Exclusive Interview: Iconic Fashion Photographer Ellen Von Unwerth

Both Ellen Von Unwerth and the images she produces are iconic. Literally. She was recently included in TIME’s list of the ten most iconic fashion photographers in history, and her campaign imagery for Guess in the early 90s, starring Claudia Schiffer, launched a career that has gone on to include work for Victoria’s Secret, Tommy Hilfiger, MAC, H&M, Diesel, Chanel, Miu Miu, Azzedine Alaïa and Katherine Hamnet.

Now Australian hosiery label, Voodoo, have teamed up with Von Unwerth and top models Nell Rebowe, Daniela Mirzac and Australian Alexandra Agoston to create a series of stunning black and white images for a new campaign that will be projected on similarly as iconic buildings in Melbourne and Sydney from May 17th. The results are infused with Ellen’s signature sense of whimsical female sexuality, with just a hint of her beloved retro-fetishism, and you can get an exclusive look at the campaign images below.

Pedestrian recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ellen – who has an awesome Germanic accent if you want to read along like that – about the upcoming campaign with Voodoo, her past on the other side of the lens in her decade long career as a model, what influences her now as a photographer and what lies ahead in her future.

Pedestrian: Hi Ellen, how are you?

Ellen Von Unwerth: Hi, I’m very good, thank you.

Where are you right now? I understand you’ve just been shooting in the studio.

I was with the clients at my agency but now I’m at home. What time is it for you?

It’s just turned 8.00AM now.

Oh my god!

So you were meeting with the team from Voodoo today? Could you tell us about your collaboration with them on the upcoming campaign?

Well, they contacted me and told me the idea they had for this project and I really thought it was very interesting; very fun and sexy and quite special, so I was really intrigued. They asked me to work with them and, you know, I like the product and I think it’s really nice what they do so it’s very exciting.

What can we expect to see in the images? Can you tell us a little bit about what the overall concept is?

It’s about a woman who’s larger than life. It’s really very spot on, kind of about the architecture of the city with the architecture of the legs and the pattern of the stockings. It’s going to be black and white, so a little bit gritty, and very urban. I really like it. We finish shooting tomorrow but I think it’s going to look great.

And what kind of equipment do you use for a campaign of this scale?

It’s all digital now so I’m going to be using my Canon – a normal digital camera – nothing special and there’s some lights but nothing extraordinary. The lighting and everything is very simple. I’m not a super technical kind of photographer.

So you like to keep it simple?

Yeah, definitely.

Is there a lot of post-production involved in your work or do you try to keep it quite untouched and quite natural?

On this one there’s going to be a little post-production but usually no, I try not to retouch the work and keep it quite natural – I don’t like women to look unreal, I like that they are still colourful, natural beauties. I don’t like things to look too plastic-looking, but on this one there’s a bit of post-production involved.

You recently made TIME’s 100 Most Influential In Fashion list and their list of the top 10 iconic fashion photographers. Congratulations, that’s a great honour.

Thank you!

Who do you consider to be an influence on your work as a photographer?

I’m a big fan of Helmut Newton, I like the strength and the sexiness of his pictures and also the kind of storytelling – there’s always something risqué about them and that’s what I always love in my own photography – to tell a little story. When it looks like there’s something happening before and after. And my other big influence is Jacques Henri Lartigue – he’s a French photographer from the twenties. It was more reportage style, like photographs of elegant women wearing these amazing clothes with their funny dogs with lots of movement, and they’re very, very charming pictures. So I kind of looked at both of them. You know they’re very opposite but I like the combination of both of them. And then, you know, I love movies. I love like old Italian cinema old, French movies, Hollywood movies, Marilyn Monroe, you know, like Billy Wilder, all these things influenced me a lot.

Do you draw the same influence from contemporary film and photography?

