Freedom from every perspective

7 min reading time
For Ellen von Unwerth, her personal view of femininity is her recipe for success. On a trip around Paris in the new BMW 8 Series Gran Coupé, the star photographer discusses female empowerment, her drive, and the power of staying true to yourself.

24 August 2020

In times of great uncertainty, inspiring people have an important part to play in the cohesion of society. Their personal success stories can provide both food for thought and motivation at the same time. Fashion photography legend Ellen von Unwerth is one such extraordinary personality. For decades, this native of Frankfurt, Germany has stamped art and media with her typical strong-willed style. Her ability to elicit maximum expressiveness from models is legendary – gently directing them in a way that literally gives them scope to develop a sense of ease. Sometimes there are even themes that come up right after a shoot officially ends, where the photographer captures a perfect moment.

And von Unwerth is familiar with both sides of the lens: she modeled for ten years herself – an experience that laid the foundation for her career as a photographer. It was through the 1989 Guess campaign with Claudia Schiffer that Ellen von Unwerth achieved worldwide recognition. Her body of work now includes entire shelves of opulent coffee table books, while museums have honored von Unwerth’s art and photography in numerous exhibitions, including the retrospective “Devotion! 30 Years of Photographing Women” which was shown in the museum Fotografiska in Stockholm and then for the opening of the new Fotografiska in New York.

In our interview, Ellen von Unwerth talks about leadership and inner strength, about independence and a sense of responsibility, as well as about her personal sources of inspiration.

Video: Ellen von Unwerth and her personal journey

Ms. von Unwerth, do you feel like you have a very personal view of the world? Is that what distinguishes you, as a photographer, from others?

Ellen von Unwerth:
Everyone has their own viewpoint. I don’t feel like I perceive everything differently than the rest of the world. But I do have a photographer’s eye. It’s an urge to capture a situation, a moment, a beautiful light, an expression, a movement. It’s also a desire to realize an idea that I have in my head – to shape it with a creative team and with actors and then to capture it in an image. So a photographer’s eye is a mix of the mind and the eyes.

What drives you?

Ellen von Unwerth:
I’m fascinated by people, and stories in general. What motivates me, above all, to reach for the camera and take photos every day is the people I meet and who invigorate me. It’s also the stories I want to tell, inspired by real life, but also by films and paintings. As a photographer, I’m able to move between the past, the present and the future in the process.

© Ellen von Unwerth

What do you feel is your purpose?

Ellen von Unwerth:
My aim is to inspire people, to give them joy or provoke their emotions. I want to perpetuate moments of life so that they will be preserved for future generations as a visual testimony of what I’ve experienced.

How have your life experiences shaped the development of your vision? How influential was your time in the circus?

Ellen von Unwerth:
As a child, I dreamed of becoming a princess. I wrapped myself in the lightest of fabrics and danced around the house. To my great disappointment, people said I’d make a better clown. At the time I had no idea that would actually be a realizable proposition later on in life. Shortly after I finished school, the Roncalli Circus came to town. I found this very exciting. After watching the performance, I went to the director and asked if I could work and perform for him. He looked me up and down and said, “You can start tomorrow!” And he didn’t mean as a clown either, but in a serious role, as a circus girl. It goes without saying that this experience plays a big role in my creative process, as does a brief period living as a hippie in a community in the mountains of Bavaria.

What is the most important element of your personality development as an artist?

Ellen von Unwerth:
My artistic career is a journey. I’m almost always working, I’m constantly traveling around the world, meeting amazing people. I’m happy and grateful that I’m in a position to live like this, doing what I enjoy. There have been a few events in my life that were perhaps more remarkable than others, as they have brought about major changes in my career. One that particularly sticks in my mind is the Guess campaign with Claudia Schiffer, as that helped me achieve global recognition. Just recently one of my museum exhibitions took place – a retrospective entitled “Devotion! 30 Years of Photographing Women” that was exhibited at the Fotografiska Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, and then at the opening of the new Fotografiska Fotomuseum in New York.

What is the most important element of your personality development in general?

