Ellen Von Unwerth has had a storied career, and her third collaboration with publishing behemoth Taschen this month proves that she’s still going full force. Scouted in Munich at the age of 20, she spent the next decade working as a successful model. As the ’80’s drew to a close, Ellen made the very rare transition from photographed darling to behind-the-camera heavyweight. By 1991, she’d established herself as one of the most iconic fashion photographers of our time behind such images as the Claudia Schiffer campaign for Guess.
Hard work and an all-encompassing passion for what she does has put her in league with the likes of Mario Sorrenti, David LaChapelle, and Terry Richardson, among others. We caught up with her as she was shooting the latest cover for Galore Magazine in the penthouse of The Hollywood Roosevelt to discuss her career, what longevity in the fashion world means, and what’s next.
Where are you based?
New York and Paris. I come to LA for work.
Before digital, it felt like fashion photography had a huge influence on the fine art world and vice versa. Do you think it’s possible that the onset of digital created a chasm between fashion and art or are they closer related than ever?
Yeah, I don’t know if that is true. It depends what’s in the picture you know? I think that’s the important thing. The story you are telling and what the subject is. I would say it’s like a painter, like Picasso. Once he would take a brush, once he would take a pencil, or a crayon, or whatever. It didn’t matter. It only depends on what you express.
Are there any young photographers whose work you are excited by?
To be honest, there are so many! Each time you open a magazine, there are so many new ones. They’re all good… but it’s rare you see something original. It seems revisited. I like Ryan McGinley’s work, I think he really opened up a whole new way of picture taking that is really special and personal and inspiring. You see lots of people copying that.
What does being iconic mean to you?
Well you know, it’s nice to have your pictures talked about as iconic. I guess it’s just stamped into people’s minds. You think of a name and it comes back… you see straight away those pictures. There are some good photographers that you think of their work, and you can’t think of anything. But then there are others, like Helmut Newton whom I’m a big fan of, and straight away you have all these pictures coming to you. It’s special.
Having longevity in your business is no small feat. What’s your secret?
I think it’s work. You have to love your work. I still love it. For me work is like living, I prefer to work than to be on holidays. You meet new people, discover new things, like today we will photograph Maddie (Maddie Ziegler) who I love and admire. I think to be inspired, and surround yourself with young people, and be connected. That is what is important to keep on going.
Has the process or philosophy behind how you create or approach a shoot changed from when you started to now?
Not really… I mean I still love to tell my little stories. I always love to find something in every picture. A picture is really great if it has emotion and spontaneity and some slice of life. I think it actually hasn’t changed that much.
We lost far too many important artists last year, some of whom you’ve worked with. Is there an artist you wish you had the opportunity to shoot but didn’t?
Jimi Hendrix! Lot’s, so many… Chuck Berry, what an amazing guy. I got to work with Prince and David Bowie, but there are so many. I mean all the rock stars from the ’60’s and ’70’s. The Doors, Janis Joplin.
What is it about musicians do you think?
They are really interesting because they have lots to say and they become beautiful in the light, or when they sing. And also the sex appeal, it’s very interesting.
What is the best way that you’ve found to relax?
I love gardening. It’s very relaxing for me… pulling out the weeds, cutting off the deadheads. I really love it, it clears my mind. Then you can come back and fill up again!
What is your favorite travel destination?
I love India. I’ve been a couple of times. I was just in Morocco, in Marrakech, which is great. I’ve been many times and it’s always wonderful to go back. I love New Orleans.
What about New Orleans?
I don’t know, it’s just a really special city, full of artists, and I love the architecture of the French Quarter. It’s just a really special vibe. I’ve done lots of shoots there.
What advice would you give to yourself if you were just starting out in the business?
Do what you do!
You did it right!
I don’t want to be immodest because I was lucky too, you know. I slipped into a time where my photography was very new, because it was very spontaneous and full of life and movement. Not so much based on technique but much more on capturing movement. So I guess at the time it was not something that was really out there and I was very lucky because I got successful very quickly. Doing campaigns for Katharine Hamnett, and started to work for Interview and The Face and for all these magazines, and then Guess, discovering Claudia Schiffer. So in a way, to myself I would say… “do the same thing!”
Your latest book with Taschen, Heimat is available just this month. With that project complete, what’s next for you?
It’s my third book with Taschen, so I’m really proud. It’s always great to prepare for a book. I’m also working on a film script. It’s hard to concentrate on it with my other work but I really want to get it done soon!
Finally… What is your favorite thing to do in bed?
- Photography Ellen Von Unwerth
- Story by Che Stipanovich