The German photographer Ellen Von Unwerth was born in Frankfurt in 1954. Her childhood was complicated and unconventional. An orphan when she was just 2 years old, she grew up in four different Bavarian foster care families.
She ran away from home at the age of eighteen to join the circus of André Heller Roncalli where she was hired as assistant and "victim" of the knife-thrower and then as a clowns’ mascot. Admired for her physcal attractiveness, she soon became the intermission girl : she introduced the artists at every new show, dressed in a glittery and sexy outfit. After becoming tired of the circus life, she found shelter in a hippy community. During that period, at the same time beautiful and tragic, she was discovered by a photographer while walking down the street. He introduced Ellen to the world of fashion agencies.
She was in her twenties when she decided to try a modeling career and moved to Paris. After a decade of success as a model, she posed for the most important magazines and photographers (such as Helmut Newton, amongst others) - she decided to turn the tables and put herself behind the camera. Ellen found her way in photography thanks to a friend who lended her his second hand Nikon. Her provocative images full of freshness and innovation captured the attention of all the major fashion magazines of New York, Paris and London.
Although she enjoyed her years working as a model, she suffered from the lack of freedom of the profession and she felt that the whole thing was limited to instructions to follow and static poses to imitate. As a photographer she tried to inverse this trend, promoting dynamic poses and gestures and a playful, kinetic aptitude. She also mastered better than others how to communicate and establish a connection with the models she collaborated with, because she already experienced the feeling to be in front of the lens.
Von Unwerth’s photographs are characterized by the snaphsot (Snaps is also the title of her first photo book published in 1994). The image is conceived as a captured moment in which the subject is taken by surprise, following a wave of enthusiasm. Despite a spontaneous effect the images created by Ellen are not the result of pure improvisation at all. In fact, behind the erotic happiness of her photos, there is a long work of intellectual preparation, concentration ability and a total confidence with technical knowledge. There is precision and attention to detail and everything that is happening on the scene. Moreover, the colors and the way they are distributed assume a big importance : sparkling, enhanced, contrasted both in daytime or in nocturnal captions. A totally different atmosphere is evoked in her black and white work, where the composition is extremely rigorous, the lighting is strong, pitiless and the images are full of malice.
Eros is the leitmotif of Von Unwerth work, sometimes it’s explicit and other times more allusive. Ellen had the talent to introduce a subtle, intelligent sense of humor in the serious world of fashion business, completely changing the codes of an era.
You don’t have to take seriously someone who takes himself too seriously, you need to have fun to entertain and, on the contrary, it’s benefic to take off the fake glamour patina from models to make them more human. I don’t like poses, they bore me to death. I want the subjects in front of my camera being active not passive.
The Fotografiska Museum of New York celebrates Ellen Von Unwerth career with Ellen Von Unwerth - Devotion ! 30 years of photographing women, a completely monographic exhibition that explores the photographer’s universe through seven significant topics of her work : play, gender, drama, love, power, passion and lust.
After presitigious collaborations with the most important fashion magazines, publishing nine photo books, worlwide exhibitions, several awards and prizes received and numerous collaborations as video clips and fashion film direction, Ellen has launched her owned magazine VON, which has released its second issue.