With her glamorous and sexy shots, photographer Ellen von Unwerth left her mark during the 1990s. The intensity of the grain, the energetic black and white, the saturated colors and the tight framing are characteristic of the provocative and intimate universe of the one who captured the birth of supermodels in the 90s, like Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer, or Carla Bruni, to become the number one reference in fashion photography. The self-taught photographer, born in 1954 in Munich, has extracted a collection of Polaroids from her personal archives, snapshots taken on the spot during her most famous shoots. From November 7th to 11th, these snapshots were shown in the Paris offices of the Phillips auction house (7th arrondissement) before their auction on November 22nd in London.
“I thought it was better to sell them rather than to leave them in a box”, the photographer told Numéro. These images, which, she points out, “have never really been shown before”, are like so many personal memories of Ellen von Unwerth’s brilliant career. As a former model with a passion for photography, she gradually moved behind the lens and began selling her photos to fashion magazines. Her talent did the rest. In 1989, she signed a highly acclaimed campaign featuring Claudia Schiffer for the label Guess. Looking at these Polaroids, one discovers the catwalk icons coveted by all photographers at the time. Naomi Campbell lounging in a bar, Kate Moss, barely sixteen at the time, holding a cup of coffee, Claudia Schiffer half-naked in front of a swimming pool, the socialite Paris Hilton, mischievously spraying water on a man... so many images that prove that the talented photographer knows how to highlight the sparkle and the natural aspect of a moment. For Numéro, Ellen von Unwerth looks back at the secrets behind five iconic photographs.
1. Splendor in the Garden, Kate Moss, Miami, 1993
“It was one of Kate Moss’ first shootings. I was already working with supermodels when Kate emerged with her new face, slightly sharp teeth, slimness, and youthful face... She was sixteen. It was an instant crush between the two of us. I had met her for the first time the year before during her very first shoot for Vogue Italia, in which she looked like a Lolita. The Polaroid you see here was taken during her second shoot in Miami for the American Vogue. She was surrounded by six or seven other girls, yet she was standing out with her coolness and her charm. I remember we shot all over the city, on the beach, but mostly in places we all looked for together. This Polaroid was taken in the morning when we were having our coffee. As I looked at her, I thought of how beautiful she was and took my camera to capture this timeless moment. It was very intimate, not posed at all, with no one around us. We often go to so much trouble trying to capture amazing photographs, when the stolen, real moments always offer the most beautiful ones in the end!”
2. Miss America, Claudia Schiffer, Saint-Tropez, 1994
“I met Claudia Schiffer early in my career, especially during a shoot for Guess that I did in the 90s. I liked her resemblance to Brigitte Bardot so much that I mixed both Bardot’s and Dolly Parton’s beauty for these photographs taken in Nashville. The campaign was so successful – I still hear about it today – that we decided to shoot a calendar together. Our respective careers launched at that time. The Polaroid you see here was taken in Saint-Tropez. We created a different character for each month – a James Bond Girl, a thief climbing on a rooftop, a maid... In this photograph, it was Miss America wearing a bra and Uncle Sam’s hat. Claudia was about 19 years old. She was so charming, pretty, and sexy at the same time that I captured this moment on the fly. In fact, I can’t get my hands on that calendar anymore, I really need to find it!”
3. Big Spender, Naomi Campbell and Stephanie Seymour, Los Angeles, 1991
“I am often inspired by films. I have a particular fondness for Bob Fosse’s musical Sweet Charity (1966). This film is one of my obsessions. It influenced a particular series for Vogue Italia that we shot in a small bar called Smalls in Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to have the most beautiful girls at that time for these images. The 90s supermodels Stephanie Seymour, Naomi Campbell, and Tatjana Patitz were there. We tried to remake the scenes from the feature to some extent, adding a lot of glamour. The girls were so sexy that this series has an incredible strength. Everything happened naturally. It was a time when they were all friends, they saw each other in private, and we all partied together. It was a very family-like and healthy atmosphere, both on the personal and professional level. One thing is for sure, the girls gave a lot of themselves on the shoots, they didn’t just sit on a chair motionless, they played in front of the camera, they really knew how to tell a story.”
4. Car Wash, Paris Hilton, Los Angeles, 2004
“This shoot was originally planned for the brand Guess, but Paris Hilton was also to provide a shot for a charity auction. At the time, everyone was talking about her as the incredible, sultry Hilton Hotel heiress. So, we took a slightly snob picture of her along with a man who could have been her servant, her partner, or just a fling – we never really knew. [Laughs.] The shooting first started inside the Jeep, where she was naked with a little dog covering her. Then, we arrived at this famous gas station. Her companion started washing the car and, knowing that every shoot usually ends in a rather relaxed atmosphere, Paris Hilton decided to spray the guy to tease him. I immediately jumped on my camera to capture this outpouring of joy through my lens. This shot is a perfect statement of my style. I look for the moment when nature takes over. These are moments that are a bit “absurd” but so real! Paris Hilton is real icon in pop culture, just like Kim Kardashian or Julia Fox today... they are characters who fascinate us with something more than their beauty. Paris has always impressed me, she is very beautiful, a bit of a Barbie too, but she has her own attitudes, and doesn’t take herself too seriously. This photo has marked many people. It brings back very good memories and I still find it inspiring.”
5. The Spy from the Cold, Nadja Auermann, Prague, 1994
“Nadja Auermann is one of my favorite models. She is so beautiful, so tall, and so sexy, with that Germanic strength that made her like no other. She had a femme fatale aura. At the time of this shoot, she was at the peak of her career. Everyone wanted to shoot with her. We went to Prague to do this series based on a spy story. Once again, we shot everywhere, at the train station, on the bridges, in the streets... Personally, I love shooting in the hushed atmosphere of old palaces that always make you wonder ‘what happened within these walls?’ This Polaroid was taken in the room of one of those palaces. Nadja had the attitude of a mysterious woman, embodied by this rather masculine sitting position. And I remember very precisely that during this shooting, she categorically refused to wear flat shoes, even though she had mile-long legs! In this picture, she wears Prada boots, whereas at that time you definitely had to wear heels to look like those ultra-chic glamorous women featured in the American Vogue. We finally managed to convince her, but it is quite funny because every time I see this picture, I remember this story. I would like to add that these boots precisely give the image its strength, as opposed to heels which would have emphasized the glamorous side and would have not necessarily matched the storyline...”