years ago gave me a camera and a crash course about how it works, and that is how I started. I did reportage pictures in Kenya and shot my model friends, after I made them up and dressed them with my clothes. I knew already how to print black and white photos, as we had a lab in our tiny apartment.
DD: How did your modeling career shape your photography?
Ellen von Unwerth: I hated modeling and felt uncomfortable not being able to move, and do silly things in front of the camera. So now I push my models to live and express themselves.
DD: Who are your favourite photographers?
Ellen von Unwerth: My favourite photographers are Helmut Newton and Jaques Henri Lartigue: one for the strength, sexuality and humour and the other one for the lightness and charm.
DD: Ingrid Sischy (Fräulein editor) wrote that you “don’t use the camera for judgment, but for connection”; all of your pictures feel very raw and organic in this way…
Ellen von Unwerth: It is true, the camera is a good way to get to know people and connect with them
DD: How would you describe an Ellen von Unwerth shoot?
Ellen von Unwerth: When it is good shoot , it is better then a party! Gorgeous girls, loud music and a bottle of Champagne, or two...
DD: How difficult is it to create an intimate connection with your subjects for commercial work?
Ellen von Unwerth: In my own work I can be much more provocative and daring. But I am lucky, because I have clients who give me quite a lot of freedom.
DD: How does this compare between advertising (such as album covers or fashion), and editorial or artistic work? What other factors vary here?
Ellen von Unwerth: I think the girls in my pictures are playful and they are having fun. I like to show their personality and charm, and not just their bodies. I also love when the picture tells a story.
DD: As a female are you allowed greater access in your approach to erotica? (for example, would the same photos taken by a man be seen as objectification?)
Ellen von Unwerth: I never felt this to be a problem.
DD: With your commercial work, do you ever feel like there are lines you can’t cross as an artist? Do you care?
Ellen von Unwerth: There are lots of things you cannot do in the commercial and even editorial work, but that is why I love to do my private projects.
DD: You experiment a lot with film and video, how does your approach change with within your different camera mediums?
Ellen von Unwerth: Videos, I have a lot of fun doing those. I always love movement and story telling, even in pictures, so it is perfect for me. Filming gives you new ideas for the pictures. I am thinking of directing a movie, and am just working on it. But I love the instant pleasure of photography.
DD: What have been the highlights of your career?
Ellen von Unwerth: My now six books, with Fraulein, all the exhibitions in different cities: like London, NewYork, Paris, Los Angeles, Mosco, Bejing.... And just going to work every time, trying to create something new with interesting people.
DD: Do you have any advice you can offer to aspiring or young working photographers?
Ellen von Unwerth: Just keep your eyes open to see what you want to show. Go out in the street and look for it. For me I started with reportage.
DD: What’s next for you?
Ellen von Unwerth: Another day, another adventure!
Fräulein, published by Taschen, is out now. Thank you to the Michael Hoppen Gallery who represent Ellen von Unwerth in London, and will be selling original print selections from Fräulein until Christmas.