03.05.2015 - Elisabeth von Stackelberg


Female Fantasia


A self-taught photographer, Von Unwerth’s first big success came when she chose the hitherto unknown 17-year-old Claudia Schiffer, who resembled a young Brigitte Bardot, for a Guess advertising campaign in the late 80s. Her work has since been published in the most noted magazines around the world such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, Interview, Playboy, L’Uomo Vogue, i-D, and The Face, among many more.


Born in Frankfurt in 1954, Ellen von Unwerth grew up in instable circumstances. She spent her childhood between orphanages and foster parents and left to Munich at the age of 16 to live in a commune. She spent some time working at the Roncalli Circus, which became a noticeable influence in her later work. Her fortunes turned when she was scouted to model for the iconic German teen magazine Bravo. On the shoot she was discovered by international modeling agency Elite. This served as the milestone for her successful modeling career that would span over the next ten years.

In the early 80s, while on a modeling job in Kenya, von Unwerth picked up the camera herself to photograph local children. It was then that she discovered her passion for standing behind the lens rather than in front of it and decided to pursue photography professionally. To this day, her modeling background gives von Unwerth a unique insight on how to create a moment of intimacy and charm that makes an exceptional image.


Von Unwerth’s work is not only at the pulse of fashion, but also highly sophisticated on an artistic level. Influenced by Helmut Newton and his tutor Yva, von Unwerth is known for showing erotic femininity with humor and irony, bordering on kitsch. 

Von Unwerth has also produced promotional photography and album covers for numerous artists like Duran Duran, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Rihanna. As if this weren’t enough, von Unwerth also successfully directed a series of short films, music videos, commercials and web films for top brands including Clinique, Revlon, and Swarovski, which often feature a celebrity face.

The women in her photos aren’t merely pretty-faced fashion puppets, but strong women with character and attitude, who don’t take themselves – or what they’re wearing – too seriously. Von Unwerth’s images offer a refreshing, playful take on beauty, showing that – size zero or not – personality is key.

Short Facts


Influenced by photographers like Helmut Newton and Jacques Henri Lartigue, von Unwerth is known for her sexy portrayal of strong women that are confident about their femininity and sensuality.


A documentary-style impromptu approach is essential to von Unwerth’s work. She captures the unexpected moments when the model moves freely, as if nobody is watching, rather than posing for the camera.


Capturing movement in her photography was allegedly born out of the restriction of creativity von Unwerth felt when, during her time as a model, she was always being told to hold a motionless pose.


1991   First prize in the International Festival of Fashion Photography


Difficult childhood

Born in Frankfurt, Ellen von Unwerth grows up in an orphanage in the Allgau.

1970 – Discovering herself

At the age of 16, von Unwerth goes to Munich with her boyfriend and starts working at the Roncalli Circus.

1974 – Herself, discovered

On a shoot for Bravo magazine, the boss of Elite Model Management discovers the young Ellen von Unwerth and signs her as a model in his agency.

1975 – Take-off

Elite takes von Unwerth to Paris to begin what would become a successful modeling career.

1986 – Finding true passion

Von Unwerth’s photographs of local children in Kenya get published in French fashion magazine Jill.

1989 – Guess Who

Von Unwerth is chosen to photograph an advertising campaign for Guess and discovers Claudia Schiffer, whom she cast to model it.

1991 – Recognition

Ellen von Unwerth is awarded the first prize in the International Festival of Fashion Photography.

1994 – A published author

Snaps, Ellen von Unwerth’s first book featuring her sexy reflections on the fashion world, is published.

1997 – Celebrity collabs

Von Unwerth directs her first short film, “I create myself”, featuring Demi Moore.

2003 – Art & literature

The photo-novella Revenge by Ellen von Unwerth was accompanied by exhibitions in New York, Paris, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Moscow, and Beijing.

2009 – Fräulein

Von Unwerth publishes one of her most successful books, Fräulein, which the Taschen publishing co. describes as “Fashion and fetish in a female fantasyland”. It features images taken over a 15-year timespan, of celebrity models, musicians, and actresses – including some that were hitherto unpublished.

2014 – All that glitters is…

Swarovski! Von Unwerth shoots and directs a short film for Swarovski x Sister by Sibling.


© Getty Images


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