Ellen von Unwerth:
I don’t really differentiate between my life as a person and as an artist. Clearly, I am a public figure, but I also have my private life – and I do try to separate the two. However, I am always being creative and I do tend to be thinking about my projects all the time. In my efforts to be myself it’s my family that plays the key role.

Did your time as a model influence your style as a photographer? Has it left its mark on how you stage, manage and photograph women?

Ellen von Unwerth:
I did ten years of modeling myself, so I’ve seen plenty of shoots and productions on that side of the lens, too. I’m very spirited and would always let my personality show. For me, the biggest frustration was that I was always told to stand still and be expressionless when posing. When I started taking the pictures, I had the idea that I wanted to highlight exactly that: people’s personality, expressiveness, self-worth and beauty. The idea was for the world to see them differently – through my eyes, as it were. I wanted the life to absolutely burst out of the pictures. That idea is always to the fore when I photograph women. I want them to feel they can be themselves and have fun in the process. That encourages them to be seen as human beings, not objects.

How important were personal freedom and independence at different points in your career?

Ellen von Unwerth:
I’ve always been very independent throughout my career. The internet makes it easy for creative people like me to share their own work and create a platform and a community that connects artists directly with their audience. I’m very happy to use social media to show off my work. In 2018 I also started my own print magazine, called “Ellen von Unwerth’s VON”. It gives me the opportunity to share the stories I’ve photographed with people without the pressure and censorship that can go with larger media. I think it’s fantastic to work with high-end media and big brands and, quite independent of that, to also be able to pursue my own projects.

What’s your biggest fear?

Ellen von Unwerth:
Clones! I’m a little afraid of the path that technology and science might take in this regard. People’s uniqueness is our greatest strength.

How – and what – can you learn from your darkest days?

Ellen von Unwerth:
You need to always view the glass as half full, not half empty.

 

I want to perpetuate moments of life so that they will be preserved for future generations – as a visual testimony of what I’ve experienced.
Ellen von Unwerth

Were there moments when you followed your instinct and your creative vision instead of listening to those who had different opinions about your art and your ambitions?

Ellen von Unwerth:
Freedom is an immensely important asset that, as an artist, you have to hold onto. I have met people who’ve tried to drag me down, change my style, or change the course of my career by giving me advice on what direction to take. I believe it’s important to stay true to what you want to do. And equally to your style. Trends come and go. You have to listen to your heart and pursue what enthuses you, even if it isn’t to everyone’s taste.

Is there a pattern of thought that forms the basis of your success?

Ellen von Unwerth:
I think what we understand by “success” differs from person to person. For me, success is the fact that I recognized my talent and am able to make a living from it and be valued for it. What has put me in a position to do this is my leadership skills – a positive, open-minded and creative mindset – and lots of hard work.

Was there a specific project where you had to overcome particularly difficult circumstances?

Ellen von Unwerth:
I have a very particular style. Customers come to me because they want exactly that. It’s rare for me to be asked for something that would differ from my style. And when it seems to be difficult, I consider it a challenge. Sometimes the result is surprising and changes my perspective, opens my eyes. Casting for a shoot is also very important to me. I really need people who are on my wavelength. It has nothing to do with language. But if the chemistry’s not right, I find it hard to take good pictures. If I need to, I pull my ace out of my sleeve – a glass of champagne can work wonders!

What do you want to achieve in terms of society?

Ellen von Unwerth:
I’ve often been told that my pictures are full of life and that they give people pleasure. I think that if I can give people pleasure by expressing my point of view – a female view – then that is my influence on society. Female empowerment is coming more and more into focus. People recognize that my work can influence society by capturing women and their femininity in their uniqueness, strength and personality.

Who inspires you?

Ellen von Unwerth:
I’m inspired by lots of different things. I get a lot of ideas and stimuli from life – from films, people, music, parties, performances, paintings, even from dreams. Famous photographers, like my favorites Helmut Newton and Jacques-Henri Lartigue, inspire me. I find designers and the clothes they design, the fashion shows they host, particularly inspiring. If you can capture the essence of a designer’s universe, it creates a very rich story. I have been photographing fashion for over 30 years and I just can never get enough of the incredible clothes.

Photos/Video: CNN; Author: Markus Löblein