The Model Photographer: Ellen Von Unwerth

 

This is the first post in a series that will highlight some of the world’s top photographers.

As a 10-year-old, I spent most of my free time trying to emulate Walt Frazier of the New York Knicks (though I had the Puma Clydes, I couldn’t quite keep up with the Rolls Royce, fur coats, and basketball talent).

Fifteen years later, I found myself spending hours upon hours studying the images of photographers such as Gilles Bensimon and Peter Lindbergh.

Those are two examples of how to dramatically improve at anything you have a passion for: Identifying the artists of work that excites you and then putting in the time to figure what makes them so special.

Guitar players study Jimmy Page, architects study I.M. Pei, and photographers study Ansel Adams.

However, when it comes to Ansel Adams, if your desire is to improve your glamour photography, studying his groundbreaking nature images might not be all that helpful (and learning the opening riff to “Whole Lotta Love” might help even less).

Fortunately, there are many excellent photographers whose work you can learn from.

Not all the photographers that I’ll highlight in this ongoing series will be known primarily as “Glamour Photographers”. However, each photographer I feature will have a style that incorporates a sense of glamour and sensuality in his or her work.

As an example, top fashion photographers are known for shooting very glamorous images. However, at the end of the day, their primary job requirement is to make the clothes look good.

Still, fashion shooters are some of the most talented photographers in the world.

And without question, one of the very best is Ellen Von Unwerth.

Strictly speaking, the German-born Von Unwerth, would be defined as a “fashion photographer.” However, her work transcends the typical definition of that specific style.

And best of all for us, photographers of any experience level can benefit from studying the techniques and shooting methods used by Von Unwerth.

To give you a bit of background, Von Unwerth made her living in front of the camera starting at the age of 20. She worked as a leading fashion model for ten years. However, the gift of a camera from a boyfriend dramatically changed the direction of her life and career.

Simply for fun, she took the camera to a modeling job in Africa and simply snapped pictures of the local people and environment. However, upon her return to Europe, her pictures were promptly purchased and published in a magazine called Jill.

And just like that, without a shred of formal training, a new career was born.

Today, Von Unwerth is one of the most sought-after photographers in the world. She shoots fashion and editorial spreads for leading fashion magazines, celebrity portraits, and some of the worlds biggest ad campaigns. Without question, Von Unwerth is firmly entrenched at the top of her field.

And she deserves to be.

But here’s the important question for you and me: What’s in it for us? What can we learn from the work of Von Unwerth?

Fortunately, quite a bit.

Of course, the point of studying the work of other photographers is not to steal their styles. Rather, it’s to study the details and characteristics of high quality work and take note of what makes certain pictures and certain photographers so special.

In the case of Von Unwerth, what stands out most is the vibrant sense of sexual spontaneity that appears in her work.

The models in her photographs convey a sense of movement and freedom that sets her work apart from the majority of other leading fashion photographers.

Von Unwerth’s style didn’t come about by accident. And it didn’t come from a conscious decision to set herself apart from her peers.

The truth is that her style came from her time spent modeling. As a model, she didn’t like the static nature of traditional fashion photography. Holding poses for long lengths of time and having photographers make tiny changes to these poses was the way fashion photography had always been done.

When she embarked on her own photographic career, she rebelled against that style.

She’s known for creating interesting environments and then inserting the models into them. Once there, the models are encouraged to enjoy and interact with the environment in a playful, curious, and natural way.

Without using explicit direction, Von Unwerth is there to capture the results in an equally spontaneous manner.

She allows her models to simply be themselves during shoots. This is a drastic departure from the way most fashion work is shot.

She has an uncanny ability to put both models and celebrities at ease. She is more interested in giving her subjects the freedom to express their emotions than she is in capturing technically spot-on images.

Whether shooting in black & white or color, her signature style revolves around the idea of women embracing their sexuality and their femininity at the same time.

Her fashion and editorial work manages to incorporate a stunning sense of eroticism, role-playing, and even sadomasochism. Obviously, quite different from typical fashion photography.

But whatever the subject, Von Unwerth encourages her models to freely express themselves in any way they like. Most likely, this is the reason that no matter how exposed her model’s bodies may be, they never appear objectified in any way. Von Unwerth allows her models to show their true personalities as well as their nude bodies.

You might want to try this way of shooting. I think it would be a worthwhile exercise for any photographer (especially for those who like to keep tight control over their shoots and their model’s poses).

My advice:

Give it a try, you have nothing to lose. I think you’ll be quite surprised by the results.

 

 

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