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Claudia Schiffer, Claudia Schiffer, Guess Campaign
Claudia Schiffer, GuessPhotography Ellen von Unwerth

Ellen von Unwerth talks her new exhibition, the female gaze, and #MeToo

The legendary photographer reflects on her 30 year career ahead of the launch of ‘Ladyland’

There’s one particular image that stands out from the rest at photographer Ellen von Unwerth’s new London exhibition. Presented in black and white and featuring a young Claudia Schiffer, the shot formed part of denim label Guess’s 1990 campaign and marked the start of von Unwerth’s extensive and storied career in fashion. The image is one of the earliest examples displaying the attributes her style has become synonymous with – unbridled sexuality, sensuality, and multidimensional femininity – and feels as fresh as it did 30 years ago, when it was plastered across billboards from London to Los Angeles.

This innate ability to capture women in such a unique light, often as part of what seem to be ‘stolen’ moments. has seen von Unwerth travel the world shooting for the likes of Vogue, Interview and The Face, as she helped launch the careers of many of the models she worked with. Naomi? Kate? Linda? The photographer was there are the start. As a former model herself who became fed up of the lack of creative freedom the industry gave her, von Unwerth has seemingly always had an eye for seeing things that others might not.

“I’ve always loved to portray women who are strong, who are playful, who are self-assured, and who really own their sexuality, which is why I love working with Claudia, and Naomi, and all those girls,” she explains. “But then something I always come back to is fragility. I look for that in the women I shoot, too. I don’t want to objectify women, or cast them only in this ‘sexy’ light. I want to see every side of them. There are so many sides to women. That’s why some of my best shots come when the girls think the camera has stopped rolling, you’re seeing something different to what they give you when they know they're being watched, a vulnerability.”

“There are so many sides to women. That’s why some of my best shots come when the girls think the camera has stopped rolling, you’re seeing something different to what they give you when they know they’re being watched, a vulnerability” – Ellen von Unwerth

It makes sense, then, that the exhibition is called Ladyland, given von Unwerth has always maintained that the past, present, and future is decidedly female. Featuring a line-up including Naomi Campbell in a set of rollers, Nadja Aujermann wearing a lace mask, and Kate Moss pictured with David Bowie – one of the only men who make the cut – the selection is a who’s who of fashion’s most iconic faces.  

Something that’s notable about Ladyland, too, is its timing. Though it was intended to mark three decades of her career, with the photographer labelling it as “something of a retrospective,” the significance of it launching in the midst of the #MeToo movement hasn’t escaped her attention. “We’re going through a difficult time, and people are scared,” she says. “In fashion, I think some people find it hard to know where art ends and something that's not right begins. But these things that we're hearing about now should not have happened, and should not be happening. We need to find a way to figure it out.” 

Before the show opens next week, we sat down with von Unwerth to discuss Ladyland, the female gaze, and 30 years in fashion.

How did the exhibition come about?

Ellen von Unwerth:  Well, I’ve been working as a photographer for 30 years now, and for much of that time I’ve been devoted to photographing women, so I decided that it was really time to celebrate that. I also really wanted to do something in London, and the owner of the gallery approached me and it was just like ‘great timing!’ You know, I love photographing men, too, but the time felt right to focus on women. It’s kind of where I started.

Tell us a bit about the images featured as part of Ladyland, why did you choose them?

Ellen von Unwerth: It was a really difficult process editing it down (laughs), I mean where do I start? In the end, I decided to focus on some of the most ‘iconic’ pictures of my career, the ones that kicked everything off – so there’s Naomi, and Kate Moss, and Claudia in there, plus David Bowie too. There are some from my last book Fraülein, and some of my more sexy, provocative work. I wanted to show a good range of what I’ve done, so it’s kind of a mixture of all of that. It was quite free, really. There were no strict rules. But I of course wanted to tell a story through them, so there had to be that connection.

Of the selection, is there one that stands out as a true favourite?