Sometimes films are really great but I don’t find them as inspiring as the old films. I think contemporary movies are more about the girl next door – women in the films now days are not like those amazing pin up women like Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, you know, they were larger than life – so gorgeous to look at. But there are still good films around.

What was the last film that you saw and really enjoyed?

Funnily enough I liked the film about Marilyn Monroe [My Week With Marilyn]. I thought that was interesting to have a little look into her life – that kind of fragility and what was going on at that time. I liked the movie ‘Drive‘ too. I always see movies in planes, which is kind of sad because you watch them on these tiny little screens – it’s kind of a pity. I have to travel a lot as I’m based in New York and Paris but I’m always in between, you know, L.A., London…

Wherever the work takes you.

Exactly, exactly.

In terms of contemporary cinema, music, fashion – do you find any of the women you photograph as inspiring as those women you mentioned before – Monroe, Loren, Bardot? Do you have a modern muse – I guess like Claudia Schiffer was some twenty years ago.

Evan Rachel Wood – I find super inspiring, Amanda Seyfried too, I think she’s so cute and a great actress. Rihanna is a great artist too, as is Katy Perry; they’re very powerful and have something to say. And models, I always love to discover new ones because some girls they really work for me, they have something spontaneous, they have personality – but you know, it changes.

I know you shot Crystal Renn recently for Schönn

Oh yes I love Crystal, and next week I’m shooting Cara Delavigne – an English model, she’s very fun and full of personality. Haley Klausen too is really great. And in terms of photographers – well there are so many. It’s like every time you turn around there are five new photographers, with digital photography it’s so easy now to take an amazing picture.

You were a model before you were a photographer – how did you make that transition from one side of the lens to the other?

Well my boyfriend was a photographer and I was with him for seven years and I was a model for 10, and I got really bored of it. He gave me a Nikon camera and explained there was a plus, a minus and a focus and when it lights up you can shoot – and that’s how I learned photography. I started to shoot my model friends and do some reportage. I was on a trip in Kenya and I started to do some reportage of the villages, the women and their children, and everyone was surprised that it was me who did this – they thought it was really good, like wow! You know, I was really surprised, I didn’t know that I had a talent for it. So it’s like thank God that I discovered it! If my boyfriend had never given me the camera then – who knows? – maybe I never would have found out because I was never really that interested in photography.

But after that, after my first pictures, I got really excited about that and started printing my own pictures and, you know, it was really very exciting. I stopped being a model straight away, well actually before that, I would go up to the photographers and say “Oh maybe you should put the light like this or like that” which I don’t think they really appreciated!

As a model did you ever work with any of those iconic photographers you admire as a subject?

I worked with Guy Bourdin – they were my favourite pictures that somebody ever took of me, and I worked once with Helmut Newton – that was an experience. I don’t think I was really his type, you know? It wasn’t my favourite picture ever and it wasn’t one of his best [laughs] but it was a great experience. I worked a lot with Toscani and Arthur Elgort – big photographers at the time. Toscani was really amazing at the time.

What was your first job as a photographer?

When I started to do pictures for my friends they had this young magazine and they published my first pictures – the ones from Kenya, the reportage pictures – they gave me six pages straight away. And then I did the next story, a fashion story in Pigalle in Paris, and Katherine Hamnet (the designer) saw that from England and she gave me my first ever campaign after two months of shooting. So I was very, very lucky. After that, Guess called me and Paul Marciano offered me to do a campaign and that was my big, big breakthrough because people really responded to those images, and I was kind of surprised too, but it was great.

I was actually at a gig last night and there were photographs of Claudia Schiffer from those iconic Guess campaigns plastered all over the walls – which was a pretty fortuitous occurrence, seeing as I’m talking to you now.

Well we just shot our 30 year anniversary campaign of those images celebrating 30 years of Guess with Claudia, she reappeared and it was quite fun to reshoot her in the same way that we did 20 years ago, and I think some people can’t even tell the difference between then and now. She still looks amazing, you can see that she isn’t an 18 year old and she’s more of a woman and it’s great to see her like that. She’s had kids, she’s had a life. More interesting even than when she was 18.

