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Ellen von Unwerth in Toronto: In conversation with a top fashion photographer
Ellen von Unwerth, the rock star of fashion photography, is glancing around the Izzy Gallery in Yorkville, where life-sized photographs of her iconic shots cover the walls. She’s struggling to select her favourite snap. “They all have something I love in them,” she muses after a moment of hesitation. Then she points to a photograph of Italian actress Monica Bellucci, stripped down to a matching leopard-printed bra and panties. “This shot is from the first photo shoot I ever did with [Monica],” von Unwerth recalls with the sentimental attachment of a proud mother. “And she was actually just changing in the motor home. It was really its own moment. I’ve shot her so many times since but those pictures are still my favourite.” That’s because von Unwerth— named one of
TIME’s top 100 all-time fashion icons—prefers to capture “stolen moments” rather than posed portraits. For the first time since von Unwerth shot to fame in the ‘80s, the self-taught German photog is displaying a retrospective of her work in Toronto. A selection of the frisky,
bombshell icons von Unwerth has snapped over the years,
Caught! is a decadent visual walkthrough of old-school female glamour.
A von Unwerth signature The thing about a von Unwerth photo is that it’s instantly recognizable. Take the iconic Claudia Schiffer Guess campaign from 1989, a prime example of von Unwerth’s trademark moody, eroticized aesthetic—a gorgeous woman teasing the camera with a mix of innocence and cheeky come-hither sensuality. “I always go for glamorous,” says von Unwerth, a vision herself in a
gold sequined blazer and side-swept, piecey
blond bun. “I don’t like the girl-next-door look.”
This year, von Unwerth and Schiffer revisited that timeless shoot for Guess’s 30th anniversary. “We tried to recreate those old pictures,” says von Unwerth, of the campaign, which was shot in Sorrento, Italy. “People sometimes don’t notice that it’s not the same campaign! Claudia still looks amazing.”
Feminine mystique After spending a decade as a model, told to “be serious,” when she wanted to act silly in front of the camera, von Unwerth stepped behind the lens to direct her subjects instead. “When I finally became a photographer, I finally had that guts to do that,” she says. “I’m much more happy now.”
The Toronto show includes images from her iconic shoots with contemporary pin-ups like Carla Bruni, Kate Moss and Victoria Beckham. von Unwerth draws out the liberated prowess of her eclectic choice models, in her “
trashy” but tasteful aesthetic. “Of course I prefer women who I know will be willing to play in front of the camera—most women like to be sexy and beautiful,” she says, pointing to Carli Bruni in decadent showgirl glory: shirt draped open, eyes veering down and away from the lens and a cigarette clasped between her long, elegant fingers. “I’m always looking for that simple thing,” von Unwerth says, still staring at the photo. “People change but I still love what I love.”
Fashion history in Toronto Gallery owner Izzy Sulejmani personally selected the images for the show, which runs until May 19, along with von Unwerth from her 2009 book,
Fräulein. “It’s hard to choose so when the gallery owner says I love this, I’m like ‘OK!’” says von Unwerth, with a laugh. After chasing von Unwerth to do the show for 10 months, Sulejmani spent another three months whittling down images to the select few now covering the walls of his sleek Yorkville gallery. “I love her work,” Sulejmani says, standing on the steps of the gallery on opening night, cigarette in hand. “It’s a fantasy world and she brings that fantasy to life.” He draws the cigarette from his lips and lowers his voice to an almost whisper: “They say it breathes Paris.”
"Caught!" by fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth is on now at Yorkville’s Izzy Gallery at 106 Yorkville Ave. until May 19.