Ellen von Unwerth is having a glitter emergency.
The acclaimed fashion photographer is hours from opening her new exhibit—“This Side of Paradise,” a retrospective at SCAD FASH in Atlanta—and her custom black metallic paneling is nowhere to be found. “Apparently it got lost in Korea,” shrugs Unwerth, who favors slim black suits that make her look like a lion tamer. “So they brought a bunch of hot pink glitter to the museum instead. The SCAD students sprayed it on the walls themselves. Like, a billion pieces of pink glitter. A bomb of it. They made it beautiful even though it was [a] crazy [amount] work, so now we have the show.”
“The show” contains dozens of the German snapper’s original photographic prints, including iconic portraits of Paris Hilton and Christina Aguilera, along with va-va-voom close-ups of lacquered lips and unlaced corsets that helped build von Unwerth’s reputation for air-kissed imagery that mixes frothy decadence with hints of deviance.
“I always make up a story for my pictures,” says the 69-year-old. “It’s like, ‘This girl goes to a party, but then she spills all the champagne,’ or ‘This girl has a rich boyfriend, but it goes bad, so she needs a job and ends up walking dogs all over Paris. But the dogs end up walking her.’ For me, the beauty always happens when something goes a little bit wrong.” (That includes the Great Atlanta Glitter Emergency. “It’s even better because it’s hand-done,” she says. “Now, it’s a lot like a diamond.”)
Born in war-bombed Frankfurt, von Unwerth became a magician’s assistant in high school before becoming a commercial model. “They always wanted me for hair products,” she smiles. “I did have very beautiful hair.” But she was far more fascinated by the other side of the camera. “That’s where you had control!” she laughs. On a modeling trip to Kenya, she brought her small camera along and came back with portraits of the local Maasai women that earned her a six-image spread in the French magazine Jill. Campaigns with the British activist and designer Katharine Hamnett followed.
But the photographer’s major break came from this very magazine. “[ELLE] called me and said, ‘There is this nice German girl, like you! Maybe go take some pictures of her at her house.’” That’s how von Unwerth ended up meeting Claudia Schiffer in 1989, sensing she could be more than “just the nice girl next door,” and styling her like Brigitte Bardot. The resulting ELLE photos convinced Guess to give them both a campaign, and the rest is fashion history.
Von Unwerth credits her revealing imagery to the on-set camaraderie she cultivates with women like Beyoncé, Lana del Rey, and Bella Hadid, all of whom she shot at the beginning of their stardom. “Because I was a model, and, you know, a girl, I know what it’s like for people to just tell you where to go and what to do. As a model, they never let me move around on a set, so now I always want movement, and music, and fun…and I never say, ‘You look bad.’ No. I say, ‘Great!’ and that allows them the freedom to be great in their own way.”
That’s what happened in 2003, when a 21-year-old Britney Spears was in her Toxic era of ice blonde hair and shiny vinyl bodices. Posing at Nell’s nightclub (RIP!) in downtown Manhattan, the pop star’s cavalcade was gunning for a ’50s pin-up look until von Unwerth took matters into her own hands. “Yes, the fifties are great, but I said to her, ‘Nobody has seen a Britney in the ’20s. It will look so beautiful, like a Berlin nightclub in a dream. And it will be great because, you know, you will look different…now Britney, she is great. She has style! So she let us style her like a silent film actress, and she looks so vulnerable, so soulful. It was a brilliant shoot because she faced herself in the mirror. She is beautiful and she is brave.”
The photographer urges other women to be brave, too—especially when it seems like everyone is gunning for the same opportunities at work or in a creative field. “There’s always going to be competition, and competition is everywhere in life, with everybody,” she says. “I think even my gardener is jealous of the other gardener. Of course it’s a challenge, but also, it drives you. It pushes you to say, ‘What am I really good at? Let me explore more and try harder.’ Jealousy also lets you say ‘who gives a shit about them, I’m going to work on me.’” She laughs, going on to describe being a successful woman among others as “a pain, but when it pinches you, it wakes you up a bit. The pinch gets you moving. So you say ‘thank you,’ and you believe it’s good.”
Those in Atlanta can see von Unwerth’s SCAD FASH exhibit through Jan. 8, 2024. Meanwhile, Manhattan dwellers can visit the photographer’s prints at Verōnika, the gilded fine dining hangout that’s just named her its debut Artist in Residence. But first, von Unwerth has a date with some SCAD graduate students—at a nearby Atlanta strip club. “They created these very inventive clothes, and so I thought, why not go shoot them [there]? When I’m home [in Paris], I don’t really go to parties—I prefer to just get to bed on time. But I am here, and beauty is like a magnet. It pulls you sometimes. You don’t even have to know why.”
As I wrap up our interview, von Unwerth gives me the customary European double kiss. Hours later in the mirror, a stray fleck of glitter is still stuck to my cheek.
Editor at Large, ELLE.com
“Her beauty and her brain go not together.” —William Shakespeare