What is it you love then about shooting fashion photography? Do you still do any personal reportage?

I do reportage, I always have my camera with me but reportage is more difficult to live off first of all, and there are so many amazing reportage photographers. So, you know, I was a model, I was already in fashion and I love it. Every woman loves fashion and you can use it to tell stories and it’s a great way to express yourself, it’s so inspiring to go to fashion shows and see where the designers are coming from and what influences them.

Which designers do you admire most?

Azzedine [Alaïa] is amazing. I love John Galliano, I loved his shows, they were so amazing and full of amazing unexpected fantasy – they were always such a big happening. Everyone has their thing. Viktor & Rolf have amazing sets, and Lanvin always has an amazing woman, and Haider Ackermann – there are just so many great designers.

What did you think then of Raf Simons going to Dior after everything that happened with Galliano?

He’s going to Dior? Wow! I didn’t even know that. Oh my god! I must have been in a different world. Well, that’s a big, big change from Galliano because his clothes are very minimialistic and modern, no?

Do you have any personal or professional interest in photographing men?

I’m much more interested in shooting women. I love the hair, the makeup, the fashion – it’s like playing with Barbie, you know? You’re supposed to have fun, you know? Whereas men I want them to be real, I want them to be charming and not posing, and intelligent, so it doesn’t interest me so much. I like shooting actors and musicians though – or maybe a man in a dress! That could be fun too. I love to shoot drag queens too. I’ve done shoots for [transgender fashion magazine] Candy and they’re really fun.

Have you seen much of the Australian male model Andrej Pejic?

Yeah! I think he’s amazing! So beautiful. I haven’t shot him yet. I always take my camera when I go to parties and I took some pictures of him but at first I didn’t notice he was a boy! He’s really so very cute like a girl. I want to do a story with him. Definitely.

Besides your campaign with Voodoo, are there any other projects you’ve got on the horizon that you could tell us a bit about?

I’m working on a new book which might come out in six months, a project that I can’t talk too much about yet. I just had an exhibition in Toronto yesterday of my work from Fraulein, my other book. I also have a show in London in July.

So you’ll be there during the Olympics?

Yes! I would love to photograph some athletes. It’s going to be crazy. I’m planning to even direct a movie in the future. I’m working on it with a writer at the moment but I can’t talk too much about it either.

What genre are you interested in working in?

It’s something with women! [laughs] Surprise, surprise! It’s something very close to my pictures. There are so many pictures I love, with the movement, and the light, and I think it’s time for me to push it a little bit further and to tell a story, to have real actors and really do a movie. Not only pictures.

I noticed you’ve done your fair share of short fashion films too –

Everyone wants that now. Everybody wants to do a kind of behind-the-scenes but I don’t really like behind-the-scenes typical hair and make-up – I think that’s too boring, so I prefer a little story that looks good on film.

Are you doing a film for Voodoo?

That’s going to be more of a making-of, when you see the pictures you’ll understand why. It needs a story. You know, a dress flowing in the wind in slow motion? Not so interesting.

Do you have any advice for young photographers?

What’s really important is to go out and photograph what you like! Or what inspires you, find your style – it’s so important.

If you could shoot anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?

Marilyn Monroe!

Of course – you could always photograph Michelle Williams?

Yeah [laughs] she’s amazing too. She did a good job. She told the story well.

Have you seen Smash? It’s Spielberg’s television series about a Marilyn Monroe musical.

Smash? No I haven’t seen it but I love musical theatre. Sweet Charity [the musical] it’s amazing! So good! Dancing! Costumes – Oh my god! It’s one of my favourites! I’ll have to check it out.

Thank you so much for your time Ellen.

Thank you, have a nice day!

All Photos Provided by Ellen Von Unwerth