Ellen Von Unwerth: I love very much the image of Nadja Auermann, the one that she’s wearing the black lace mask in. It’s probably one of my favourites ever, not just from the edit that makes up Ladyland. It was taken right at the beginning of my career, when I had just discovered Nadja and we started working together. It was taken for British Vogue, I think, and I love it as much today as I did the day I took it.

When you started out, the fashion industry was pretty male-dominated when it came to the likes of designers and photographers, some of whom stepped over the line of what’s appropriate. What do you make of it all?

Ellen Von Unwerth: I am so, so glad that women are speaking up and coming out and telling their stories, and the more that do, the more will feel empowered to make their voices heard. I don’t think that fashion photography is as male-dominated as it used to be, which is a good thing, you know, and there are some things only a woman can portray when she looks at a woman, there’s that unique connection that comes from a shared experience. It’s difficult though, because to bring out someone’s beauty, a model’s for example, there has to be a relationship. But ultimately I think some people have taken these relationships too far, and it can't go on.

How do you see the industry changing in light of the revelations?

Ellen von Unwerth: I hope that we’ve now reached a point where people will be responsible and behave properly, but to impose strict rules and regulations on fashion is difficult. Fashion is provocative and bold – and to create art there really needs to be a certain amount of freedom. It’s about balancing that freedom with safety.

You’re crediting with helping to launch the careers of the likes of Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, and Eva Herzigova. What were they like back then?  

Ellen von Unwerth: I started working with Naomi and Kate when they were 16, and I started to work with Claudia when she was 18, and Linda, and Christie, and you know, all of them. And there were other great girls that you’d work with around that time, too, but these girls just stood out by a mile. They were beautiful, and glamorous, and totally professional, and they all had such incredible personalities – they were so vibrant, and playful, and fun. It was such an amazing time, the designers would make the girls special dresses, and it was just electrifying seeing them come out at shows. Did you see the Versace show?

Of course!  

Ellen von Unwerth: It was amazing, right? To see them come out all together at such a monumental show, after all these years. I met them as amazing girls, and here they were as these incredible women. I saw them grow up, and here they are in front of everyone and everyone’s just in ecstasy. But it wasn’t just down to the girls, at the end of the day. The designers and the photographers always gave them these amazing moments. It was such an exciting time in fashion.  

Are there any girls on your radar at the moment who have the elusive ‘thing’ you saw in the supers?

Ellen von Unwerth: It’s very different now, but there are some amazing girls in the industry. You know, Gigi is having her moment, and Kendall and all these girls, and they are totally beautiful. But for me, what’s exciting is seeking out the new talent that no one has found before.

Is there anyone you’d really like to shoot that you haven’t yet?  

Ellen von Unwerth:  Yes! Marilyn Monroe (laughs). Can you imagine? She was my dream. If there’s one person in the world I would have loved to shoot, it would be her. She embodies everything I want to portray: vulnerability, sexuality, and strength… Imagine the cover! But, otherwise, there’s lots of women I’d love to shoot. Cate Blanchett for example, and Angelina Jolie.

What’s next, after Ladyland?  

Ellen von Unwerth: Well, I recently launched my own magazine, it’s called Ellen von Unwerth’s VON. I wanted to call it just VON, but there was a problem with the name, so what could I do? I worked for 30 years for so many magazines and so often you’re a little bit disappointed when your shoot finally comes out, and you’ve spent all your time and energy on a project. So I thought why not put out my own? I just threw a big party in a boxing club in New York called Overthrow, which a lot of women box at, so it seemed like a good place to do it.  The first issue is the fight issue, which is why we threw the party there, and Winnie Harlow and Anna Trevelyan are both in it, and Hailey Clauson is on the cover. And now, we’re on the the next one.

Ladyland will be on show from May 4 until May 18 at London's Opera Gallery, 134 New Bond Street, Mayfair, WI5 2TF.