A Former Model Finds Beauty on the Other Side of the Camera

Maybe it’s because she worked as a circus girl when she was a teenager in Germany–in fishnet stockings, she circled the ring after each act. Or because she had to survive a childhood of certain hard knocks–she was orphaned by age 2. Whatever the inspiration, photographer Ellen von Unwerth’s pictures, which appear mostly in Vogue and Interview , are distinguished by their optimism.

“It’s a great achievement when your work makes people smile,” Ms. von Unwerth said on a January afternoon in her TriBeCa loft. Nowhere is her mission of mirth more accomplished than in Couples , her third book, which was put out by te Neues Publishing Company in January.

Just a moment earlier, as Ms. von Unwerth returned home from an appointment uptown, her daughter Rebecca, age 9, had propelled herself from the hinter spaces of the apartment into her mother’s arms. Both were equally fashionable, favoring a haute downtown international style. Rebecca wore pastel jeans and a stretch T-shirt and towered on a pair of rainbow-colored, platform rubber sandals. Ms. von Unwerth wore stretchy black velvet pants, a tan Diesel cargo shirt, an antique diamond bracelet and a fake gold necklace that said Capricorn. A former model who took her camera to shoots, she sports a halo of Marilyn Monroe blond hair with punk, dark roots. “I like the glamour of blond, but I don’t like it when it is too perfect,” she said.

In her new book’s loose terms of endearment, mother and daughter would have made a perfect photograph. The idea for Couples , art-directed by Douglas Lloyd, came out of a talk she gave about two years ago at the International Center of Photography: “Going through all my pictures to get ready for the lecture, I realized there were so many themes in my work, especially all these couples. Some in very funny situations. Others were more emotional.”

The extraordinary breasts on a woman in New York, a couple of swollen bodybuilders in Miami. Two women dressed in Vivienne Westwood, looking like technicolor pheasants, in a field by the country house of fashion stylist Isabella Blow in England. A photograph for Italian Vogue of Claudia Schiffer–whom Ms. von Unwerth discovered in 1992 for a Guess? Jeans campaign–dressed as a Barbie doll with a male model as Ken. Daryl Hannah kissing a mirror in Los Angeles. Nurses and sailors, jazz musicians in Harlem, girls in their panties and boys in their briefs. The great British beauty Miranda Brooks with a friend at the wedding of fashion stylist Camilla Nickerson and art writer Neville Wakefield.

The fashion work is sexy and provocative–more akin to Helmut Newton’s eroticism than Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s classicism–with a playful camaraderie between photographer and subject which protects female models from sexist ridicule. “The models love to look sexy,” she said, sitting on a Versailles-manner flea-market sofa upholstered in tattered silk.

People often are surprised to find that a woman took Ms. von Unwerth’s pictures. According to Katherine Betts, Vogue ‘s fashion news director, “Ellen von Unwerth is a woman in a man’s world who understands that women want to be sexy and feminine and slightly out of focus.”

Interview editor Ingrid Sischy, who wrote the foreword to Couples , described Ms. von Unwerth as “someone who really loves taking pictures and who really loves life. This is someone who doesn’t act like she’s above or below the people she photographs. This is a photographer who doesn’t use the camera for judgment, but for connection. It makes sense that she would create a book about couples.”

Ms. von Unwerth gave her own explanation: “I’m kind of a shy person for whom photography is a good way to communicate and get to know people. I feel a connection to the models. They relax with me and we are very open. I like more ‘girly’ things. I don’t like to see women looking down, looking tired, or depressed, or too thin. In my work, I like to show spontaneity. I try to show how I see life. The sadness in humor. The happiness in sadness.”

She turned the pages of the book looking for her favorite pictures. First there was one of her husband, Christian Fourteau, and daughter at home reading the Sunday newspapers. Another of a woman in Rajasthan, India, breast-feeding her infant son.

“So beautiful, so proud,” Ms. von Unwerth said. “She stood in front of me intrigued by my camera as all around us thousands of people were going to a temple.”

She was reluctant to rehash her childhood. She was born in Frankfurt and lived in Bavaria, orphaned before she was 2, she lived in a succession of foster homes. As a teenager, she moved into a commune in Munich, where she worked as an assistant to a clown and a knife-thrower in the Roncalli circus. She was discovered on the street one day, and in 1975, went to Paris. She spent the next decade modeling, but only once worked with photographer Helmut Newton, one of her heroes.

“I don’t think I was his type,” she said. “But he liked my name–von Unwerth–it sounds like it means ‘of no value.'”

While modeling in Kenya, she began taking her own photographs with her first Nikon. An avant-garde French magazine, Jill , published six pages and Ms. von Unwerth’s career as a photographer was launched.

“I’m a real gypsy,” she said. “If I don’t see an airplane for two weeks, I get nervous.”

Besides magazine shoots, she has directed several music videos, including one each for Salt-N-Pepa and Duran Duran. She said she is close to committing to a full-length theatrical film. Original Sin , an exhibition of photographs commissioned by the Tequila Sauza Estate Collection, will open for viewing March 5 through April 3 at the Staley-Wise Gallery at 560 Broadway.

“Everyone is looking for the next new thing ,” Ms. von Unwerth said, assessing the mood among fashionmakers today. “I like change. I like to be surprised.” Regarding whether actors are more compelling than models, something of debate these days at fashion magazines, she said it doesn’t matter who they are, as long as her subjects are fresh.

“I like to photograph anyone before they know what their best angles are.”

Billy’s List: Quiz time!

1. Wear Clean Underwear is:

a. the name of Anna Sui’s new lingerie shop opening next month on Greene Street in SoHo.

b. the title of Sheryl Crow’s next album.

c. a book of advice by management consultant Rhonda Abrams.

2. Name the pooch crowned champ at the recent Westminster Kennel Club dog show:

a. Kate, a great Afghan hound.

b. Kirby, a papillon.

c. Karl, a Bavarian basset hound.

3. A Pennsylvania schoolteacher was removed from a Senate gallery during the impeachment trial because his T-shirt was considered offensive to the President. What did it say?

a. “Chelsea Mourning.”

b. “Bill Doesn’t Inhale–He Just Sucks.”

c. “Bill Clinton on Safe Sex: ‘Get Me Tinky-Winky.'”

Answers: (1) c; (2) b; (3) b.