German-born fashion and music photographer Ellen von Unwerth recently showed her work in her Playdate exhibition at the Staley-Wise Gallery in SoHo. Known for her slick, sexy portraits, the former model and circus performer’s work has appeared in countless publications around the world—Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Interview, just to name a few—and has worked with artists like Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Christina Aguilera in the process. Here, von Unwerth shares with us the secrets to a good photograph, knife-throwing, and her former life in front of the camera.
How have your experiences in front of the camera as a model affected the images you like to create when you’re behind the camera?
I had to stand still a lot back in the day, I think this affected my own style of movement, out of focus moments. I always want to tell a story, not just do a nice picture.
How did your time at the circus affect the work you do now?
I love the circus! I was the assistant of the knife thrower and the clown, and also worked as a number girl in the circus. All these places were so inspiring to me. If I am in a circus or in a cabaret, I can image the history. My fantasy is time traveling to places like this immediately.
How and when did you begin working as a photographer?
A friend of mine gave me a camera and told me how to use it. On a trip to Kenya I took pictures of kids and village people on the street. These images were published in the French magazine JILL. I really had fun taking pictures and got more and more passionate about it. It just happened by accident, it was nothing that I planned. It was amazing to work on the other side too, I understand what it feels like to be the model and how vulnerable one can feel in front of the camera. I try to create a relaxed atmosphere so the model feels free and can express herself.
How did you decide photography was something you wanted to do?
Because I had fun taking pictures and my first results had been successful with my friends, they really liked them. And soon clients like Katherine Hamnett, Guess and others asked me to shoot for them. I guess that kind of spontaneous image was something new.
Of the work you’ve done, what series or image are you most proud of, and why?
There are so many images, series that I have shot, but my favorite image is the one image of my daughter swinging of a huge tree when she was about 5 years old.
What makes an image successful for you?
A successful image for me is a picture that touches me, makes me laugh, or makes me think about something.
What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of photography for you?
The challenge is that everyday you are something like a circus director. You have a vision and the whole team has to understand and create something with you. Sometimes it works out amazing, sometimes less so. There is a lot of preparation and casting to be done, but a lot of magic involved as well.
What cameras do you prefer to work with and why?
I work with a lot of different cameras, digital and analog ones, I love to shoot with Rolleiflex, I have lots of different cameras. However it is not the camera that takes the picture but the eye.
What artists or cultural phenomena do you find most often inspire your work?
I get inspired by music, traveling, art, artists like Lartigue, Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton and of course I get a lot of inspiration from fashion and also people I meet!
What is the process like of selecting work for a gallery exhibition?
First of all, I set up a general idea of what I would like to show and then I create a concept and do some research. Sometimes I just shoot a completely new story for the exhibition.
“Playdate” will be on view at the Staley-Wise Gallery through July 12.