The upshot, inevitably, is that Unwerth’s style, if not her attitude, is increasingly ripped-off by other photographers. They may boast a nice line in contextualization and semiotics, but perhaps in the Nineties, all a fashion photographer need say about their work can be summed up by Unwerth’s shrug and “I just try to make beautiful pictures.” Less might be more. Either way, it’s probably best to let her pictures — intuitively smart, sassy and provocative — speak on her behalf.
“Technique undoubtedly helps make photography magical, but I prefer to work with atmosphere. I think that the obsession with technique is a male thing. Boy’s toys. They love playing… but once you’ve perfected something you have to start searching for a new toy. I would rather search for a new model or location.
Von Unwerth did promotional photography for Duran Duran from 1994–1997 and did some photography for their 1990 album Liberty and 1997 album Medazzaland. Her work has been seen on other album covers, such as Bananarama’s Pop Life (1991), Cathy Dennis’ Am I the Kinda Girl? (1996), Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope (1997), British R&B group All Saints’ Saints & Sinners (2000), singer-songwriter Dido’s Life for Rent (2003), Britney Spears’ album Blackout (2007), Christina Aguilera’s 2006 album Back To Basics and her 2008 greatest hits album Keeps Gettin’ Better: A Decade of Hits and R&B singer Rihanna’s Rated R and Talk That Talk.
Ellen von Unwerth’s past reads like one of her fanciful photo shoots. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, she was orphaned at the age of two. At eighteen she went to see a circus in Munich. She says, “It wasn’t like these big spectacles with animal acts. It was a very poetic and charming little circus with beautiful lights and music.
I went to the director, who looked at me and said, ‘Ah, you look like a circus girl. Okay.’ I got to dress up in a top hat and fishnet stockings, put perfume on people, and blow bubbles. It was a great experience.”
She ended up handing knives to the knife-thrower and assisting a clown at night while attending classes during the day. She stayed with the circus for two years until she was discovered walking down the street in Austria by a modeling agency. This began a ten year career in front of the camera as a fashion model.