Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ellen von Unwerth

Boys & Girls

In 1994, British streets and motorways were overlooked by huge billboards showing a pair of breasts bulging voluptuously over a black satin bra. The titillating image was completed by a model’s pair of eyes looking provocatively at passers-by. The headline was just as unsettling: “Hello boys.”

Lingerie shops were raided by masses of shoppers and it took fewer hours than the number of words the headline before all push-up bra’s in all of England were sold out. The more liberated of the female population were outraged by this shameless form of ‘sexploitation’, but were shocked into silence when it became apparent that the campaign for the revolutionary bra was photographed by a woman, Ellen von Unwerth. A traitor in their midst!

A woman behind the camera will have a different effect on women than a man. Whereas between a male photographer and a female model, sexual tension tends to arise, two women will more easily build a bond of trust, creating a relaxed mood in which the model surrenders herself more easily.
One can see this in the photos that Eve Arnold took of Marilyn Monroe. In the case of Von Unwerth, this principle applies even more. As a former model, she knew exactly what it is like to pose for a camera.

Von Unwerth’s working method is light-footed and casual, and so are her photos, which are regularly out of focus or blurred. Her loose approach brings about an atmosphere that allows models to relax and leaves room for spontaneity. A lot of her work comes about when the official photo session is over and she and her models playfully carry on a little in their own time.

On the face of it, Von Unwerth’s work seems a continuation of the style of the 1980s, combining fashion and eroticism in the spirit of Helmut Newton. But upon closer consideration, a different component comes to the surface: a cheeky nonchalance, which she supplements with humour and irony. Her unsettling and enticing images are more comical than vulgar, but never respectable. Playful, coy – and most of all sexy.

© Pim Milo, 2007